Tension. The feeling overwhelmed me as I sat up in the early hours, waiting for the fight to begin. Andre Ward was about to challenge Sergey Kovalev for three of the four world titles at 175-pounds. In my mind Ward had chased the main man in the division, sustaining himself only on two competitive fights in the previous three years. He had inched his way out of the super-middleweight class against inferior foes and now, suddenly it seemed, hit warp speed in making a grab for the belts. I did fear then, as I suppose I do now, that he may have overreached.
Ward has been characterised by an uncommon brand of self-belief since long before he became the unified light-heavyweight champion in LasVegas last November. Ever since he stepped up to world level in 2009 at the commencement of the Showtime ‘Super-Six’ tournament, he has displayed a willingness and ability to win by any necessary means; clean, dirty, anywhere in between. But this latest challenge he had set for himself in Kovalev, the hard-hitting, undoubtedly skilful, light-heavyweight, seemed even beyond his scope of ability.
After all was done with Ward emerged the winner after a photo-finish unanimous decision declared him so. Kovalev’s power troubled him early and dropped him to a knee in the second. After that he showed us the true depths of his determination and endeavoured to claw his way back in to the fight, “one round at a time.” The result has been much-debated. Tiredly so. Thankfully, no intervening bouts have been scheduled to delay a more definitive answer as to who the better man is. We have our rematch. And it is tantalisingly close.
That first fight created conditions in which the return will play out. The former champion Kovalev sees himself as having been unjustly dethroned. In many an interview he has outlined his disbelief at how the scoring could have gone against him, and has more than hinted at favouritism towards the native Ward on US soil. In the final press conference for this fight he donned a cap with the word ‘WAR’ emblazoned across the front, á la Marvin Hagler 1985. If he attacks Ward the same way Hagler did Tommy Hearns in their famous scrap, I can’t imagine the kind of defensive wizardry that would need to be conjured in order to stop him. It is the approach many speculate he should have taken first time around. Now he has a chance to put it right.
Ward has his opportunity for corrections too. By his own admission he failed to pull the trigger in positions he felt were favourable first time around. This weekend he aims to punish Kovalev at every opportunity, make every second count. His most notable success came then with body punches in close and on the break, the ones Kovalev claimed he didn’t address simply because he couldn’t feel them. For all the technical nous we know Ward possess he reached that close proximity in quite a rudimentary way; simply clamping the ear muffs on and marching in while keeping low. Once there he could engage in the kind of messy spoiling that earns him comparisons to Bernard Hopkins. If he can replicate his edge there, and add to that a lot more sharp jabs, and, heaven forbid, a few right hands, he could assuredly walk away with a second win over his domineering foe, this one unquestioned.
I cannot help but feel Kovalev will be wary in this fight. For all the talk of him losing his energy in the second half of that first meeting, he seemed to me to be boxing well within himself. If he showed us one weakness it was that he became complacent after the knockdown. He wasn’t nearly as sharp after he established that foothold; a confirmation in his power, as if he needed it. If there is one fighter you cannot freely grant inches to, it is Ward, because he’ll quickly turn them in to feet, and then in to miles. Kovalev will need to keep Ward off his chest, backing up the way he had him in the first two and three, worrying about what shot it coming next, hesitant to make the inside charge in case he gets clipped. From further away he can extend those uncommonly long levers of his and get full torque, unhampered by up-close constriction.
I would love to proclaim this fight as the next greatest slugfest. ‘Tune in and you won’t be sorry,’ the optimist in me wants to say. The truth is, both of these men are far too aware and skilled to allow this to come anywhere near an attritional battle. There will be feints, footwork, parries, blocks and slips. Few prolonged exchanges. There may be another knockdown, maybe even a knockout, but it will come through the tightest gap in the snap of a finger. This is one for the connoisseurs. The rest won’t view it kindly, I fear. This is the tender fillet to the quadruple cross-sport stack that is Floyd Mayweather vs Connor McGregor, the announcement of which has overshadowed this light-heavyweight clash almost entirely.
I know that Ward has the ability to adjust his style to suit the needs of the moment. It is on that principle which rests my belief of a second victory for him here. However, my conviction is not stalwart. The kind of reaction Kovalev is capable of producing is a huge unknown. We’ve never seen him answer a defeat. Whether he can make the technical adjustments needed, and show the kind of calm patience required are the questions that hang over him. We will learn all on Saturday.