The central premise of this article — that Andre ‘S.O.G’ Ward is a smarter, more obdurate fighter than Sergey ‘Krusher’ Kovalev, meaner, dirtier, surpassingly vicious, constituted by sturdier mettle and equipped with a finer instinct for seeing weakness — is, to savvy boxing fans, a statement of the obvious. After all, Ward had shown these qualities versus men of fine pedigree before. Six-and-a-half years ago he out-toughed Carl Froch to win the Super Six tournament, showing an unyielding hardness believed then to be the Englishman’s dominion.
Sergey Kovalev has rarely evinced these traits. A skilled boxer who easily steered himself through the division’s second tier, not once in his previous fights had “Krusher” been thrust into the inferno, even in his first bout with Jean Pascal, whom he savagely humiliated in their rematch. In his only loss, last November against Ward, Kovalev relented in the fight’s second half but absorbed no heavy damage.
That result – a unanimous decision win for “S.O.G.,” thought by many to be the wrong result – drove Kovalev to promise he would end Ward’s career in the rematch. It was a comment consistent with his history of bloodletting: Kovalev takes undisguised joy in inflicting pain, and the ease with which he’s made profane, sometimes racist dismissals of his competitors, twinned with his capacity to harm, once fatally, has cultivated a chilling mystique that his promoters would have been wise to capitalize on.
But on Saturday, the impenetrable, detached, unfeeling Russian was beaten into literal submission by a man whose post-fight interviews begin with a paean to Jesus. Ward felled Kovalev with a variety of blows whose trajectory came from a depth more synonymous with hell than heaven.
Backed against the ropes and bent over, as though pleading for leniency with the dark force below that had once been his wellspring, Kovalev was reduced to a broken fighter. In this moment, the inhumanity that made him so interesting ceded to an all-too human fallibility. Ward’s strength had made him weak.
Our perception of Kovalev, indivisible from the pop culture prejudices from which we form our world views — that he was too hard, too mean, and too Russian to possibly ever submit — had been shattered by an articulate, sometimes condescending American boxer who is unloved by fans because of the distant length at which he’s kept them.
Before Saturday, there was much talk of how little interest there was for a fight of such magnitude. The apathy was traced to the poor promotional efforts of Rock Nation and Main Events, and the scant marketability of either leading man. Only the first part of this sentence is true. For reasons previously mentioned, Sergey Kovalev is an intriguing fighter whose dark compliment of skill and personality commands one’s attention. Ward is a different story. Sanctimonious, stubborn and convinced of his own mistreatment, his personality lacks easy appeal. Prior to the rematch, he didn’t participate in a scheduled HBO Face-off, which fortified the impression he’s an arrogant “star,” unwilling to make concessions.
But on Saturday Andre Ward showed more of his soul than he could in any television interview, and the desperation with which he fights is more endearing than any forced repartee with Max Kellerman. He possesses the truest form of toughness, because maiming those you’re supposed to, as Kovalev had done before meeting ‘S.O.G.’, is more exhibition than competition, and never forces the victor to ask himself what he’ll endure to win. Far more difficult is excelling in circumstances in which making the effort isn’t much fun. While the perception of Kovalev had been one of indomitability, Ward turned reality into an instrument of his will and made clear this perception was false.
What did we learn about Ward Saturday night? Very little that we didn’t already know, as wizened fans have long been privy to his elemental meanness. What we did see, however, and perhaps more clearly than during any fight before, is the passion with which Ward approaches his craft.
The obstinacy that has alienated him from fans allows Ward to access recesses of his heart that Kovalev will never touch. “Krusher,” it seems, is fuelled by hatred of his opponent, like a self-loathing master who seeks empowerment by whipping his slave. Ward, the arrogant, defiant Greek hero, gathers strength from love of himself, and this latter source of motivation is more capable of oxygenating the heart when one’s other body parts begin to fail.
Winning boxing matches is how Ward seeks distinction. He cares only about proving himself the best and will employ questionable methods to stake this claim. In a sport meant to starkly reveal the contents of its competitors’ souls, Ward’s ruthless self-regard is his defining truth. In the ring, he is humanized by his haughtiness, and like a monomaniacal artist this arrogance prevents him from giving anything less than maximum effort. The surprise for the savvy boxing fan, then, may be that it’s precisely his refusal to betray himself that makes Andre Ward likeable.
— Eliott McCormick
Photos by Jeff Lockhart.