2016 has not been a great vintage for boxing. In the eyes of many it has been a veritable annus terribilis. Whilst this may be overegging it somewhat, the year has certainly had its fair share of disappointments. The sordid saga of Fury Klitschko 2, the Wilder-Povetkin Meldonium scandal and the infuriating impasse between Canelo and Golovkin have left fans and the general public frustrated on many occasions.
There were of course some diamonds among the rough: Postol vs Crawford, Usyk vs Glowacki and Golovkin vs Brook were all high calibre fights. But far more was needed to atone for the bitter anti-climax that was Mayweather Pacquiao. The backlash from this fight is still reverberating among sports fans. Many hold it responsible for the current decline of pay-per-view in America.
The essence of sport is that the best compete against the best. It is a law so basic it shouldn’t need to be stated. Yet boxing has openly flouted that law for a while now. The preeminent fighters of this era have picked and chosen their opponents like dishes from an a la carte menu. Mayweather vs Pacquaio was the apotheosis of that phenomenon.
Yet 2016 may not be about to go quietly into that good night. This Saturday Las Vegas will play host to a bona fide superfight: 2 undefeated fighters in their prime will square off for the undisputed light heavyweight championship of the world. Two fighters that have consistently demonstrated their excellence but who, even combined, have a fraction of the fanfare enjoyed by either Mayweather or Pacquaio.
So why is their contest so hotly anticipated by critics and committed boxing fans alike? It is because there is a palpable sense that this marks a return to the ethos of the Ali, Foreman and Frasier period; an era when the best were actively desirous of facing their top competitors, not for maximum remuneration but for the honour of being considered the pre-eminent practitioner of pugilism. Likewise here, no pay disputes, no ‘a-side b-side’ rhetoric of evasion has prevented Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev sharing a ring while still at the height of their powers.
The fight, as a spectacle, exemplifies to a ‘t’ boxing’s beloved maxim "styles make fights". Kovalev and Ward are exponents of two diametrically opposed styles. But their similarities are every bit as integral to the greatness of the fight as their contrasts. Both men have scaled the summit of prize fighting via the harshest and most perilous paths.
Andre Ward won gold in the Athens Olympics in 2004 and, after 20 fights as a professional, he entered and won the ground-breaking Showtime Super Six Tournament, a tournament which saw the crème de la crème of the 168 pound division agree to fight one another in consecutive bouts to determine the undisputed champion of that weight class. Ward defeated Britain's Carl Froch in the final and emerged with his undefeated record still intact. Then, after becoming entangled in various legal issues with his then promoter Dan Goosen, Ward became less active, but still faced high calibre opposition, albeit more sporadically, most notably the former undisputed light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson and Delvin Rodriguez.
Sergey Kovalev’s ascent to success has been every bit as steep and arduous. As a young man, like Ward, he represented his country as an amateur boxer, but for some reason never became the darling of the Russian national amateur boxing programme like his contemporary Artur Beterbiev and Kostya Tszu before him. He was rather like a Marvin Hagler of his time, grinding away, grafting hard fought victories in relative obscurity. After turning professional he relocated to Florida USA, leaving behind his wife in Russia, signing with Lithuanian-American manager Egis Klimas.
He had come to the attention of his manager through a recommendation from the former trainer of Evander Holyfield, Don Turner. Don Turner recognised the talent and chilling sadism of the man soon to be feted the Krusher. Kovalev still toiled away in obscurity, fighting on unglamorous shows across America, accumulating knock out victory after knock out victory in enemy territory, for next to no remuneration. Eventually he found a promoter willing to back him in Kathy Duva of Main Events, after she witnessed him demolish his former tormentor Darnell Boone in 2 rounds. Slowly the team elevated his profile attracting the attention of Frank Warren who arranged a fight between him and the then WBO light-heavyweight champion, Nathan Cleverly in Cardiff. Kovalev to the incredulity of the hostile welsh fans dispatched the champion in less than four rounds. His most notable victories since then have come over ring legend Bernard Hopkins and former light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal, whom he knocked out twice in Canada.
Now both men stand on the verge of pound-for-pound supremacy. In arriving here they have overcome personal hardships and shown a consistent willingness to undertake the sternest professional challenges. They are honourable men, who value their reputations and yet are prepared to risk their auras of invincibility to prove, as they have endeavoured to prove countless times before, that they are the very best. In an era where the preservation of zeros has become paramount, cherry-picking and inactivity, such men stand apart. Their experiences and bravery lend an undeniable epic quality to this event, which, despite a lack of wider public appeal, is nonetheless a resounding triumph for the sport. And in that sense, almost regardless of happens in that ring, boxing is already the victor.