Only hours remain before the second instalment of last year’s most talked about fights. The first one was hotly anticipated. Though the run up to the rematch has been decidedly low key, with less than twelve hours to go before the bell rings, the tension is running high. The sinister irascibility of Kovalev and the Machiavellian mind games of Team Ward have engendered an atmosphere of intense antipathy. It is not the kind confected for marketing and publicity, like the humourous pantomime antagonism exemplified by Mayweather, Broner et al. It is tangible, awkward and often discomforting to behold.
Yet, such distractions aside, the fight itself should be another treat for the connoisseur. November 19th fell short of expectations- neither man put on a first rate performance. It was an intriguing fight with an interesting plot and suspense around the final decision. Yet the action itself was too staccato and the punches too few for it to be considered a classic. It failed to ignite.
But hopes are high this time round as both men are conscious of the need to perform better. Both are in search of convincing victory. They are familiar with each other’s habits, and the potential for surprise is far less. There is even less consensus than there was before about who will emerge victorious. Fans and experts have made their picks, but very few without caveat or with conviction.
Before delving into the technical aspects of the bout, there are a couple of background factors that merit discussion. Subsurface dynamics such as these are generally not something worth dwelling on. It is very hard to divine a fighter’s frame of mind. The pseudo science of body language and who looks away first, is very hard to interpret. Fighters are idiosyncratic, like people, and without knowing them who’s to say when such an such is angry or cowed? This is not to deny the importance of psychology, but interpreting the mind-set through the prisms of facial expressions and body language is very difficult to do accurately.
Nevertheless there are certain leitmotifs to the Kovalev Ward narrative that cannot be ignored. The first of these is Kovalev’s frame of mind. His behaviour during press commitments has been peculiar. He has openly admitted feelings of anger and repeatedly vowed to end Ward’s career. It has undoubtedly added a bit of spice to the build up, but do these things betray nervousness and frustration on the part of Kovalev. Most people would say it is not an optimal mentality for a pugilist. Better to be cold and calculating than in the grips of irrational anger. But conversely Mike Tyson claimed to enter the ring each time with the intention of killing his opponent. And if we look at Kovalev himself, some of his best performances have been under the influence of bitter spite (e.g Silakh and Pascal). So who is to say whether Kovalev is in fact too angry, or whether in fact it would matter either way?
The second theme is the alleged discord within Team Kovalev. What is the state of his relationship with John David Jackson? Was it bad? Is it bad? Does it matter? As to the communications that took place between Jackson and Team Ward, I don’t propose to get bogged down in this- the truth will emerge at some point, but in the meantime determining whose version of events is more likely to be true is a futile endeavour. Kovalev and Jackson’s relationship before the first Ward fight was evidently flawed. There was next to no dialogue between them in the corner and after the fight, Kovalev made more than a few unflattering remarks about Jackson in Russia to Russian media. This is not the sort of thing that can be patched up in a couple of months. Will it have a significant bearing on the outcome? It can hardly be said to be beneficial. Whether it is actively detrimental remains to be seen.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that neither of these things is significant. Or let’s assume that Kovalev is in an optimal frame of mind and that the breach with Jackson is fully healed. Any prediction for this fight has to be based on the tools each fighter possesses and a proper understanding of what took place in their first encounter.
Whilst opinions differ on who won the first fight, the pattern of the contest is a matter of near universal agreement. Kovalev was very strong in the first half of the fight but Ward had a far better second half. What was the cause of this? Kovalev attributes it to exhaustion through overtraining. This is certainly credible, but, it does not paint the whole picture. The shift in momentum was also the result of Ward’s improvisations. He managed to evade punches far better in the second half of the fight. In fact from the second round onward, he was sustaining far fewer clean punches than before. Why was this exactly?
An observation made by Nathan Cleverly could provide the explanation. Cleverly mentioned that one of Kovalev’s deceptive qualities was that he appeared to be out of range when he in fact wasn’t. If you look at the way Kovalev is built he is quite sinewy and long. He also incorporates a lot of flexibility exercises into his training. When you look at photos from the first fight with Ward the extension on his jab is remarkable. He hits you when you don’t expect it. This was happening to Ward a lot in the first two rounds in particular. He was clearly bamboozled by the angles and range of Kovalev’s punching. After the knock down however, he seemed to understand better the extent of the Russian’s reach, and managed to stay either out or inside of it. Ward learned a valuable lesson and presumably won’t have to learn it the hard way again this time round. It is likely therefore the Kovalev will have a harder time connecting cleanly with Ward.
It would seem fair to say then that the onus is on Kovalev to modify his approach, as Ward already made did so in the latter half of the first bout. What can Kovalev add to his game to redress the balance? His training sessions have certainly been impressive and it’s noticeable that he and Jackson have been developing his left hook, a punch conspicuously absent from his usual repertoire. Jackson has also been stressing the importance of body attack, especially if Ward tries to bring the fight to close quarters. Both of these are shrewd innovations. In the first fight Kovalev seemed overly dependant on the jab and straight right. Ward being the cerebral fighter that he is began to read it better as the fight developed. The left hook will give him more to think about.
Another area in which Kovalev will need to display adaptability is close-range fighting. Ward has made it clear he intends to go to the body with a vengeance from the outset. Is Kovalev ready to combat the inside game of Ward? Or will his focus be instead not to let the champion inside? After all, Kovalev is not a natural inside fighter, as we saw in the first fight. His power is long and premised on leverage and extension. He is not built for close-up grappling and it seemed to fatigue him last time. It is doubtful that he can suddenly become proficient in the art of inside fighting in the space of a few months. And furthermore, as we said, he’s not built for it.
What Kovalev can do however is make sure Ward doesn’t get to within this range. One thing people don’t mention as much about Kovalev is the fact that he punches very well on the back foot. He has knocked plenty of fighters down or out counter punching going backwards. For evidence of that see the Hopkins, Silyak and Pascal fights. If Ward attempts to implement a more aggressive close quarters style of fight as he is implying he will, it could work either for or against him. He knows from experience that Kovalev can’t be rushed with reckless abandon.
So to wrap up this rather digressive amorphous analysis, I will say the following. Kovalev has added to his repertoire and his training seems to have been more effective this time round. He seems noticeably more vigorous in demeanour and the snap in his punches as evidenced by his recent pad sessions with Jackson is as prodigious as ever. Having said that, I think Ward has figured out the most essential point about fighting Kovalev and that is the control of range. He will remember where is safe and where is the danger zone. He will make it far more difficult for Kovalev this time round to enjoy the kind of start he had last time.
But if Ward attempts the intense, mauling, up-close fight he produced in some of his most memorable performances, e.g Froch and Kessler and Green, and gets too reckless or predictable, he could end up taking a big one from Kovalev. And this time the Russian is unlikely to let him off the hook. It is Ward’s fight to lose.