After enduring something resembling its own annus horribilis in 2016, mid-November finally sees boxing play its (ahem) trump card. With a strong end-of-year schedule looking to buck the trend of frustration and bluster that blighted most of the ten or so months prior, fans will go into the new year with higher expectations than can be considered prudent in a sport like this one.
Saturday night, however, we get to see the jewel in the crown. On paper, an unbeaten Sergey Kovalev versus an unbeaten Andre Ward for three of the four major light-heavyweight belts isn’t just the best fight that’s been made this year, it’s one of the very best this decade.
What’s particularly great about this match-up, and what’s so utterly refreshing about it, is that there aren’t any notable caveats. Sure, Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs) isn’t the lineal champion at 175lb, but Gennady Golovkin isn’t the lineal champion at middleweight, and we all know who the best middleweight on the planet is. Adonis Stevenson – the man who beat the man – seems quite content whiling away the tail end of his career against half-tests in Quebec and, approaching 40 years old, it’s probably too late to teach that particular mutt any new tricks.
Unlike, say, Mayweather-Pacquiao, there’s no lingering sense that this fight has been made a few years too late. We could go on. There’s no nagging feeling that either man has been damaged by a heavy beating in a previous contest. There’s no asterisk about a catchweight. There are no worries about either man killing themselves to make 175lb, or – in a year of fighters jumping multiple weight divisions only to get predictably bludgeoned – no concern over a protagonist compromising their ability by making too much of a leap.
While there’s a case to be made that Andre Ward (30-0, 15 KOs) is the best super-middleweight of all time, he’s taken the time to acclimate to his new division. Tortuous though the wait for this bout may have been, few would argue he’s anything other than the world’s #3 light-heavyweight today, at the very worst.
We’re often told in boxing, in a patois probably most politely referred to as ‘promoter speak’, that a fight is 50-50, when a cursory glance at the odds reveals that one man is listed as the heavy – or decidedly firm – favourite. Mercifully, that’s not the case here, but that’s no surprise considering the match-up at hand.
At time of writing, Andre Ward is the slight betting favourite, as he has been since the fight was announced. These, though, are fine margins, and there’s been little movement since those initial lines were posted. It’s Betfair and Paddy Power who currently take market-best position on Ward, with -125 (4/5 in fractional odds) available on the Californian to win by any means. That price suggests a Ward victory is 55.56% likely and, though the most pedantic would argue that this too is not therefore a 50-50, in a three-horse race (including the draw), that’s damn near as close as it gets. At the opposite end of a very compact spectrum, the very leanest quote to be found on Ward is -188 (8/15), with the majority of firms across the UK and Europe settling around the -133 (3/4) mark.
The Russian, then, assumes the largest quote we’ve seen on him since travelling to Cardiff to challenge Nathan Cleverly in 2013, when he made a downright mockery of his best-priced evens tag by demolishing the Welshman inside four rounds. Here, though, Kovalev is available to back at a bigger price than ever before – though it should be said that Ward, too, hasn’t been this close to that even-money mark since starting off as an underdog against Mikkel Kessler in his Super Six bow over seven years ago.
Increasingly, though, the quality shown by both Kovalev and Ward have meant that backers have been required to be creative with the side markets to make reasonable returns from the two fighters’ dominance. Since dismantling Chad Dawson as a -400 (1/4) favourite, Ward has swatted away the dubious challenges of Edwin Rodriguez (Ward -1500, 1/15), Paul Smith (Ward -5000, 1/50), Sullivan Barrera (Ward -700, 1/7), and Alexander Brand (Ward -10000, 1/100), a sequence of opponents that ranges from the hapless to the overmatched, and somewhere in-between.
Kovalev, meanwhile – free from the promotional wrangles and injuries that so hampered Ward’s past few years – has been considerably busier, albeit with few chances taken by the oddsmakers. A somewhat laboured win last time out against renowned spoiler Isaac Chilemba (Kovalev -6600) was, in theory, a decent warm-up for Ward, but won’t have made the Russian many new fans. Kovalev beat all hell out of Jean Pascal once as the -800 (1/8) fancy and then, curiously, was made to do it all over again (-1400 in the rematch), but it’s the win over Bernard Hopkins (Kovalev -250 favourite) that’s the best on his ledger to date. Ward’s likely to present a similar stylistic challenge along with an altogether more considerable physical threat.
Two truly elite, unbeaten fighters facing off in their prime and an intriguing clash of styles should mean that there’s little chance this disappoints, right? Well, maybe. Opinion seems split. Conventional wisdom suggests that if Ward imposes himself in the early rounds, he could turn this into an inside fight, a gruelling, sapping affair at close quarters with a focus on body work, where Kovalev has shown just glimpses that he could be a little vulnerable.
There are few fighters today, if any, as relentless and ring-smart as Ward, and the key to this fight is whether the Oakland native can take Kovalev’s power early, because, after all, few have. If Ward withstands – or simply bypasses - the initial assault and succeeds in closing the distance and taking away a ramrod Kovalev jab, he holds all the cards. There’s a real contrast, too, in how each man approaches their work – Ward has more than a touch of the devil about him but, while mean, is cool and often near-unflappable. Conversely, Kovalev is a discernibly an emotional fighter - the man in the other corner is often not an opponent, but an enemy, and both Pascal and Ismail Sillakh, among others, can attest to the fact to the unified titleholder’s ferocity.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Ward won’t be outboxed on Saturday night, and that’s reflected in the +550 (11/2) on Kovalev to work his way to a decision. Nobody’s come that close, really, to beating Ward on the cards, and should the fight go the distance (-163, or 8/13 to do so – it’s 11/8, +138 to end early) it feels like it’s the American who’ll be the man in control. The layers make a Ward decision comfortably the most likely of the methods of victory, and that can be backed at +110 (11/10), with 7/4 (+175) available should you want to back that he’ll win unanimously with all three judges. An interesting point of note is that Ward, in completed 12-round bouts, has only ever won UDs – a pretty remarkable statistic in itself, and a sequence it’d take a brave man to oppose here.
For Kovalev, the path to victory surely lies in successfully establishing the jab early. Fail to do so and it could be a long, disheartening night for him. Should he manage to dictate the range, avoid the clinch, and set up his own power shots – an area where he holds the edge over virtually every light-heavyweight in the world, perhaps Stevenson aside – it’s possible he could take Ward out of his comfort zone and into a contest where his right hand is the punch that’s dictating proceedings. A Kovalev stoppage, say the oddsmakers, is by far his most likely route to victory and can be found at +225 (9/4).
A Ward win inside the distance might feel like the most remote of possibilities here, but there’s an argument it’s not as far-fetched as some might think. From this viewpoint, at least, if Ward’s able to really get to work on the inside and rough up Kovalev we’re going into unchartered territory. Add in the faint bonus of the DQ in what could be a fairly chippy contest into the price and the industry-best +1000 (10/1 – but between +600 and +700 more generally) does have more appeal than at first inspection. It’s +350 (7/2) that Kovalev is knocked down at any point, and +163 (13/8) for Ward to hit the canvas. The draw can be backed between +2500 and +2800 (25/1 to 28/1), which, given the unsatisfactory conclusion it’d likely provide (unless, of course, you’ve backed it with your own money) would probably be quite fitting for the year we’ve had.