If there’s one fight that is the epitome of elite punching power against elite boxing skills, it’s Sergey Kovalev VS Andre Ward. It’s the very essence of the best fighting the best, as Ward who reigned the Super Middleweight division for years, moves up in weight to take on a menacing challenge and the widely regarded Number 1 Light Heavyweight in Kovalev.
- Can Kovalev handle Ward’s speed, timing and counterpunching abilities?
- Can Ward take a flush punch from Kovalev?
- Can Kovalev even penetrate Ward’s excellent defense?
- Will Ward crack under the pressure and size of the bigger and stronger man?
There are many more questions which is why this fight is so intriguing. My fight analysis explores the strengthes and weaknesses of both boxers to determine who is more likely to snatch the other fighter’s zero and remain undefeated.
After all but clearing out the Super Middleweight division nearly 3 years ago (still bummed that he didn’t fight Andre Dirrell for questionable reasons!), Ward has done very little since then. He’s had 3 fights in the past 33 months against mediocre opposition. Still, it’s fair to say that he has the better overall resume.
The best win for Kovalev is clearly a 50 year old undersized Bernard Hopkins, followed by a game but flawed Jean Pascal. However, at least he’s stayed active, amassing 7 wins (5 by KO) in the same time Ward racked up 3.
So what we have here is one fighter who has more experience against better opposition but has been largely inactive in recent years, and another who has fought more often against mainly bigger and respectable opponents but lacks defining wins against elite fighters in their prime.
These factors kind of balance each other out, and the argument of who has fought better fighters is futile. Instead, we should look at who has fought boxers that best mimic each other’s style, and that heavily favours Sergey Kovalev.
Facing the Doppelganger
The thing about elite fighters is that they’re so far ahead of the competition that it’s difficult to find other fighters that can help one prepare for them. It’s often the case that the elite have styles that are so unique and awkward that they really are one of a kind.
Kovalev’s power and style is unmatched, and the same goes for Ward’s slickness and skillset. However, if one of them is better prepared against the other’s style, it’s Kovalev.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Ward has barely even fought, but let’s take a look at two of Kovalev’s past opponents that have some characteristics Ward possesses.
- Isaac Chilemba – an athletic and agile boxer with good upper body movement, a snappy jab and a solid chin. He utilizes the shoulder roll quite well, and can fight at any range – short, mid and long. Despite causing Kovalev all sorts of problems with his jab and defense, he lacked the punching power and work rate to really cause any real damage.
- Bernard Hopkins – a highly experienced boxer also with good footwork and upper body movement. The wily veteran can usually fight at any range too, but Kovalev’s size, power and control of distance completely neutralized Hopkin’s ability to get in close. Instead, he was reduced to counterpunching and surviving from the outside.
Granted, at this stage Andre Ward has better inside fighting, counterpunching and defensive abilities than the aforementioned boxers. But one attribute that they have over Ward is a better chin. Despite taking some horrific punches from Kovalev, both were hurt but have never ever been stopped.
Sifting through Ward’s past opponents, it’s hard to see how any of their styles remotely resembles Kovalev’s, but if I really had to choose, I’d say the low lead hand and occassionally wild nature of Edwin Rodriguez and Sakio Bika can be likened to the way Kovalev fights.
Though the huge difference is obviously the size and power, and the fact that Kovalev is the better boxer – he controls distance better, uses feints and shoots straight punches.
The conclusion I can draw about their experiences of facing similar styles to each other is that Kovalev has seen this before, albeit on a lower level which can fustrate him; on the other hand, Ward has never faced this showing of force before, which can overwhelm him like never before.
Taking power out of the equation for a moment, let’s take a look at who has the better punch selection but more importantly, utilization of their best punches.
Sergey Kovalev’s Best Punches
Kovalev is primarily a one-two fighter, meaning that his whole style is based around throwing the jab with the straight behind it. It may sound basic, but Kovalev is pretty creative when it comes to his bread and butter punches.
The Kovalev Jab
I consider Kovalev’s jab to be the second most powerful jab in boxing today (after Gennady Golovkin’s jab). The weight behind it is astounding and you can see the effect it has just by looking at his opponent’s faces every time it lands.
Kovalev patiently stalks and times Chilemba’s jab with his own jab.
He would sometimes throw his jab out there to line up his straight, or he’d throw the power jab following the straight, sometimes leaping in with it, which makes him vulnerable but also so dangerous at the same time.
Most fighters think “oh, he’s going to throw a one-two and I’m going to avoid it” but NO; there’s usually one or two power jabs after which Kovalev is able to shift more weight into due to his left shoulder positioning after the straight is thrown.
The jab to the body is also a favoured punch by Kovalev. For most boxers, it’s merely used to create an opening upstairs but for Kovalev, he uses it to suck the oxygen out of his opponent. When it lands, there’s a subtle reaction which is made evident when his opponents retreat or move their arm down a little to guard their body.
The Kovalev Straight Right
Kovalev’s jab and straight right go together like white on rice, but they’re both pretty effective when thrown independently too.
Kovalev lands two lead straight rights on Jean Pascal followed by some vicious body shots.
His straight right comes out fast and heavy, kind of like a swinging log picking up speed…but the thing is, it’s often predictable and he requires space for it to be effective.
Andre Ward can neutralize Kovalev’s right hand by staying out of range or up close, not in mid range where it’s most effective. If Ward does opt to stay in mid range, he’ll likely have the reflexes to duck underneath it.
If Kovalev wants to catch Ward with the straight right, he needs to time his head movement with feints. Ward ducks low, but Kovalev can probably catch him at the top of the head. I’m sure that’ll be enough to rattle Ward’s brains.
The Kovalev Chopping Right Hook
It’s not unusual to see fighters shelling up against Kovalev; Cleverly did it, Agnew did it and so did Pascal. It’s a method of survival that ultimately just prolonged the beating they received, as Kovalev just goes around the guard with chopping right hooks.
As devastating as these thudding blows look, they’re only effective on stationary targets. While Ward does often adopt an open gloved high guard exactly how Winky Wright used to, he doesn’t allow you to just flail on him.
Instead, he’d switch up the distance while adopting the high guard, which takes the leverage out of the punches. Therefore, it’ll be difficult for Kovalev to land one of his chopping right hooks.
Andre Ward’s Best Punches
It’s clear that Ward has the better punch variety and he’s able to put them to good use at any range because of his speed and timing.
The Ward Jab
The power jab, range finder jab, feint jab, step jab and up jab; you name it, Ward can do it. He has practically mastered the jab and if the Chilemba fight is anything to go by, Kovalev is going to have a long night trying to get past Ward’s jab.
Even when he’s not throwing punches, Ward’s lead hand is always either measuring up his opponent or distracting him. This will cause Kovalev all sorts of problems as he has to reset every time he gets prodded with the jab.
If Kovalev wants to neutralize Ward’s jab, he’ll have to jab with the jabber and look to counter with the straight right over the Ward’s jab at the same time as he’s throwing it, NOT after because Ward will just instinctively dodge the punch.
Kovalev has the reach advantage by an inch or so, so he’s capable of jabbing with Ward, but the main problem for Kovalev is that he stands too upright while Ward stays low, which allows him to get under his opponent’s offense and close the distance.
The Ward Straight
Ok, so Ward doesn’t have a thunderous straight right that will shake you down to your boots, but what he does have is an uncanny way of using it.
Ward lands combinations on Arthur Abraham.
He may throw it and lead in with his head at the same time, making himself a smaller target while using his head as a ramrod. Other times, he’ll throw it to the solar plexus and unexpectedly come up top with the power jab. But most of the time, he’ll use his lead hand as a gauge for throwing his straight right at the perfect time.
It probably won’t put Kovalev in any serious trouble, but it’ll damn sure annoy the hell out of him if it lands frequently enough. Ultimately, it’s the jab that I see causing Kovalev the most issues.
The Ward Uppercuts
The lead and rear uppercuts are dangerous punches to throw as they end up leaving one side of your face completely exposed. Timing and distance is paramount for these punches and Ward understands that.
He is so sneaky with his uppercuts when on the inside, and it’s amazing to see how he positions his body to gain leverage on them. Will Ward’s uppercuts be significant weapons against Kovalev?
I don’t think so because Kovalev gives you his side rather than standing square on, and he’ll try to keep it mid-range. Those factors alone will make it tough for Ward to land his uppercuts with any real consistency (unless of course, much of the fight ends up taking place at close range).
There will be times when both fighters will be up close and personal. There’ll probably be quite a lot of clinches, but whether or not Ward decides to make that part of his strategy is another story. When this situation does occur, you better believe that Ward will get busy with short shots on the inside.
Ward throwing short shots and combinations on the inside.
He’s masterful at maneuvering his body into a position where he’s able to throw short hooks around the side or uppercuts through the middle. He’ll likely have success doing this against Kovalev, but the question is how often will he do this?
Ward is use to muscling around Super Middleweights, but it’s a lot more tiring and dangerous against bigger and stronger opponents. He tried to do this against Sullivan Barrera but it was clear that outmuscling him would prove to be a lot more difficult.
Even though Kovalev cannot fight on the inside and is usually reduced to clinching, leaning or putting his opponent in a headlock, it’ll still be wise of Ward to limit his time on the inside, at least until Kovalev tires enough.
An underused technique in boxing these days is the use of feints. They’re extremely useful for creating opportunities against defensively skilled boxers – something that Ward is.
Kovalev feints the right but throws a power jab instead while closing the distance.
Kovalev already adopts some use of feints in his game, most notably the step feint and fake throwing the right hand only to end up throwing a power jab instead. They were effective against less smarter and less athletic opponents, but he has to be a bit more clever than that against one of the smartest fighters in boxing.
It’ll be difficult to get Ward to fall for these feints as he’ll likely just step out of punching range if he anticipates a move being made. It’s not within Wards best interests to trade punches with Kovalev, so he may just pot shot from the outside at unpredictable moments.
Ward usually keeps his lead hand low, so the feint I see working against Ward is the faking of the jab to the body but coming with the straight upstairs. Of course, timing is paramount for someone who has such great reading of body language.
Andre Ward is smart with the feints too…
But he uses his feints in a different manner than Kovalev. Ward’s main weapon? Like many great boxers, it’s his jab.
He uses his jab feints in a patient and calculated way that’s designed to lull his opponent’s to sleep. He’ll prod his lead hand out for a variety of reasons – measure range, set up his right hand or hook off the jab, distract his opponent, reposition his opponent etc.
Ward measures up and baits Kessler with his jab before landing his straight right.
Ward may also occassionally throw the lead cross as a feint and lunge in with a power jab. It’s a bit dangerous and goes against boxing fundamentals but Ward’s speed, timing and the fact he always keeps his rear guard glued to his face, has so far overruled any dangers.
With that being said, the jab is Ward’s most effective weapon by far and it’s heavily ingrained in his style. The question isn’t if Kovalev will be bothered by it, but rather how will Kovalev nullify it?
The art of shifting is a long forgotten technique in boxing (at least in the West). There aren’t many boxers that effectively employ this boxing technique. Off the top of my head, I can only name a few from recent years – Dmitry Pirog, Gennady Golovkin, Vasyl Lomachenko and Sergey Kovalev – all fighters from the Soviet Union.
Kovalev lands the straight left from a southpaw stance after shifting from orthodox.
Shifting entails switching stances in a natural and fluid motion while simultaneously punching to close the distance between you and your opponent; but it can also be done on the inside to transfer body weight to generate more power. It requires calculated foot movement, good punch selection and knowledge of distance to pull it off.
Kovalev shifts from the outside and mid-range pretty effectively. He does this by throwing the straight and stepping forward with his rear foot at the same time which closes the distance, and then he brings a powerful southpaw cross into play.
Kovalev gets countered by Pascal while shifting.
The problem with this is that Kovalev throws his initial straight right with so much force that he ends up being off balance when he misses. This is where Ward can take advantage and counterpunch, perhaps even scoring an imbalance knockdown. However, this maneuver can be so deceptive so it’s something Ward has to watch out for.
Ward’s Southpaw Stance
Though it may look the same, switching stances is not the same as shifting. For one, you needn’t be punching while switching stances and two, there’s usually no immediate results after switching.
Andre Ward probably does and has shifted before but it’s not really incorporated into his arsenal; fighting from a southpaw stance is. In Ward’s earlier fights, he’d switch to southpaw more often but it has been rare in his more recent fights.
Will Ward switch southpaw against Kovalev?
It may lessen the effectiveness of Kovalev’s right hand and make it easier for Ward to land his straight left, since he has the speed advantage. However, I don’t think this situation will come into play much as Kovalev hasn’t really shown any real weaknesses against southpaws.
The range at which this fight will be fought at will be a major factor. Kovalev does his best work at mid-range but has trouble when the fight takes place inside; and despite showing some flaws in his bout with Isaac Chilemba, I don’t actually think Kovalev is bad against outside boxers.
It’s likely that he underestimated Chilemba and also felt the pressure of having to impress his hometown crowd. I believe Kovalev has a good understanding of how to control range as his offense and defense is largely based around his footwork rather than his upper body movement or blocking abilities.
Kovalev has already gone on record to say Ward will be a very tough fight so I doubt he’ll be underestimating him. Ward has shown that he can fight at any range he pleases. He can pose problems for Kovalev on the inside and he can potshot and counterpunch from the outside. He’s so nimble so Kovalev will have a difficult time chasing him down.
If Ward wants to fight the perfect fight, he’ll need to take it inside at times since that’s where Kovalev is the least dangerous, and at other times snipe from the outside using his speed and timing.
Controlling the Pace of the Fight
Can Andre Ward slow down the pace of the fight so he can think and set up his moves?
Can Sergey Kovalev force Ward to work at a high pace and prevent him from thinking too much?
Those are two crucial questions that will determine how the fight plays out if it gets to the championship rounds. Both fighters are most comfortable at a measured pace and we’ve seen what can happen if they need to exert more energy than usual.
Ward was visibly tiring and getting sloppy in the 11th and 12th rounds against a relentless Carl Froch, but he managed to get through them with a lot of holding and a bit of foot movement.
Froch is better at forcing the pace than Kovalev as proven by his history of coming on strong in later rounds, BUT Kovalev is bigger and stronger than Froch, and Ward will immediately feel the difference.
On the other hand, Kovalev started to tire against Chilemba from around the 8th round onwards but he still finished strong (and even had him hurt!), just like he did in his only other 12th rounder against Hopkins. It was Kovalev’s first time in 6 years fighting in front of his hometown crowd against a heavy underdog – could nerves and underestimation of his opponent been reasons for his stamina issues? Possibly.
We already know what Kovalev is going to do…
Never stop coming forward. The question is what will Ward try to do?
Will he try to slow down the pace of the fight to make it more comfortable for himself, or will he expose himself to more risks and press the fight to make it more uncomfortable for Kovalev in the later rounds?
I think it’s likely that Ward will play it safe with the former option and if it does go down the stretch, I honestly believe Ward will get more and more uncomfortable as Kovalev gets more and more desperate trying to knock Ward out.
There are different types of counterpunches in boxing, and generally, Kovalev and Ward are different types of counterpunchers to each other.
Ward is the “wait for you to punch first, make you miss then make you pay” counterpuncher; while Kovalev is more of the “time your punch precisely and punch with you at the same time” counterpuncher.
Kovalev perfectly times his straight over Mohammedi’s jab.
The speed and reflex advantage goes to Ward, so if Kovalev does want to catch Ward, he has the right counterpunching style to do it –be aggressive and when Ward punches back, time and punch with him because if he waits too long, Ward will nearly always get off first then escape.
You cannot play the “patient boxer” game with Ward. It would be naive to do so.
Ward will probably try to counteract Kovalev’s aggression by making him walk onto counters. The only time when it’s relatively safe for Ward to go punch-for-punch is when he’s on the inside; doing so at mid-range would be incredibly risky.
Ward counters Kessler with a power jab and follows up with another.
The thing about aggressive power punchers is that if you take away their aura of power, whether by taking away their ability to land a punch or simply by being able to take their best punches, then most of the time they get discouraged. If Kovalev gets gun-shy as a result of Ward’s counters, then that’s a huge mental victory for Ward.
I’ve already covered the distance control aspect of defense for both fighters but in regards to all other aspects – blocking, slipping, parrying, ducking and rolling under punches – Ward takes the cake easily.
Some highlights of Andre Ward’s defense and range control by haNZAgod.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Ward will make Kovalev miss…a lot. But we’ve seen how Kovalev deals with defensive minded opponents in Hopkins and Chilemba. Granted, Ward is younger and more defensively responsible than them but he’ll still get hit.
The aim is for him to take the steam off the punches as much as possible, but can he do it consistently for 12 rounds? When Ward does get hit and if he cannot take the power, no amount of defense will save him.
Kovalev isn’t a complete stiff…
But he’s often caught with silly shots by standing straight up and not moving his head. Like Ward, Kovalev likes to keep his lead hand low and is susceptible to right hands for those who dare try. Jean Pascal and Isaac Chilemba landed their fair share, so it’s safe to say Ward will too.
Kovalev gets countered over and over again by Pascal’s right hand.
We already know defense isn’t Kovalev’s strong point. We know Ward will land punches. What we don’t know yet is if Kovalev’s defensive flaws will cost him against Ward; not in terms of Ward’s punching power, but in regards to accumulation of punches.
Kovalev has shown his ability to take hard punches and keep coming forward, so if Ward wants to reduce the pressure, he has to land clean punches early and often, while on the back foot and moving forward (putting Kovalev on the back foot). This may have a psychological impact on Kovalev if Ward is able to land at any distance.
Other Major Factors
Even though Andre Ward is moving up from Super Middleweight, he naturally fills out into a healthy Light Heavyweight. However, Kovalev is a big and strong LHW and even though they’re both listed as the same height of 6 ft., Kovalev’s frame is bigger.
Why does this matter at all?
Well, for starters Ward has been used to muscling around SMWs so he will no longer be able to impose himself physically on LHW without exerting more energy. This was evident in his with Sullivan Barrera where Ward was met with great resistance every time he tried to muscle him around.
I suspect he won’t be able to muscle the bigger Kovalev around with any real consistency so that already diminishes one aspect of Ward’s boxing strategy.
Fortunately, Ward can fall back on the many other facets of his game, though I do believe that pushing Kovalev back and forcing him fight on the back foot will give Ward a significant mental edge.
Taking a Punch
Finally…the most conclusive factor of this whole fight (at least in my opinion!).
The question on everyone’s minds is “can Ward handle Kovalev’s power?”.
It’s probable that the answer is NO. But then again, no LHW in the world can take a flush shot from Kovalev without getting hurt. Even highly durable fighters with excellent chins like Pascal, Hopkins and Chilemba were put down and hurt.
Andre Ward suffered his first and only knockdown in his career against tough veteran Darnell Boone.
Obviously Ward is smart and knows not to test his chin. He’ll pull out all his defensive maneuvers to avoid taking a flush shot from Kovalev. But the thing is, even grazing shots from Kovalev has an effect on people.
Contrary to what some may think, Ward doesn’t have a weak chin but it’s also not granite, and he will get hit against Kovalev; it’s inevitable.
I’m not confident enough to say that Ward won’t get caught and hurt by one of Kovalev’s punches. If that does happen, his survival instincts and recuperating abilities will come into play; something we have rarely seen from the master boxer.
Ward is not a feather fisted puncher…
Despite only having a little over a 50% knockout ratio, Ward hits harder than most people give him credit for; mainly due to his precision, timing and hand speed. Sometimes, he slaps with his punches – particularly the left hook – instead of turning his knuckles over and rotating his whole body into it. He’d probably have a few more knockouts if he did.
However, a pure boxer like Ward rarely likes to over commit to his punches in case he leaves himself too exposed. Regardless, Ward still managed to buzz some solid SMWs and dropped a LHW (more of a flash knock down) so I’m sure he’s able to buzz Kovalev too with a perfectly timed and placed punch.
It may be good enough to make Kovalev a bit more cautious of coming forward but I doubt it would be a serious deterrence unless he consistently lands these punches.
The Most Likely Outcome?
I nearly always favour the fighter with the better boxing IQ and skills, but this fight is a special case of factors that may be difficult for the better skilled boxer Ward to overcome.
Also, I don’t think many people realise just how sneaky Kovalev is with his set ups. To the untrained eye, they’re hard to recognize when watching on TV and even harder to read in an actual fight.
But for me, the deciding factor of this fight is not who has the better boxing skills because they’re both premier in their own right, nor is it who has the better stamina because they’ve both shown the ability to fight hard through 12 rounds – it’s whether or not Ward can handle Kovalev’s punching power.
I don’t think Ward can avoid getting hit cleanly for 12 rounds; his defense – though great – is not Mayweather or Whitaker great, and I don’t believe Ward is as durable as guys like Hopkins, Pascal and Chilemba.
Ward will be flustered by the first clean punch that lands and will be even more cautious from that point on. Sadly, I think it’ll just be a matter of time before another shot lands and with each passing punch that lands on Ward, any of them can be a potential game changer.
After much deliberating, making cases for both fighters and changing my mind several times; I’m now leaning a lot more towards Sergey Kovalev to win by stoppage, and I would not be surprised if it comes early or late.
This is such a perfect boxing match and probably the best that can be made this year, and the winner deserves to be catapulted to the top of the P4P rankings.
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