by Malaika Kambon
This fight, Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev, felt like the Jack Johnson vs. James J. Jeffries fight of July 4, 1910, between world heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson and undefeated, coming out of retirement heavyweight contender, James J. Jeffries.
Both fights were billed as the “Fight of the Century.” Both occurred during a time of hostility and escalating racial tensions between Afrikan people and people of European descent – and in a U.S. known for its Jim Crow laws and the rise of the KKK.
While one featured a boxing champion, Jeffries, who had to be lured out of retirement with $120,000, an almost unheard of sum in 1910 – equivalent to nearly $3 million in 2016 – the other featured a boxing champion who declared himself The Krusher and attempted all manner of questionable tactics in an effort to retain boxing titles which, ultimately, he was not qualified to claim.
Both Jack Johnson and Andre Ward faced adversities that were designed to topple them from their positions of strength as undefeated boxing champions.
Four titles were on the line between the two fights, Jack Johnson’s World Heavyweight title, and Sergey Kovalev’s WBA, IBF and WBO light heavyweight titles.
Both fights occurred in an atmosphere of gambling casinos, as both fights were a major gambling investment. Both fights occurred in the same state, though 106 years apart and with different geographical locations: The Johnson vs. Jeffries battle occurred in a specially built stadium in Reno, Nevada, while the Ward vs. Kovalev fight occurred in Nevada’s new T-Mobile Stadium in Las Vegas.
Both Jeffries and Kovalev thought that they could rush in, overpower their respective opponents and knock them out within the first few rounds, as though they were somehow entitled to do so. Both men were wrong, and their attitudes ultimately cost them the fight and their prominence in history.
Unlike the Johnson vs. Jeffries fight, Ward was a slight favorite over Kovalev (in the U.S.) while Jeffries was his country’s “Great White Hope,” in a national frenzy whipped up by the media stating that by virtue of his race, he was entitled to beat an Afrikan champion, no matter what.
Was Jeffries entitled by virtue of race to beat Jack Johnson? No. Was Sergey Kovalev entitled, by virtue of his race to beat Andre Ward? No. It seemed, however, that some of his supporters thought so, judging by the invective and racial epithets this reporter heard from my seat in the 17th row press box.
There are other similarities between the two fights.
The attendance figures were nearly the same. The Johnson vs. Jeffries fight occurred on July 4, 1910, before a standing room only audience of 20,000, while the Ward vs. Kovalev fight occurred on Nov. 19, 2016 – 106 years, 4 months and 15 days later – to a nearly full house of 13,310.
This is indeed poetic justice, because this is where the similarities between these two fights end.
In 1910, the fight of the century was sponsored by those who wanted to see Jack Johnson defeated and offered James J. Jeffries $120,000 to lure him out of retirement, after badgering the undefeated champion for months. Jack Johnson won a purse of $65,000 and the title of undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, after defeating Jeffries so convincingly that his corner threw in the towel. All critics were silenced.
The 12-round Ward vs. Kovalev “mega fight” for the WBO, WBA and IBF light heavyweight title was presented by Main Events, ROC Nation Sports, Krusher Promotions, and Andre Ward Promotions and sponsored by the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, Corona Extra, Zappos, JetLux and Monster Products; and it was produced and distributed live by HBO Pay-Per-View.
There was a first ever historic debate between two trainers, John David Jackson and Virgil Hunter.
For only the second time in history, ROC Nation featured the professional boxing debuts of two women, many times decorated Franchon Crew and two-time Olympic gold medalist Clarissa Shields. The first time ever featured Raquel Miller vs. Sara Flores. Ms. Miller (2-0, 1 TKO) won her bout, as did Ms. Shields (1-0).
Andre “Son of God” Ward – now 31-0, 15 KOs – is the new WBA, IBF and WBO light heavyweight champion after winning a unanimous decision, 114-113, from three judges over Sergey Kovalev, who is now 30-1-1, 26 KOs. The day’s earnings were $5 million and $1 million respectively.
Jack Johnson retained his world heavyweight title and earned $65,000, which is equivalent to $1.6 million in 2016. Interestingly, in 1910, Johnson’s challenger was paid more and lost. In 2016, Ward’s opponent lost but earned $1 million, over a half million dollars less than Johnson’s $1.6 million winnings over 106 years ago. However, Mr. Ward was the challenger in 2016, and he ultimately earned more than the former champion.
James J. Jeffries, undefeated, came into the fight with Jack Johnson and was knocked down twice. His corner had the sense to throw in the towel after the 15th round so that Jeffries wouldn’t have a knockout on his record. Jeffries’ comments after the fight were humble and showed that he knew he’d been beaten by a better man, as he said, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
Johnson’s critics could no longer belittle him for a so-called “fake” win over Tommy Burns’ and his “empty” title, because Jeffries, though retired, was the undefeated heavyweight champion, and Burns was not. Champion prize fighter John L. Sullivan commented:
“The fight of the century is over and a Black man is the undisputed champion of the world. It was a poor fight as fights go, this less than 15-round affair between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. Scarcely has there ever been a championship contest that was so one-sided. All of Jeffries much-vaunted condition amounted to nothing. He wasn’t in it from the first bell tap to the last …
“The negro had few friends, but there was little demonstration against him. (Spectators) could not help but admire Johnson because he is the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen. He played fairly at all times and fought fairly. … What a crafty, powerful, cunning left hand (Johnson) has. He is one of the craftiest, cunningest boxers that ever stepped into the ring. …
“They both fought closely all during the 15 rounds. It was just the sort of fight that Jeffries wanted. There was no running or ducking like Corbett did with me in New Orleans (1892). Jeffries did not miss so many blows, because he hardly started any. Johnson was on top of him all the time. …
“(Johnson) didn’t get gay at all with Jeffries in the beginning, and it was always the white man who clinched, but Johnson was very careful, and he backed away and took no chances, and was good-natured with it all … The best man won, and I was one of the first to congratulate him, and also one of the first to extend my heartfelt sympathy to the beaten man.”
Such is not the case with the Ward vs. Kovalev fight. Amid allegations by Kovalev, his team and Russian spectators that he was “robbed” of his title belts by “corrupt” U.S. judges, neither Sergey Kovalev nor the spectators of Russian descent were gracious about their champion’s loss.
This reporter was stationed on the 17th row of the T-Mobile Stadium amid Russian supporters who ridiculed Andre Ward and his fighting name, S.O.G. (Son of God), with frightening clarity in two languages and utilized invective and the N word. While some of this was also coming from U.S. spectators, who in this era of heightened racism, exacerbated by the recent U.S. political election outcomes, feel empowered to be bold about their beliefs, the Russian spectators were hostile in ways that were distinctly like a mob. All that was missing were hoods and a rope.
Not to be outdone, there were members of the U.S. media and of the crowd with distinctly anti-Ward and pro-Trump sympathies, which were voiced. Loudly. As one of only two Afrikan reporters in the press row, which was not cordoned off from the crowd, the hostility was palpable; a literal mob of Russians on my right, pro-Trump sympathizers – press and spectators) on my left – and an assortment of both behind the press section.
Thankfully, though I felt surrounded by heightened racial aggression and profiling, the majority of fans at the T-Mobile were supportive of Andre S.O.G. Ward, roaring “S.O.G., S.O.G.” repeatedly.
And Andre Ward’s post-fight press conference was gracious, yet firm, speakers stating that Ward indeed won this fight and giving cogent logical reasons for their analysis.
Yet, the over the top Russian aggression and mob mentality in response to Mr. Ward’s victory and to his fan support was easier to comprehend once an analysis of Sergey Kovalev’s fighting style was made.
Kovalev was aggressive, but ineffectively so. He had no sound boxing skills with which to combat a fiercely determined warrior who has a reputation for being a masterful inside fighter.
Kovalev’s response to this, once it became clear that he was not going to knock Ward out, despite a second round three-second knockdown, was to employ the questionable tactics of holding, grappling, wrestling and utilizing the ropes to lean into and tie up his opponent. At one point he even lifted his right leg as though he were going to climb right up his opponent’s body!
I don’t know where Kovalev learned his boxing skills, but these are not the tactics of a champion technician of the sport. These are the tactics of a backroom bully or a marginally skilled street fighter who is used to using his weight to overpower those with a less strong will.
Contrary to Kovalev’s protestations, he did not control the fight at any point – not with boxing skills at any rate. I viewed frame after frame of still photographs that showed just what kind of techniques he used. He began running out of gas in about the fifth round, which only intensified the grappling.
And curiously, every time Mr. Ward won a round, which in this reporter’s estimation, was often, the Russian mob behind me screamed: “Yeah, you got that one. Enjoy it; it is the only one you’ll get.”
They said this repeatedly, which means that they knew their champion was losing – and losing rapidly.
Kovalev had no viable counterattack that stopped Andre Ward’s punishing body shots. Kovalev had no viable counter for the fact that he could not fight an inside fighter. Kovalev had no viable counter for the fact that Andre Ward continually out-maneuvered him on the inside, which was the only way his gutter street bully tactics could be employed.
Note that I said “employed.” I did not say that they worked. Because Mr. Ward constantly refused to be bullied. Like his predecessor, Jack Johnson, Andre Ward has a crafty, cunning style and a beyond lightning fast left hand. This I believe, had Sergey Kovalev intimidated from the beginning.
Mr. Ward’s fighting style of constant movement – which Mr. Kovalev deemed as “running from him” – coupled with multiple clean shots to the body and left jabs from the outside and the inside, was focused and planned. His mind was on winning the fight and three title belts.
Where was Sergey “The Russian Wrecking Ball” Kovalev’s mind?
As many may recall, Andre Ward’s dominant left hand skill was paramount in his victory over Carl Froch in New Jersey, though his hand was multiply fractured at the time. And it is no secret that Mr. Ward is a masterful inside fighter, can use both hands effectively, has excellent ring generalship and balance, and is very fast. That being said, why would any promoter of a challenger or champion send an opponent fighter into battle who had not trained to counter those skills?
It is my estimation that the fight was scored closely because it would take skilled judges to recognize the offensive maneuvers being employed by Andre Ward to defeat an alleged boxing champion who had crossed oceans to grapple and wrestle in a boxing ring. However, it is also my estimation that both the judges and the center referee were lenient in their scoring of Mr. Kovalev when his wrestling tactics are factored into the equation and remiss in their responsibilities for not stopping them.
I would not have been. Ward stayed out of range of Kovalev’s one asset – a power punching right hand – despite the short chopping right that put him momentarily on the canvas in the second round. Ward has footwork; Kovalev does not. In fact, according to Kovalev’s trainer, Mr. John David Jackson, Sergey Kovalev doesn’t use his feet much because he doesn’t need to.
Obviously, this is a tactical decision that needs re-assessment. But most of all, Andre Ward knows what he has inside himself. He repeatedly shows the indomitable will and intelligence of a Jack Johnson and a Muhammad Ali to utilize multiple game plans in a boxing ring because he is just that skilled.
That is why this fight reminds me so of the century ago showdown between Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries.
From 2003 to 2016, these are the observations that have repeatedly manifested themselves in Mr. Ward’s rise to the top of two divisions to claim Olympic Gold in 2004, the WBA super middleweight and light heavyweight titles respectively from 2009 to the present, the IBF and WBO titles in 2016, and the singular distinction of having not lost a boxing match since his 12th birth year.
If that doesn’t make him one of the best, if not the best, pound for pound boxing champion in the world, then someone please explain what the qualifications are, because it’s got to be classified information and one of the world’s best kept secrets.
This fight was Andre Ward’s fight from the gate because he’d gotten inside Sergey Kovalev’s mind to such an extent that Kovalev felt a need to employ questionable tactics in order to achieve a win.
That, in my books, doesn’t get Sergey Kovalev any rounds. He is no one’s great white hope. His incessant reliance on grappling isn’t indicative of boxing skill. He lost fairly, and he lost the first time he put Andre Ward into a headlock to avoid the power of Ward’s left hand on the inside.
And for those haters who declare Ward “lost” this fight because Sergey Kovalev managed to get a glove on him in the second round, review the film. Notice that every time Kovalev wanted to throw a punch, he first employed a grappling move designed to position Ward to be hit.
That being said, note that CompuBox figures show that Andre Ward threw and landed 27.3 percent of punches thrown in rounds 1-6 and improved on that percentage in rounds 7-12, landing 38.8 percent of punches thrown. Sergey Kovalev, on the other hand, landed a total of 26 percent of punches thrown in the entire fight and only 31.5 percent of punches thrown in his previous five fights! Go to CompuBox Punch Stats to see more punch stats.
Better yet, find your favorite You Tube rendition of the full fight. Notice the round in which Kovalev head butted his way into Ward’s chest in a move calculated to throw Ward off balance. Note as well the many times Kovalev utilized arm locks, head locks and backing his opponent into the ropes, where he felt he could hold on to the ropes and tie up Andre Ward’s hands to avoid getting hit and to maybe position Ward for headshots. Note the time Kovalev attempted to climb up Ward’s body with his right leg.
Then note the fact that Andre Ward was throwing clean body shots throughout the fight. Note the times when Kovalev, accustomed to Ward going low, got badly fooled when Ward went high, then went high to low.
And note the fifth round when Kovalev noticeably began running out of gas.
It is this reporter’s contention that Sergey Kovalev cannot really box, except to throw power right hands when his opponent is intimidated. This time, he was the one intimidated, from the weigh-in through the second round split second knockdown of Ward, who got up smiling, through the remainder of the fight as he realized that Mr. Ward was not going to be knocked out.
In this fight, none of his tactics worked, and had this fight been a 15 to 20 round fight, such as the Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries match, where grappling and Big Time Wrestling moves were not allowed, Kovalev would have found himself kissing the canvas in two. Maybe even one.
So haters, buy yourselves a Coke and a pretty smile and sit yourselves down in a corner somewhere and be silent.
And if Mr. Andre S.O.G. Ward should grant you, Sergey Kovalev, a re-match, consider yourself privileged and go somewhere and learn how to box before you return to a fighting ring – unless, of course, you plan to take up wrestling on some other distant shore than this one.
Congratulations, Andre Ward, for coming out on top of another brutal but winning match like a champion.
Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali sat up and smiled.
Malaika H Kambon is a freelance, multi-award winning photojournalist and owner of People’s Eye Photography. She is also an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) state and national champion in Tae Kwon Do from 2007-2012. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.