Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Kovalev-Ward Controversy?

The world Light-Heavyweight championship fight between undefeated unified WBO/WBA/IBF world champion Sergey Kovalev and undefeated former Super-Middleweight world champion Andre Ward had all the makings of a great fight. An encounter between a champion in Kovalev who had established himself as one of the sport’s feared knockout artists having scored knockouts in twenty-six of thirty-one previous professional fights registering a career knockout percentage of over 80%, and a former world champion in Ward who was seeking his second world championship in as many weight classes and one might argue vindication as one of the best fighters pound for pound in the world following a lengthy period of inactivity due to a well-publicized promotional dispute with his former promoter the late Dan Goossen, which caused Ward to be inactive as a fighter for nearly two years between 2013 and 2015.

Although Ward had remained unbeaten in three bouts since his return to the ring in June 2015, he had not faced opposition that most would consider to be household names. In Kovalev, Ward was presented a challenge. Not only was Kovalev the unified Light-Heavyweight world champion, but he had also dominated all opposition placed before him, successfully defending his world championship eleven times in over three years since winning the title in August 2013. As Kovalev continued to defeat all challengers on his way to unifying three of five world championships in the Light-Heavyweight division, he had also established himself along the way as one of the best fighters in the world.

This appeared to be a classic battle of a fighter known for his punching power in Kovalev against a fighter known for his quick hands, lateral movement, and ability to outbox his opponents in Ward. Kovalev however, had shown in both his unification battle with future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins as well as in his previous title defense against Isaac Chilemba in July of this year that he is much more than a knockout artist and was capable of not only going a twelve round championship distance, but was also underrated in his own ability as a boxer.

It was not surprising when the two fighters got in the ring on November 19th at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV to see Kovalev look to immediately pressure Ward. After all, Kovalev despite displaying his ability as a boxer in recent fights, had built a reputation off of his ability to end a fight early. This was the first time in this observer’s recollection that Ward was put under such pressure so early in a fight.

For a fighter who has had to deal with his share of detractors throughout his career, this would be a fight that Andre Ward would be able to answer some of those critics. The difference in punching power was apparent early on as Kovalev was able to stun Ward with his jab and his right hand. It was a counter right hand from Kovalev that would send Ward down on his knees on the canvas in the second round. Although Ward had been knocked down once previously in his career, in his bout with Darnell Boone ironically exactly eleven years prior to his bout with Kovalev on November 19, 2005; this was the first time Ward had faced this type of adversity.

Even though Kovalev was applying pressure on Ward from the outset of this fight, it was not the type pressure that was consistent in pushing Ward back, but was systematic in that Kovalev fought Ward at a tactical pace and was able to apply pressure in spurts. The first four rounds were dominated by Kovalev in his ability to land the harder punches of the two and dictating the pace of the combat in the eyes of this observer.

Although at the end of four rounds I had Kovalev winning every round plus a round scored 10-8 in his favor in round two because of the knockdown of Ward on my unofficial scorecard, this was a very tactical fight and Ward was able to adjust as it progressed. From rounds five through nine I felt the pace gradually shifted in Ward’s favor as he was able to use movement to offset Kovalev. What was also noticeable during this period the fight was how well Ward was able to execute his offense to Kovalev’s body as well as how he landed small, but effective combinations to the champion’s head.

 As the pace slowed slightly to something that was more in favor of Ward, he was able to gradually work his way back into the fight on my unofficial scorecard as I scored rounds five through nine in his favor. Several of these rounds however, were very close due largely to the pace at which the fight was being fought and there could be a difference of opinion as to who was able to win what this observer has often referred to as “Swing Rounds” where a single moment or solid landed punch may be able to sway opinion as to who got the upper hand in a round. In this observer’s eyes Ward’s ability to land effective body punches and use his lateral movement to dictate the pace as well as Kovalev’s inability to cut the ring off from Ward during this period of the fight is what I based my score on.

This was a bout that can be open to interpretation as to who got the upper hand. Although for much of this fight Kovalev landed the cleaner and harder punches of the two fighters, Ward was able to win rounds not only based on his effective body work and lateral movement, but also based on how well he was able to work the clock by controlling the pace of the rounds he was able to win and executing on his opportunities to throw and land his punches. Sometimes when it comes to close fights it is not always simply who is able to land the harder punches that will ultimately determine who will win a round.

It was nevertheless a very close fight on my scorecard as I had it scored even entering the tenth round. The momentum seemed to shift back and forth in the remaining three rounds of this fight. Kovalev seemed to get the better of the action in round ten as he was able to execute well with his jab and was able to land some effective right hands during the round. The eleventh round I felt went to Ward by a narrow margin based on his movement and his attack to Kovalev’s body. The twelfth and final round was similar in that it was another “Swing Round” in a fight that had several of them. Unlike round eleven however, I felt the champion Kovalev did enough to win the last round narrowly based on his own effective offense to Ward’s body resulting in my scorecard being 114-113 in points for Kovalev, but the fight being even at six rounds a piece in rounds.

It is important to remember that although there was a knockdown in this fight against Ward, it came very early on in the bout and even though a knockdown may leave an impression particularly among casual fans as to who will win a close fight, sometimes a knockdown is not the determining factor. Based on how effective Andre Ward was able to be from rounds five through nine and how narrow the last three rounds were, it did not surprise me to see the official scorecards end up being similar to my own as all three judges scored the fight 114-113, but had Ward as the winner and new Light-Heavyweight world champion.

Although I felt Kovalev won this fight, I can easily see the scorecards going the other way as they did in favor of Ward and can see how some may have scored the fight a draw. It was a fight that was in some ways too close to call and as this observer has often said over the years in regard to close fights it will often boil down to what a judge prefers in their own individual criteria of how they score based on clean punching, effective aggressiveness, ring generalship, and defense.

As is often the case when it comes to close fights, it was also not surprising to see a difference of opinion, anger, and even accusations of potential corruption expressed by Boxing fans shortly after the official decision was announced. On the morning after the fight, this observer polled my followers on Twitter as to who they felt won this fight. 62% of those who participated felt that Kovalev won the fight while 24% felt that Ward did enough to win. The interesting statistic in this observer’s eyes however, was only 14 % of those who participated in this poll felt the fight was a draw.

Of course, only the voters and by extension all Boxing fans can speak for themselves not only as to who they felt won the fight, but why. Even though there are some who have voiced very strong opinions in calling the decision controversial and/or questioning the possibility of potential corruption, this observer does not feel that way.

Although much as is the case with Boxing fans who saw this fight, only the three official judges can speak for themselves as to what they saw and what they based their scores on, I believe a possibility could be based on how effective Andre Ward was with his attack to Sergey Kovalev’s body over the course of the second half of the fight. Even though body punches are not always eye-catching and will not always result in knockdowns and/or knockouts being scored, if a fighter is able to land body punches consistently and is able to do so over the course of a long fight those punches do have an effect most of the time and more importantly they do score points.

Despite the opinion of some that this was fight ended in a “Controversial” decision, this observer feels in an era that sees Boxing fans regularly being asked to pay ever-increasing pay-per-view prices to see Boxing’s top/elite level fighters compete and more often than not the fights do not live up to the hype or the price of which consumers were asked to pay, this was a fight that lived up to the hype and was a Fight of the Year candidate. Regardless of how one might feel in regard to the outcome of this fight, this observer will close this column with comments I made shortly after this fight concluded on social media. “Great fight. Close fight. Rematch warranted.”

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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