After a flurry of fantastic fights, it would be easy to miss the context of the upcoming rematch between two of the sports biggest icons, Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward. This weekend will cap off a series of exciting matches that have changed the rankings in almost every major division since the beginning of May. Not long ago we saw Terence Crawford somewhat cruelly dismantle Felix Diaz. Both fighters showed that they have long, successful careers ahead, but at distinctly different levels of the sport. Being so dominant against an opponent of that level, Crawford eliminated any remaining doubt that he is now at the elite level for welterweight.
More recently, Errol Spence Jr. and Kell Brook squared off in an unlikely matchup between top prospects that neither fighter was obligated to take. Brook had previously acquitted himself well against moving up in weight to face Golovkin, but understandably came away with his first loss. Against Spence, I thought he was winning the majority of the rounds with superior speed, accuracy and ring generalship. Spence seemed stronger and better at putting combinations together, but also frustrated at Brook’s speed and use of angles. While I’m sure Golovkin-Brook was incredibly lucrative for Brook and a once-in-a-lifetime chance for exposure, the legacy of the fight could end up being a career-altering injury. Early in the fight against Spence, Brook started to swell from glancing blows. In the later rounds, Brook began throwing less, and when he did throw, he looked gun-shy. By round 11, both eyes were swollen with one suddenly almost completely shut. He took a knee about a minute into the round without taking much punishment. At that point, he could probably tell he wasn’t going to be competitive. Hopefully, Brook will take enough time to truly make a full recovery, so he doesn’t end up with problems in every fight the way the Plastered Bastard did. Certainly, he has a lot more to lose than Antonio Margarito ever did.
Since then, Brandon Rios has come out of retirement, Regis Prograis has put up another dominant win, and then, out of the blue, Mayweather-McGregor was officially announced (I’ll have to get to that another time).
With the dust still settling from all this upheaval, there’s hardly been time to get ready for the second (and, if possible, even more tantalizing) showdown between Ward and Kovalev. Historically, the technical fighter getting a rematch after a close fight with a brawler could only mean good things for him: think Mayweather-Maidana II, Rios-Alvarado II, Ali-Frazier II. In this case, I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions. Kovalev can make a stand here and solidify his position at the top of the sport, while Ward has been comfortably reclining in the luxury of stardom for years. The motivational factor can’t be dismissed. Even more significant might be that Ward was inactive during much of that time, negotiating a messy split with former Top Rank exec Dan Goosen. Of course, the inactivity didn’t stop Ward from putting on an epic performance in the first fight, and that could mean a bigger discrepancy between his abilities and Kovalev’s in the rematch. Part of the reason the inactivity didn’t affect the fight against Kovalev is that Ward had been consistently taking fights again for over a year at that point, and had fought twice already in 2016. I still call attention to his “inactivity” and comfort because these fights were against a series of off-brand tomato cans. The first, timid return came against Paul Smith, 35-5, who had just lost two consecutive fights to Arthur Abraham leading up to their contest. The next two opponents weren’t much more impressive, so, in short, Ward hasn’t fought anyone like Kovalev since the Super Six tournament (except, of course, Kovalev).
If Ward’s inactivity doesn’t catch up with him, and he hasn’t underestimated Kovalev as much as he makes it seem, it could be a one-sided affair. One of those classic matchups between a great fighter and a legendary one. Roy Jones Jr. is probably more familiar with the concept than any other single fighter, having humiliated greats and legends alike in his early, more athletic years. Ward has been quoted saying that he didn’t have “enough fun” in the first fight. In taking on the larger Chad Dawson five years ago, Ward certainly did look like he was having fun, scoring one of the most dominant and yet exciting knockouts I’ve ever seen. He may have worked out Kovalev’s habits enough to play puppet master the way he did with Chad Dawson, but don’t expect Kovalev to wilt under the pressure. If Ward pushes himself harder than he has the capacity for, Kovalev will seize the opportunity. Ward can take his punches all night as long as he can move effectively to take the impact off, but if he tires, is unable to clinch, and starts taking real punishment, Kovalev could pull the upset.
Key to both fighters will be the jab, with even more urgency for Kovalev, who had great success with it in the first fight. Next most important for both will be movement. If Kovalev can improve his footwork, or if Ward falters with his own, Ward’s advantage will be significantly diminished. Finally, the winner of the fight will be the one who was most active, either by taking punches while giving them or by throwing during every lull in the action.
We can get up our hopes for an epic conclusion or a worthy precursor to the final chapter. Some fans feel Kovalev fought well enough to win the first time, but even if he didn’t, with 12 rounds of experience, maybe he really can beat Ward convincingly. In that case, Kovalev would take the belts, have two unforgettable performances on his resume and he would have begun what would probably one of the great boxing trilogies. Then again, with practice, maybe Ward can shut him out the way he has with other would-be conquerors (like Froch), solidifying his legacy and elevating him to supreme status. Whoever wins receives possibly the greatest reward in the sport: an undeniable reign.