One of the most eagerly anticipated fights of the year takes place in Las Vegas tonight, as two of the best fighters on the planet finally face each other live on Sky Sports.
Both Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev have won 30 professional fights against zero defeats, and each man has a claim to be the greatest light heavyweight on Earth. Kovalev is the more comfortable fighter at the weight, having been a world champion at light heavyweight since August 2013 when he travelled to Wales and dismantled Nathan Cleverly.
The Russian has looked virtually unbeatable ever since, with dominant stoppage victories over the likes of Jean Pascal and Nadjib Mohammedi supplemented with points wins over Bernard Hopkins and most recently Isaac Chilemba last July. Much has been made of Kovalev’s fearsome power which has seen him earn 26 wins by stoppage, but the 33-year-old is a crafty boxer who can box to a disciplined game-plan if needed.
His cerebral nature is another factor Ward will have to deal with as Kovalev seems impervious to pressure. Whether it was the decision to continue his destructive boxing style despite Roman Simakov dying three days after their 2011 fight, or traveling abroad to face Nathan Cleverly in Wales and Jean Pascal in Canada, Kovalev continually remains as stoic as as a statue.
Despite being a year older than Ward, Kovalev has boxed exactly half the rounds of his decorated opponent, and has only gone past eight rounds twice. Conversely, Ward has completed the 12 round distance nine times in his career, a statistic which has led to complaints about a so-called ‘boring’ style offered by the American.
That myth has led to the enigmatic becoming a fighter who should be so much more popular than he actually is. The 32-year-old Athens 2004 Olympic gold medallist is unbeaten since 1996, and has rarely looked bothered let alone threatened during his professional career.
One-sided victories at super middleweight over impressive names including Carl Froch, Mikkel Kessler and Arthur Abraham established Ward as the man in that division, but an 18 month spell on the sidelines between 2013 and 2015 threatened to leave him as the forgotten man in boxing.
He is what you what call a Sunday morning fighter, a boxer you want to marvel at with a cup of tea and the dog curled up at your feet, rather than a 5am Saturday night brawler. A comeback victory last year over the ludicrously chosen Paul Smith ignited Ward’s comeback, and two subsequent light heavyweight successes over Sullivan Barrera and Alexander Brand has established his talent at the higher weight class.
If you consider pure boxing fundamentals, Ward has it all. An amazing jab to both head and body help to create many of his innovative attacks, while his sublime footwork and head movement enable him to stay unflustered and untroubled against attacking boxers.
That movement will be key against the swarming Kovalev, who while not possessing the fastest hands in boxing, can change the course of a fight with one punch. This is more than just a boxer vs puncher battle because both men can utilise weaponry that goes beyond their obvious skills.
When Ward sits down on his punches he has disarming power which can stun opponents, while Kovalev’s sense of timing and ring awareness is vastly underrated too. The bookmakers can barely split them, with Ward a narrow ⅘ favourite with Kovalev available outright at evens.
Those anticipating Ward to fluster and eventually break down the Russian could be tempted by him to stop Kovalev between rounds 9 and 12 at 16/1, while those who believe the Russian can exploit Ward’s lack of ring-time against credible opponents can get him to win by stoppage at 9/4.
The highlight of an underwhelming undercard in Las Vegas is the professional debut of two-time Olympic gold medallist Claressa Shields. Elsewhere, Isaac Chilemba meets the highly rated 11-0 Oleksandr Gvozdyk and the undefeated Maurice Hooker fights Darleys Perez at light welterweight.
There is more boxing on television tonight at 8pm on BoxNation where Marco Huck defends his IBF cruiserweight title against Dmytro Kucher. Huck is one of the most entertaining fighters in boxing, and became a cruiserweight champion again in February after stopping Ola Afolabi in the tenth round.
His opponent tonight is known to British fans for finishing Enzo Maccarinelli inside the first three minutes of their bout in June, and the Ukrainian has won by stoppage 18 times in his career. Expect Huck to assert his top-level experience with a stoppage victory at 13/8 odds
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