The eagerly awaited rematch of last year's controversial Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev fight unfolds on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. In their November meeting, Kovalev established an early lead in the fight and recorded a knockdown in the second round. After being behind early, Ward was able to regain his footing in the second half of the bout. Many of the latter rounds of the match were closely contested and although Ward performed better than he had earlier in the fight, were his efforts actually enough to win? Many didn't think so. Fortunately for Ward, all three judges had him winning by a point. Informal polls among writers and those on social media showed a majority believed that Kovalev was the rightful victor.
Although seven months have passed between fights, the bad blood between the combatants certainly hasn't. Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs) has launched a series of profane grenades towards Ward's camp while Ward's people have insisted that Kovalev's trainer, John David Jackson, wanted to switch sides for the rematch. Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) blew off a promotional appearance for HBO early in the fight's promotion and Kovalev exited Thursday's final press conference as soon as Ward arrived. Neither fighter has been overly enthused about participating in the pre-fight formalities.
Unfortunately, Ward-Kovalev II has been overshadowed by a boxing calendar filled with special events. The months leading up to Saturday's fight included excellent matches such as Joshua-Klitschko and Brook-Spence, as well as the circus known as Canelo-Chavez. Fight fans are also looking ahead to the epic Canelo-Golovkin showdown and the Mayweather-McGregor Mega-Sideshow™.
Nevertheless, Ward-Kovalev II is still an excellent matchup. The winner cements himself as the pre-eminent light heavyweight of this era (spare me any Adonis Stevenson talk). In addition, Saturday's victor also remains one of the top boxers in the sport. However, even more than rankings and pound-for-pound placements, both Ward and Kovalev are eager to assert their dominance over the other.
Will it be Kovalev's Krusher bombs that lead to victory or will Ward's craft and boxing IQ rule the day? Below are the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.
1. What have they learned from the first fight?
Both fighters may have underestimated each other in November. It's clear that Ward was caught off guard by Kovalev's boxing skills. He certainly wasn't expecting the beautiful counter right hand that sent him to the canvas. Kovalev's shot was a perfectly placed and executed punch.
In addition, Kovalev's jab was the dominant weapon early in the fight. The punch kept Ward at bay and also set up Kovalev's power shots. Although Ward is an excellent defensive fighter, he was tagged repeatedly by Kovalev's jab early in the fight. It took Ward four or five rounds to perfect the range needed to confront Kovalev. Ward found out that he needed to be in close or out of the pocket to have his best chance of winning. At mid-range, Kovalev had most of the advantages.
Kovalev most likely expected Ward to wilt after the knockdown. Even at this advanced stage of his career, Kovalev has only gone the distance on six occasions and has fought 10 or more rounds just three times. Kovalev hasn't had many competitive fights in his career and that void manifested against Ward. In many of the latter rounds, Kovalev seemed to tire or run out of ideas. It wasn't that Ward was dominating the action but Kovalev lost much of his aggression as the fight progressed. With the exception of the 10th round, it's difficult to find a round in the second half of the fight that was a definitive one for Kovalev.
In the rematch, hopefully Kovalev has learned that his intensity and vigor needs to last for 12 rounds. Yes, he may land his best right hand and/or score a knockdown but that scenario doesn't guarantee victory. Kovalev has to keep putting rounds in the bank. The scorecards very well may be needed and three or four big rounds might not be enough; some fights resemble a marathon more than a sprint.
2. Who can establish the jab?
Kovalev dominated the first four rounds of their fight and his jab played a large role in obtaining an early lead. Kovalev's jab helped establish range and kept Ward on the end of his right hands early in the fight. Eventually Ward made adjustments. To help neutralize Kovalev, he used his jab in a variety of ways. He led with it, used it as a counter and fired off single shots before leaving the pocket. Ward's jab was a key difference maker in the back half of the fight.
Even though Kovalev's right hand and Ward's left hook are flashier shots, the most important punch in Saturday's fight will be the jab. The fighter who can consistently land the shot will be in position to dictate action in the match. Kovalev must stay committed to the punch throughout the fight; at points in the second half of the match in November, it remained holstered. For Ward, he has to find the proper time to use it; he can't engage in firefights at range. It may mean landing single shots or using the jab as a way to get in close.
3. Can Kovalev finish the deal?
Ward was hurt badly in the second round in November; there's no need to dance around the issue. He had to survive to make it out of the round. He held, grappled and used the ring to buy time. Naturally, this was an opportunity squandered for Kovalev.
In the rematch, Kovalev can't afford to let Ward off the hook. However, Kovalev needs to set up a potential finishing blow. Because he loaded up on big shots after the knockdown, Kovalev, in part, let Ward survive. He went looking for big right hands, and they never came. If and when Kovalev hurts Ward on Saturday, Sergey must return to his boxing fundamentals to get the knockout. That means going to the body, using his jab and incorporating his entire arsenal. Kovalev has enough natural power to knock out anyone at 175, but his brains will be just as important as his brawn if he wants to stop Ward.
4. Inside fighting.
As conventional wisdom suggested, Ward had considerable success on the inside against Kovalev, who doesn't throw many short punches. Often Kovalev tied up instead trying to best Ward in close quarters. Ward can throw all of his punches from close – jab, right hand, left hook, uppercuts – whereas Kovalev likes to extend his arms to land his best shots.
Kovalev must make some adjustments in the second fight. Ward is vulnerable to uppercuts to the body on the inside (a punch that Kovalev rarely throws). In addition, Kovalev doesn't consistently use his left hook, another potential weapon in tight spaces. Hopefully, Kovalev and his team have practiced how to execute in these areas. However, if Kovalev doesn't feature any new wrinkles on the inside on Saturday, he's going to find himself losing large stretches of rounds where Ward will be the busier and more effective fighter.
5. Kovalev's conditioning.
Kovalev's punches didn't have the same sting in the back half of the fight as they did in the initial rounds. He also seemed to push his punches a lot as the rounds progressed. Similarly, his footwork wasn't as sharp as it had been at the beginning of the fight. In short, Kovalev didn't look like a 12-round fighter in November (with that, he still may have won the bout).
Hopefully Kovalev and his team have prepared a variety of game plans for the rematch. One of them has to be to win a decision on the scorecards. In this scenario, Kovalev needs to win at least seven rounds (or perhaps fewer, if there are knockdowns) to come out victorious. Thus, Kovalev must be in a position to win rounds later in the fight.
Kovalev has bragged about the long-distance running he has incorporated into his training for Saturday's fight. That certainly could be one aspect which helps him in the rematch. But another key component could be harder to change. Kovalev burns off a lot of nervous energy in the ring. Constantly whirling his hands and sometime moving unnecessarily in the early rounds of a fight, Kovalev can have difficulty settling down into a rhythm. In addition, in the first Jean Pascal and Ward fights, Kovalev demonstrated that he can lose focus and become slack defensively after his early aggressive forays. Can Kovalev go full tilt for 12 rounds? If he paces himself a little better, does he lose his edge early in fights? Is seven months enough time to change certain unproductive habits?
6. Who are the officials?
If I'm Andre Ward, I'm ecstatic with Tony Weeks reffing Saturday's fight. Weeks is slow to break up clinches and he'll let Ward get some good work done on the inside. In addition, if Ward does get knocked down or hurt, Weeks is very deliberate in stopping a fight. He'll give Ward every opportunity to recover or see himself out of a round.
As far as the judges, the Nevada State Athletic Commission picked a very distinguished panel for this fight. Glenn Feldman and Steve Weisfeld are two East Coast-based judges who are solid officials. Prior to this year, I would've said that Weisfeld could be the single best high-profile judge working in the U.S. However, Weisfeld has had some strange scorecards in 2017. He was overly generous to Adrien Broner against Adrian Granados and he gave too much support to Travis Kauffman (the promoter's son) against Amir Mansour. In addition, he had Klitschko leading against Joshua going into the 11th round. It's tough to find a pattern there, except a mildly erratic streak.
Feldman is a judge who really rewards clean punching. He did pick Srisaket Sor Rungvisai over Roman Gonzalez earlier in the year. Perhaps Srisaket's left hands and right hooks were easier to see than Gonzalez's inside work. Despite that card, I haven't found a doozy of a score in Feldman's recent work.
Dave Moretti (from Nevada) has a slight bias for Vegas-based fighters and "stars." However, I don't expect either of those scenarios to come into play on Saturday. Both Ward and Kovalev reside outside the jurisdiction and neither represents big business interests in Vegas. Overall, I think it's a fair group of judges. We'll see how they do on Saturday.
I think that Kovalev will be at his best early in the fight. Racing out of his corner with energy and anger, Kovalev will look to get Ward out early in the fight. His jabs, deceptively fast hand speed and power shots will present problems for Ward. I expect Kovalev to be up after the first four rounds.
However, unlike the first fight, I don't think that Ward will get caught with the same type of shot that knocked him down in November. Ward is known for making great adjustments and it will be unlikely that he'll try to engage as much early in the fight as he did in their first bout. I expect him to try to neutralize Kovalev in the fight's first third, smothering and reducing the overall punch volume. This may not win him rounds but it will be successful in frustrating Kovalev and thwarting any sustained momentum.
Eventually, Ward will reduce Kovalev's activity and Sergey's quality shots will become fewer and fewer. As the fight progresses, Ward will establish control of the bout with his left hand, specifically his jab and left hook. Although I expect some tense moments and brief skirmishes, I don't think that there'll be a lot of sustained action in the latter portion of the fight. Ward will win a number of late rounds based on clean, landed punches and ring generalship. Once the final bell rings, he'll have done enough to win a competitive but clear decision on the scorecards.