LAS VEGAS — Let’s flash back for a moment to last Nov. 16 at the T-Mobile Arena. That is when then-unified three-belt light heavyweight world titleholder Sergey Kovalev and former super middleweight champion Andre Ward, two of boxing’s elite pound-for-pound fighters, put on a highly entertaining battle.
Kovalev knocked Ward down in the second round and looked to be in control through the first half of the fight. But Ward steadily made a comeback and Kovalev began to fade late. Still, when the final bell sounded, most at ringside — and those vocal about the fight on social media — thought that Kovalev had won a close, but clear decision.
So it was a surprise to many — including Ward, judging by the look on his face — that he was announced as the winner, 114-113 on all three scorecards, and handed a pile of title belts.
Kovalev felt robbed and blamed the judges for scoring against him because he was a Russian fighting in America against an American Olympic gold medalist. Ward felt disrespected because few gave him credit for a legitimate victory.
Kovalev immediately exercised his right to an immediate rematch, so here we are. They will square off again in what many expect to be another exciting and competitive fight on Saturday (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET) at the Mandalay Bay Events Center where we can only hope for a conclusive result.
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the big fight:
Andre Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) vs. Sergey Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs) II
What’s at stake
Ward, 33, of Oakland, California, believes he won the first fight. Naturally, he wants to prove it conclusively, retain the belts and perhaps win convincingly enough that he could find himself elevated to No. 1 pound-for-pound at a time when there is really no clear-cut top dog.
“I am looking forward to making a statement in this fight and answering any questions that may be out there and removing any doubt that may be out there, so I’m excited,” said Ward, the last American man to win an Olympic boxing gold medal, doing so in 2004 in Athens. “You got to look at the other side of the coin, there’s a lot of people that thought I won the fight and he got what he asked for [a rematch]. After this, we don’t want to hear any excuses. We don’t want to hear about anything. We’re going to shut the door on this and, like I said, take all doubt and all questions off the table.
“In this sport, I have very little room for error. I always have the pressure on my side no matter if I’m the challenger or the champion. But that’s OK because me and my team, we’ve learned how to deal with the pressure. We know how to deal with it. I come here looking forward to bringing back everything that I brought, including those belts. I did what I had to do the first time. I’m looking to turn it up this time.”
Kovalev, 34, who fights out of Los Angeles, won a 175-pound belt in 2013 before claiming two more with his one-sided beat down of Bernard Hopkins in their 2014 showdown. In all he made eight defenses before the controversial loss to Ward. He wants those straps back so badly that he is fighting not for a guaranteed purse but only for a percentage of the pay-per-view and ticket sales, as opposed to Ward, who got a fat $6.5 million guarantee from his promoter, Roc Nation Sports, even though it means Roc Nation likely will lose money on the event.
“For this fight, I definitely had to get in shape, have different emotions and different motivations,” Kovalev said. “I don’t just want to get my belts back and thank boxing fans for the support. I want to thank my hater. They motivate me to keep going. I want to get my belts, and I’m here for this.
“Yeah, my fists will say it. I’ve already said enough. I want to say to Team Ward, they’ve said a lot of trash to my side, my team. He will pay for everything; I promise you. I appreciate him giving me the opportunity to get my belts back, and on [Saturday] it’s going to be a different fight.”
Who can make the adjustments?
Since Ward and Kovalev know each other now after 12 hard rounds only seven months ago — and since it was so close — obviously both are going to want to add a wrinkle or two to their game. So who can make the better adjustments?
For Ward, he’s clear about at least one — don’t get into such an early hole and get dropped.
“Tactically, I obviously want to have a better start, and I’m going to have a better start,” Ward said. “That’s really what got me in my hole, the start. I’m sure he’s made some adjustments and he’s going to come harder, but I’m ready. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. When you prepare the way you’re supposed to and all the boxes are checked, it’s time to go to work. And I’m going to go to work, having fun and enjoying what I do, and put on a show in the process.”
Virgil Hunter has trained Ward since he was a kid and is charged with implementing the game plan. He said Ward most definitely won’t give Kovalev the same look as in November.
“The opponent definitely won’t see the same fighter in this fight for a number of reasons, no need to disclose,” Hunter said. “But we always go in with several plans or any plan that needs to be implemented at any given time. Of course, I’m not going to ask him to do anything that I know he can’t do or hasn’t worked on or hasn’t practiced, so we’re fortunate enough to be able to adjust and also adapt.”
John David Jackson, Kovalev’s trainer and a former world titleholder himself, said he’s not sure Ward can change much.
“If you’re a fighter and you’re smart, you come in and make adjustments,” he said. “What adjustments can Ward make? He can be more aggressive. If he does, that works in our favor. Is he going to run more? If he does, that works more in our favor. The best thing he can do, as champion, he needs to prove that he won that first fight outright. Which he didn’t. So, now he needs to be a little more aggressive. How much smarter in the ring can he be than what he would be, would he be a tremendous talent as far as boxingwise in the ring? So, you can’t get much more brilliant than he is now. If they’re going to change his game, he has to be more aggressive, he has to be willing to take more chances to prove that he did beat Sergey the first fight, which he did not. So, there’s not much more that he can do than they did for the first fight.
“He’s good at what he does, and that’s surviving and making the fight ugly and win the way he wins. You can’t knock him for that. But can he improve? No, not really.”
For his part, Kovalev said he is who he is. He thinks he won the first fight, so no need to make any major changes.
“He will probably make some adjustments, but he can’t change as a fighter,” Kovalev said. “I will fight the same. I am a fighter, I will not run around. I overrated Ward.”
Overtrained or an excuse?
Although legions thought Kovalev won the November fight, as does Kovalev, he claims the reason he faded late and wound up losing was because he overtrained. Fighters always need an excuse for when they lose. He has his and he’s sticking to it.
“He won two rounds against me as empty Kovalev,” he said. “I remember I was like a heavy bag. Just like a fighter who came in the boxing gym like one month ago. And he’s like right now, ‘Oh yeah, I beat the Kovalev, but he won [against an] empty Kovalev.
“I was empty one month before the November fight. Ward fought an empty Kovalev. This time I will not be empty. Ward will be fighting ‘Krusher.’ I had pushed myself so hard in the beginning of training camp that one month out I was empty. I felt so much pressure for the fight, my first fight on HBO pay-per-view, that I just trained too hard. I did three workouts a day. I tried to do everything faster and stronger. Instead of running five miles, I did eight miles. I did more than I usually do all the time. I overtrained.”
For this fight Kovalev said it won’t be a problem.
“I feel tired, but I feel much better than last training camp,” he said.
Jackson added: “I noticed that this time around his conditioning coach was a bit different. He has him resting more. The other coach had him doing a lot of things that to me were unnecessary. I don’t get in the way of the conditioning coach’s job, and I’m not doing that with this guy, but he seemed more interested in keeping Sergey a little more relaxed and not overtraining.”
It was clear during the lead-up to the first fight that the fighters do not care for each other. Their promoters, Main Events and Roc Nation, despise each other. There has been a constant tit-for-tat between the camps.
Ward has not been vocal about his disdain for Kovalev, but others on his team have had their say. Kovalev, however, has had no problem voicing his views.
“I want to say to Team Ward, they’ve said a lot of trash to my side, my team. He will pay for everything; I promise you,” Kovalev said. “I want to punish him for how he acts right now, and he doesn’t deserve the respect or my attention.
“I don’t like him. I have no reason to like him. It’s not his fault the judges gave him the fight. Instead of saying let’s get in the ring again to prove who the best man is. Instead he acts like a coward like he really won the fight. I saw him [recently] in [a hotel lobby]. We didn’t speak. I just wanted to punch him in the head. I don’t like this guy, and I want to punish him because he puts his nose really up right now. He knows that he lost. I know only one thing: I will kick his ass. I want to destroy him. I want to destroy this guy as a boxer, as a champion. For me he is not a champion, he’s a fake champion. He lives right now with this status; he’s a fake champion. He believes in his victory over me, and right now he’s trying to get belief of people of this victory. It’s wrong, for me, it’s wrong.”
–Ward: Ranks third in plus/minus rankings (+15.1), according to CompuBox. No. 2-ranked light heavyweight and pound-for-pound fighter by ESPN
–Ward: Last American man to win gold at the Olympics in boxing in 2004 (light heavyweight division). 2011 ESPN, BWAA, and Ring fighter of the year
–Ward: 8-0 (1 KO) in world title fights. Thirty-one fights have lasted 7.4 rounds
–Kovalev: Ranks seventh in opponent punches landed per round (7.8), according to CompuBox; weight class average is 16.9
–Kovalev: 9-1 (7 KO) in world title fights. Knocked out 12 of his past 15 opponents
–Kovalev: Only three opponents have lasted 12 rounds (Bernard Hopkins — UD 12, Isaac Chilemba — UD 12, Andre Ward — L 12). Thirty-two fights have lasted an average of 4.0 rounds
Dan Rafael’s prediction: Ward by decision.