Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward: Head-to-Toe Breakdown of Title Fight

Kevin McRae@@McRaeWritesFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2016

Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward: Head-to-Toe Breakdown of Title Fight

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    Boxing fans finally have something to look forward to in what's been a year of disappointments. 

    Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward, two of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, are set to meet November 19 on HBO pay-per-view for the Russian's unified light heavyweight championship, per HBO Boxing.

    The two fighters reached an agreement earlier this year that was contingent on each man first winning an interim bout before their superfight could be finalized. That seemed like a formality, but boxing fans can now breathe easy knowing the big fight is officially a go.

    Kovalev dropped veteran contender Isaac Chilemba and pounded out a gritty unanimous decision in front of his hometown fans in Russia this past July. Ward easily took a shutout from the woefully overmatched Alexander Brand in a dreadful fight last Saturday on HBO. 

    Those two bouts cleared the path for the official announcement of what is easily the most significant fight of 2016. It's a rarity in boxing these days, with fighters seeking out big paydays over big challenges, for a true 50/50 fight to come along at this level, but that's what fans will see in November.

    Read on for our complete head-to-toe breakdown of Kovalev vs. Ward!

Fight Info

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    Main Event: Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward; 12 rounds for Kovalev's WBA, WBO and IBF Middleweight Championships

    Where: Not official, but believed to be the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

    When: November 19, 2016

    TV: HBO PPV

The Fighters

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
     Sergey KovalevAndre Ward
    Record30-0-1, 26 KO30-0, 15 KO
    Age3332
    Height6'0"6'0"
    Weight174.5 (last fight)175 (last fight)
    Reach72.5"71"
    StanceOrthodoxOrthodox
    HometownKopeyskRussiaSan FranciscoCalifornia
    Rounds114218
    Last FightUD 12 Isaac Chilemba (7/11/16)UD 12 Alexander Brand (8/6/16)

    All stats and information per BoxRec.com.

What You Need to Know

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    Kovalev

    Kovalev has put together one of the best light heavyweight runs in recent memory over the past couple years, steamrolling quality fighters and capturing three-fourths of the 175-pound titles without so much as being challenged. He's the top dog in his division and one of the best fighters in the sport.

    The Russian Krusher holds wins over ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins—the most complete beatdown of the future Hall of Famer's career—and a pair over former lineal champion Jean Pascal, the second more brutal than the first. 

    Kovalev recently dropped and pounded out a unanimous decision over the gritty Chilemba in his final tune-up bout before moving on to the biggest challenge of his career. He's like a terminator in the ring, relentlessly stalking his foe and going to work with the coldness and detachment of a machine.

    Ward

    Ward is a purist's dream and a hardcore boxing fan's nightmare. He's so technically sound and intelligent in the ring that he makes things look easy, but his unwillingness to take risks and challenge himself is enough to drive you crazy at times.

    He has the talent and skill to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, but his momentum stalled because of extended layoffs caused by a combination of injury and legal complications with his late now-former promoter. The guy who dominated the Super Six to become undisputed 168-pound king suffered from being out of sight and out of mind.

    Ward moved up to the light heavyweight division for the express purpose of seeking out Kovalev, a gutsy move and the "dare to be great" challenge many fight fans were hoping of him.

Boxing Ability

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    Kovalev

    As crazy as it might sound, the Russian's boxing ability might even be a tad underrated. He had his moments of difficulty against the awkward Chilemba, but the general trend in his technical boxing has been an upward one since he burst on the scene by blasting Nathan Cleverly to win his first world title in 2013. 

    Kovalev is an extremely methodical fighter. He has huge power—he knows it, his opponents know it—but he doesn't come flying in and rely on his power to bail him out of tight spots. That power allows him to dictate the time and space of the fight and maneuver his opponent into vulnerable positions where he can go to work.

    Ward

    There probably isn't another fighter in the game today who can compare to Ward's pure technical boxing brilliance. The guy has the ability to think three and four steps ahead of his opponent, and his ability to make things look so easy perhaps gives some people license to sleep on him a bit. What he does isn't easy, he just makes it look that way.

    Ward can fight you at any distance. He's tremendous at range, but where he can really showcase his skills is on the inside. That's where he's able to use his strength and smarts to put his opponent into position for his scoring punches. His biggest advantage is his boxing IQ, which, hands down, is the best in the game. 

    Advantage

    Ward is the more technically sound fighter. That's not a knock on Kovalev, who has made tremendous improvements—entering this conversation alone is proof of that—but he's coming up against a guy with the type of innate boxing ability that cannot be taught no matter how many hours you spend in the gym.

Power

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    Kovalev

    They don't call you the Krusher without good reason. 

    Kovalev hits like a truck. His power is his biggest asset, and he can hurt you with every single punch he throws. This is the guy who knocked out Cedric Agnew with a jab to the body and had Hopkins declaring him the hardest puncher he's ever faced on HBO's broadcast of Ward-Brand.

    That's not small praise, and it's a testament to the type of heat Kovalev brings to the party.

    Ward 

    Power just isn't Ward's game. 

    He carries just 15 knockouts among his 30 professional wins—including carrying Brand a dreadful 12 rounds last Saturday night—and has stopped just two of his last 10 opponents dating back to the beginning of the Super Six. One of those was on cuts and the other Chad Dawson, who was weight drained.

    Ward landed some heavy leather against Brand but never dinged the awkward Colombian, who was just there for the experience, leading us to wonder how much of his power has translated to 175 pounds.

    Advantage

    This is a clear-cut category in the Kovalev column.

    Ward is a strong physical fighter, but Kovalev's power is scary.

Defense

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    Kovalev

    Kovalev doesn't have any major weaknesses, but his defense is probably toward the lower end of his skill set. That's not to say it's bad, just that it's not the strongest part of his game.

    He's not terribly difficult to hit, and he has been put on the deck during his career, though a knockdown against Blake Caparello was clearly of the flash variety.

    Jean Pascal tagged him a bunch in their first fight, so Team Kovalev might want to do a bit of work tightening up this part of the fighter's game ahead of facing one of the sport's premier precision punchers.

    Ward

    Ward has a tremendous sense of ring distance and timing. That all begins with his left jab, which he puts out there as both a rangefinder and a disruptor to keep his opponent out of range and unable to commit. 

    He doesn't present a stationary target, ever. Brand, granted no world beater, landed single digits per round at best against him in his most recent fight.

    Ward uses tremendous footwork to maneuver out of the range of his opponent's punches. When he throws punches of his own, he has a tendency to lean or duck his upper body in ways that make it extremely difficult for an opponent to return fire.

    Advantage

    Ward. 

    His movement and general skill in the defensive department rank near the top of the sport. This is probably his single biggest advantage coming into the fight.

Game Plan

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    Kovalev

    Kovalev needs to keep Ward at the end of his punches and vary his offensive attack to avoid becoming predictable, which would be game over against a fighter this smart and skilled. He needs to keep some distance to avoid falling into the clinch, where Ward is very effective, and having his shots smothered.

    The jab will be an interesting shot in this fight. It's one of Kovalev's better punches, but he can't be lazy about throwing it out there or Ward will easily counter. He might want to focus it more toward the chest and body, since Ward's head movement is so good. That keeps him out of counter range and can open up the head later in the fight.

    Kovalev should not go gunning for a KO. It's probably not going to come. He should focus on cutting off the ring and taking away Ward's ability to circle out of attacking range. That should force him into awkward positions that require him to lunge in and become susceptible to powerful counter hooks.

    Ward

    Ward is likewise comfortable at distance, but he's equally adept (if not better) on the inside where he can muscle people, smother their shots and beat them up with sharp punches from odd angles. Carl Froch described him as always too close or too far away after their Super Six matchup, and that's what he needs here.

    As crazy as it sounds, given Kovalev's power and reputation, Ward wants to keep this fight on the inside as much as possible. The perception is that the Russian bomber will have a decided strength advantage, but don't sleep on Ward. He's physically tough and can hang with any man.

    Ward needs to be aggressive. If he can shock Kovalev a bit with his attack then he can force him off-kilter, and an off-kilter fighter is one prone to make the type of mistakes that can be exploited by a fighter with this boxing IQ.

    Advantage

    This is a tough call.

    Ward is the best technical fighter Kovalev has ever seen, while Kovalev is the most devastating puncher Ward has ever gotten into a ring with. That's the thing about these 50-50 fights. You could legitimately go either way.

    Unpopular as this might be, we're calling this one a push.

Early Prediction

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    Picking this fight is virtually impossible.

    There will be some who will tell you they're 100 percent confident that Ward's technical skill will carry the day, and there will be others who feel Kovalev's power will be the difference. The truth is they can't tell you with certainty what will happen—nor can I—on November 19.

    It's a pick-em fight. It's 50-50. Pick your poison. 

    Anything can happen.

    That said, we're not going to cop out. We'll make a pick and tell you why.

    You'll then tell us in the comments section why we're wrong, and you might well be right. 

    Sergey Kovalev will win this fight, and he'll do it by decision. 

    Don't take that to the bank, because it's a 51-49 type prediction that will probably change another hundred times between now and Michael Buffer telling us it's time to get ready to rumble. 

    So, why Kovalev and not Ward?

    The one thing that we keep coming back to is that Ward just hasn't been in the ring with this level of opponent in such a long time. Hell, he's never been in there with a vicious puncher with the mean streak of Kovalev. 

    Paul Smith, Sullivan Barrera and Alexander Brand do not prepare you—particularly after another extended layoff—for a guy like the Krusher. They give you rounds, sure, but not a whole lot else.

    Kovalev had his share of struggles against Chilemba, who was picked specifically for a style that somewhat approximates Ward's. But Kovalev will bring those lessons with him on fight night and outmuscle Ward on the inside, force him to distance and carry the fight with his power.

    Of that, we are not the slightest bit confident.

    Prediction: Kovalev by decision.