Sergey Kovalev wore a cap to the final press conference with the word “WAR” emblazoned across the front. Unfortunately for Kovalev, he did not appear to understand the full meaning of the word the following night in the ring with Andre Ward. As has been well documented, Ward (32-0, 16 KOs) retained his titles with an 8th round TKO victory over Kovalev (30-2-1, 26 KOs). Unfortunately, the discussions have been more about the low blows, the ineptitude of the referee, and the quick stoppage than about the performance of Ward.
Ward knows that boxing is about winning, and that in the ring there are no true rules of engagement. Everything goes, unless told otherwise. On this night he fought differently than before. The adjustments that he made to his game were to stay low, move to the right, and continue to target Kovalev’s body (low or not), until the moment was right to go upstairs. It is not Ward’s job to not throw punches low.
It is not Ward’s job to not throw punches in a clinch, in effect holding and hitting. It is the referee’s job to enforce the rules. Ward had made the decision that he was going to win this fight at all costs. As he appeared to be falling further and further behind on the cards, he kept his cool, kept to his plan, and then when the opening presented itself (after another seemingly low blow), he lowered the boom.
A beautiful straight right that had been set up by his borderline blows separated Kovalev from his senses, and Ward did not let him off the hook. He pursued his quarry, and when he had him cornered, he threw three more punches with reckless abandon. These punches were not measured. He did not look for the proper opening.He just let his fists fly. At this point he knew that Kovalev was tired and hurt, and where his punches landed didn’t matter.
If they were true, victory was his in a most surprising manner. If they were low, he might, at worst, be scolded and Kovalev given time to recuperate. What mattered is that Ward was ready to win, and he knew that this was not the moment to be cautious. The result could not have been more glorious.
Tony Weeks did far better than Ward could have imagined. He did not step in to warn him for his recklessly low punches. He did not step in to call a knockdown and begin the 10-count as Kovalev was held up by the ropes. No, Weeks simply stepped in and waved off the fight. Ward had given no heed to the rules of boxing, and he was rewarded. The only foul in boxing is the one that is called, and Ward’s willingness to go to the line and step outside of the boundaries separated him from his opponent.
Sporting events are often determined by the officials as much as they are they participants. Referees in the NBA call fouls differently, even down to the player. In the NFL, it has been said that holding could be called on every play, yet the flag is only thrown a handful of times per game.
In boxing, point deductions for anything other than low blows are rarely assessed, but low blows tend to garner attention. Therefore, it was a surprise that anything more than a token finger-wave was given by Tony Weeks as the rounds and low blows mounted. What the great players/participants understand is to play this to their advantage. If they can get away with hand-checking, they hand check. If they can get away with holding, they hold. If they can get away with low blows, they throw them. They have one goal–to win.
Meanwhile, Kovalev and his team were unprepared for this strategy, and no adjustments appeared to be made. They felt they had done enough to win the first fight, and it seemed that the plan was to do even “more” of the same. Maybe they felt that fighting “fire with fire” would backfire and that even the chance of a point deduction against Ward would eliminate his best chance of victory. He had found a way to negate Ward’s inside holding-and-hitting by putting him in headlocks, but the man known as “Krusher”, who had displayed such vitriol outside the ring, boxed like a schoolboy once he stepped inside the ropes.
Despite the cap, despite the facade of the “baddest light heavyweight on the planet”, Kovalev was willing to play by the rules and not retaliate. Roberto Duran would have hit Ward low. Julio Cesar Chavez, Sr. would have hit Ward low. Felix Trinidad would have hit Ward low. The great fighters seem to know when to claim the rule book as their own, daring the referees to act. In this Kovalev failed. “WAR” to him had only been a word on a cap.
Other notes from the bout: Despite claiming to tire in the first bout, Kovalev increased his output, throwing nearly 11 punches more per round (51 vs 40 in the first bout). He also out-landed Ward in 6 of the 7 completed rounds, with an overall edge of 83-70 after seven rounds. This possibly caused Kovalev to tire even more than he appeared to in their November bout. Yet, once again, disappointingly he was behind 4-3 on two of the scorecards. Judges Moretti and Feldman were predicted to score close rounds in favor of Ward, and they did not disappoint. Judge Weisfeld seemed to be the only judge who was actually scoring the action that took place in the ring, and he had Kovalev up 5-2 after seven rounds of action. What this means is that Kovalev was headed to defeat one way or another. Next for Ward? Probably a high-profile bout with Adonis Stevenson or Tony Bellew. Ward has earned it. After hearing that he was scared to fight Kovalev, that he would find a way to back out, he stepped in with him not once, but twice. For Kovalev, it is back to the drawing board, and probably an eliminator bout for his next shot at a belt. His time at the top might be over, and if it is, it was entertaining and high level. He too fought the best, and only one opponent could claim to get the better of him.