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Talking Boxing

Interviews, opinions, features and news from the greatest sport in the world!

November 16, 2016

A battle for the ages

by RIAN SCALIA

The best fight of the year is upon us.

We’re just mere days away from the light heavyweight battle for the ages between Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward this Saturday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Opinions are split across the board, and that’s reflected at the bookmakers, as the fight is nearly a pick ‘em. Ward is a very slight favourite in most places.

This is the type of fight that splits predictions right down the middle. After all, both Kovalev and Ward, aside from being phenomenal inside the ring, create reactions with their actions (or lack thereof) outside the ring. Therefore it’s easy for opinions and predictions on the fight to be swayed by a personal bias. Fans on both sides will back their man of course, but let’s attempt to break this down from a level-headed perspective.

Both boxers fought in the summer for the purpose of staying busy and building towards this showdown on Saturday. Reviews were more on the negative side. Neither really impressed. But how much significance do those fights really carry?

Firstly with Ward, he fought an opponent in Alexander Brand who essentially came to survive and last the distance. Ward, not being the type to try and take unnecessary risks to please anyone, never stepped on the gas or got out of first gear. Contrast that with his March fight against a much more legit opponent in Sullivan Barrera and his display showed that he still has a lot of the abilities that made him one of the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighters dating back to the Super 6 tournament at super middleweight.

On Kovalev’s part, the Russian fought in his home country against Isaac Chilemba, who is notoriously hard to look good against and a solid fighter in his own right. Kovalev got hit more than he normally would and had trouble pinning Chilemba down at times. He also seemed to tire down the stretch despite having Chilemba hurt in the 12th round.

Fighting in Russia provided for a different set of circumstances. He did his training camp there, and his trainer John David Jackson was not with him for the amount of time that he’d usually be. Add in all the distractions that come with fighting at home for the first time in years, and Kovalev’s performance is understandable. He’ll probably have learned from the struggles he endured in the fight, so he may have actually gotten something out of it. As opposed to Ward who engaged in what was basically a paid sparring session.

Nonetheless, many question marks remain, especially for Ward due to his inactivity since winning the Super 6. Has he lost a step? Will the move up in weight significantly affect him? How will he deal with Kovalev’s power?

Judging on all the photos in the lead-up and the two fights this year, Ward seems to be fine physically. He’s filled out his frame with functional, athletic muscle and not the type that’s only good for the beach. His speed and the spring in his step may have just dipped a little, but fighters often settle down in their stance as they get older. On the power front, that may be an issue. Ward’s never been a big puncher but has enough power to keep anyone honest. So far at light heavyweight, with a small sample size, his punches don’t seem to be having quite the same type of effect, but only slightly.

Punching power and physical strength are two different things. Ward is very physically strong in the ring, especially on the inside and in clinches. Despite not being the biggest puncher, he can rough almost anyone up in close quarters. That’s a key area for this fight. The inside is not Kovalev’s specialty.

Furthermore, Kovalev likes to keep fights on his own terms. In this case, that’ll be at range. When facing
some resistance, the “Krusher” can get a bit flustered at times, like in the Chilemba fight. Despite not having been hurt many times, there just seems to be a certain shakiness when he does get hit flush, to the body or head. It’s a testament to how he’s been trained that to date he hasn’t had many hiccups, aside from reportedly the first win over Darnell Boone. Having the power to knock almost anyone out definitely helps that cause.

The fight taking place at range still doesn’t make Kovalev a shoe-in to win, though. Ward has the speed advantage and can pot shot, and give different looks to keep the Russian off his game. It wouldn’t be surprising if the American switched to southpaw at times either.

Kovalev will need to get the jab going to win. That’s a power punch in itself. When he starts looking for the right hand too much he tends to be predictable. The ramrod jab sets up all of his offense and can cause some damage if he finds the target with it.

One thing he also shouldn’t neglect is the body. If the weight isn’t an issue for Ward then body work would help slowing him down. Ward’s barely been hit to the body with anything significant at light heavyweight, and Kovalev can be nasty downstairs.

The early rounds will probably be cagey, with both fighters trying to impose their game on one another. Mini battles such as who can be first, who can establish the centre of the ring and who can establish any type of physical edge will all be fought right from the get go. Each round will be a game of chess and every second is going to matter.

Kovalev can change a fight at any time with his power. Ward may be able to nullify that power by keeping him from getting off with the jab and switching approaches.

All in all, this is probably going to be a close fight. If Ward gets hurt, he’s not going away easily. If Kovalev is hurt, he’s still dangerous.

A cagey approach to the fight gives it a decent chance of seeing the final scorecards. Judges will like Ward’s style, especially if Kovalev is missing frequently. A knockdown on Kovalev’s part might be essential to swinging the fight in his favour. There’s probably a decent chance that both sides will think they’ve got it won. The way this stacks up on paper, anything but a competitive fight all the way through would be surprising.

This is what boxing is supposed to be all about – the best fighting the best. It doesn’t happen too often nowadays, so fights like Saturday’s should be cherished. The winner may just be the top fighter in the world.

Fight prediction: Ward UD