On paper, tonight’s clash between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev is the sort of fight boxing desperately craves. It pits two undefeated champions in their primes against one another. It offers an intriguing clash of styles, the puncher versus the technician supreme. It is, according to no less than The New Yorker, the Fight of the Year in boxing. And yet there’s a pretty decent chance you may not have even noticed it was taking place tonight.
For that, there is plenty of blame to go around, much of which lies with the narrow favorite, Ward. Ward, you see, is not terribly interesting in fighting. Now 32, the downhill side of a career for most boxers, he has deigned to step in the ring only thrice in the past three years, all of which came against hopelessly outmatched foes. Even worse, he’s not that interested in fighting even when he’s in the ring. He doesn’t care a whit about knockouts, eye-catching exchanges, or anything else that casual fans might enjoy. His fights almost invariably lack drama and excitement. What Ward possesses in excess, however, is ring competence. If one word summarizes Ward’s success, it is ability.
By contrast, Sergey Kovalev, a man quite justifiably nicknamed Krusher, is brutality personified. He stalks his prey patiently, with the dedication and detachment of a professional hitman. His heavy handed punches rarely produce one punch knockouts but instead, as his name suggests, crush bones, organs and flesh until his overmatched foe’s body crumbles from under him. Sergey Kovalev is a wrecking ball. If one word summarizes Kovalev’s succcess, it is talent.
Ability is a very different thing than talent. I was reflecting on this recently as we watched perhaps the starkest contrast between these frequently-conflated qualities during our recent presidential campaign. The political ability of Hillary Clinton – the most prepared and qualified candidate ever to seek the White House in the estimation of many – was never in question. What was in short supply, however, was her political talent, a point only underscored by comparisons to her husband, among the most charismatic and talented politicians in history. As Hillary herself recognized, her popularity plummeted each time she ran for office. It was only when she assumed office, and her ability took over, that her popularity would gradually creep above the political Mendoza Line. Her opponent, Donald Trump – now, somehow our President-Elect – by contrast, is almost totally devoid of ability. This is, after all, a man who somehow managed to bankrupt a casino, an outcome which even 7th grade math says should be impossible. A man who invested in real estate in Manhattan 40 years ago, before the biggest run up in prices in its history, and somehow has been outperformed by the equivalent of a monkey throwing darts at the stock pages. And yet, for all his failures (and they are legion), Trump, nevertheless, inescapably possesses talent. How else to explain his nine lives: the seemingly bottomless appetite the public has for his books, reality shows, and other spectacles, and the countless times he has bounced back from crippling disasters that would have destroyed mere mortals?
It was interesting then, that one of Trump’s first high profile meetings as President was with boxer Floyd Mayweather, the rarest of fighters who possessed both boxing talent and boxing ability in excess. Mayweather’s physical gifts were never in dispute: he was blindingly fast, his reflexes may have been the best in the history of the sport, and his physical condition and proportions – with shockingly long arms for a man of his stature – were remarkable. None of these qualities, however, would have made Mayweather into the all-time great he indisputably is, absent his remarkable ability to control his opponent in the ring. His mind, more than his hands, arms, or legs, made Mayweather the dominant fighter of his era. He established his position at precisely the right point to exploit the reach advantage he carried into almost every fight, his employed his quick trigger reflexes to dodge any punches his foolhardy foes would launch from their disadvantaged location, and finally used his blinding speed to counter punch and reset his position before his opponent even knew what had happened. His opponents, even – perhaps especially – those with greater physical gifts, quickly became discouraged and, by the middle rounds, the fight inevitably shifted into the all-too-familiar dance of a hopelessly broken bull listlessly charging at a triumphant and unmarked matador. It was a blueprint for success premised on Mayweather’s physical talents, but which depended on his unique ability to successfully execute it.
Ability is a very different thing than talent. Andre Ward, the man who succeeded Mayweather as the number one Pound for Pound fighter in the world on many lists, possesses almost none of Floyd’s God-given talents. He is not particularly fast, his punches are clean and effective but not particularly hard, his reflexes are good but unremarkable. Indeed, almost nothing he does elicits oohs or aahs from the crowd. And yet, Andre Ward is nevertheless supremely able. He didn’t lose a single match in his last six years as an amateur, culminating in an Olympic Gold medal in 2004. In 2009, he entered Showtime’s “Super Six” tournament, featuring six of the best Super Middleweight (168 lbs) fighters in the world as a significant underdog, but hardly broke a sweat in winning each of his matches against a series of tremendously accomplished and dangerous foes. And while his career has stagnated since then due to a petulant contractual dispute with his former promoter, the late Dan Goossen, and his frustrating decision to spend more time calling fights from ringside as a member of HBO’s crew than participating in them, he’s never had even a moment of doubt in any of his recent fights. Andre Ward just wins.
How on earth has he achieved this record of success when his skill set is so visibly pedestrian? Because Andre Ward has the best intuition of any fighter alive today. Andre Ward’s only super power is his almost telepathic ability to predict what his opponent will do next. It is almost eerie if you know what to look for; Ward effortlessly and knowingly glides out of the way of punches and set up his own in return as if he exists a split second ahead in time of his rivals. Like he’s a visitor from the future who has already watched this fight unfold on tape a dozen times; some kind of boxing Charles van Doren answering questions to which he’s already received the answer. He’s less a fighter than an in-ring radiologist, exposing even the most tiny hidden defects in his opponent’s game for all to see, and then calmly, professionally, clinically, progresses inexorably towards victory.
In recent memory, only one other fighter achieved so much success in the ring with so little physical talent: Evander Holyfield. Like Ward, a devout Christian, like Ward, an Olympic gold medalist, Holyfield too had no physical attributes that stood out other than a remarkable chin (Holyfield was stopped only twice in nearly 60 professional fights spread over four decades, and in neither case was he actually out). Holyfield – a blown up cruiserweight – possessed punching power that was below average for a heavyweight, and his speed and reflexes were merely average. Like Ward, in spite of this lack of talent, Holyfield became a huge success, one of the greatest heavyweight champions in history. Sure, Holyfield employed a very different style than has Ward. Unlike the contact-averse Ward, Holyfield loved to mix it up, confident that his solid schooling and unmatched will to win would carry him to victory irrespective of his opponent’s edge in talent. But, at the end of the day, the two men share a common path to success: both use their superior mental power and ability to overcome anything they gave away in terms of talent.
Ability is a very different thing than talent. Sergey Kovalev possesses none of Ward’s ability. He’s a jittery fighter with what appears to be a weak mind incapable of concepts like defense or strategy. He’s a simpleton whose idea of playing head games with his opponent is to wear a shirt depicting one potential foe, a black man, as a gorilla (this after an already established history of making what can at best be described as racially insensitive comments). He can also be easily shook; even pre-fight banter sometimes seems to leave him looking visibly nervous.
And yet, in spite of his glaring mental weakness, Kovalev’s talents make him an unstoppable force of nature in the ring. “The most sinister presence … in boxing,” according to HBO’s Jim Lampley. Never was this more clear than in his one-sided win over boxing’s elder statesman, the then-nearly-50 years old Bernard Hopkins, in which Kovalev did what no other fighter ever has and made The Executioner look downright amateurish. He batters foes with sledgehammer-like punches that reduce bone to dust, organs to mush, and flesh to a pulsing pate. And not only can he dish punishment out, he can take it as well. Kovalev has gone to war with some serious punchers, and eaten shots that should topple any man, seemingly without any ill effects. Kovalev is a transubstantiated Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot.
If Ward can be analogized to Holyfield, it’s only natural to compare Kovalev to Holyfield’s great nemesis, Mike Tyson. Tyson represents perhaps the greatest abundance of talent over ability in boxing history. Blazing fast in terms of both his hands and feet, with a set of the most wicked, devastating punches in history, Tyson was an unchecked storm in the ring. Arriving on the scene as a teenager, he blew over men twice his age and with twice his experience with the effortless ferocity of a tsunami bowling over a sand castle. Foes cried, prayed, even attempted to flee the ring to avoid Tyson’s epic, almost biblical, rage. It was easy for anyone in the mid-1980s to believe they were watching the greatest talent in boxing history.
And, yet, it was a mediocre talent named Buster Douglas who first exposed what Holyfield later proved: that for all his talent, Tyson was totally devoid of ability. Push back on the bully just a bit and he would fold. Step into the eye of the storm and the ferocity vanishes. Tyson was, not to put too fine a point on it, a coward. A supremely talented coward, sure, but a coward nevertheless. And not only was he a coward, he was a particularly mentally weak one, a fighter who never was capable of developing a Plan B if Plan A – blitz your opponent into quick and total submission – failed to work. Some people chalk up Tyson’s lack of development of a fighter to the loss of his childhood trainer, Cus d’Amato. This is wishful thinking. The forces that ultimately pulled Tyson into oblivion (or, Bolivia, as he would say) were as real, permanent and unrelenting as gravity. Tyson was not able to control his fear, not able to control his emotions, not able to harness his physical gifts. And, against a supremely able foe like Holyfield, Tyson’s nature twice was revealed: in the first fight, he was unable to cope with Holyfield’s relentlessness and slowly retreated into a posture of surrender; in their second fight, in a moment we shall never forget, Tyson’s continued inability to deal with Holyfield’s superior schooling and indomitable nature led him to quit the fight in the most cowardly way possible.
Ward is not Holyfield, nor is Kovalev Mike Tyson, but there are clues from those fights that may presage both men’s future. For Ward, he can take heart in knowing that Holyfield’s David and Goliath-like conquest of Tyson propelled him into a level of superstardom he never could have achieved on his own. Coming off a mediocre showing against Alexander Brand, just as Holyfield was coming off a mediocre showing against Bobby Czyz when he stepped into the ring versus Tyson, Ward has a chance to show the world that he too can play the role of dragon slayer. If he succeeds tonight, perhaps finally, he will be ready to assume Mayweather’s mantle of pay per view king to go with his pound for pound crown.
For Kovalev, the lesson may be more dire. Tyson was never the same after Holyfield. He never won another fight of significance, fighters ceased fearing him, ceased to view him as an unbeatable force, and he gradually sank further and further into mediocrity, until he finished his career being stopped by an anonymous Irishman named Kevin McBride, a guy who went 2-6 against mediocre competition after being the last man to dispose of the former Kid Dynamite. Fighters like Kovalev, fighters who depend on intimidation and brutality, age poorly once beaten. Like the fictional Ivan Drago, once wounded, they never regain their air of invincibility.
Ability is a very different thing than talent. And, in boxing, when the two are matched, it is ability that usually triumphs. For that reason, I am picking Ward, and I am picking him by a wide margin, far wider than the close odds would suggest. Kovalev is perhaps the most dangerous fighter that Ward has ever faced, but Kovalev has never faced anyone with even remotely the ability of Ward. Even Hopkins, a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer who can still perform at a shockingly high level for a man of his vintage, couldn’t possibly compare to Ward at this stage in his career, if he ever could. Andre Ward may be dull, he may lack what Kovalev has in god-given talent, but he is supremely, even historically, able. I give Kovalev’s talent no more than one shot in ten to upset Ward’s ability.
In other words, about the same odds Donald Trump was given of upsetting Hillary Clinton.