Can Ward-Kovalev Live Up To the Hype?

Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev is the best matchup in boxing this year, and one of the best matchups of the past few years — this much is indisputable. However, when the two boxers’ styles clash there is reason to believe that the fight itself may not live up to the boiling anticipation.

The excitement ahead of Ward-Kovalev is more than justified: both men are undefeated and in the top five pound-for-pound boxers on the planet, and rarely do two greats meet at the height of their skills. Ward (30-0) is a mastermind in the ring, as clever and tactical as any boxer of the last decade. Kovalev (30-0-1) lives up to his "Krusher" moniker, a knockout artist that breaks opponents with his relentless pressure and heavy hands.

While the stylistic matchup will be a fascinating one to watch for boxing purists, Ward vs. Kovalev is unlikely to be an action-packed barnburner. And with HBO expecting big pay-per-view numbers for the event, there is an added pressure on the boxers to provide a fight that viewers will call money well spent.

“I feel the pressure,” Kovalev said, per the Review Journal. “This needs to be a good fight for the fans.”

Ward, 32, is the slight favorite heading into the light-heavyweight title fight. If he can control the pace of the bout, it will mean shutting down Kovalev’s offense and turning the fight into a chess match rather than a high-pressure brawl. As many of Floyd Mayweather’s fights have shown, casual fans grow frustrated when they come for wall-to-wall violence and instead get defensive mastery.

"I just think, taking me out of the equation just as a whole, boxing has never been about one thing," Ward said, per the Boston Herald. "In this day and age, the public is sold that if it isn’t a knockdown drag out fight and one guy’s ear isn’t hanging off then it wasn’t worth your time or money and I don’t think that’s fair to the fighters or fair to the fans.

“You can’t be worried about that because you understand that some people get it and some people won’t, but you have to do what you have to do. Some people won’t like it, but some people will."

Ward’s last fight, a tune-up against Alexander Brand, was a one-sided, slow affair because Ward was able to do exactly what he wanted in the ring. In order for this super-fight to become exciting — or what the casual audience would deem exciting — Kovalev will need to push Ward out of his comfort zone and into deep waters.

While Ward-Kovalev is not going to end up like Hagler-Hearns, fans should not take that as a sign that it will be a "bad fight". As Ward accurately stated, audiences often minimize prize-fighting to its most basic, animalistic appeals. If Ward is able to shut down Sergey Kovalev on the way to a unanimous decision victory, a portion of viewers will bemoan the knockout that never came. But in a fight marketed as "Pound for Pound", Ward has the opportunity to reach true greatness. His tactical approach will not be universally praised, but he will earn his spot in history all the same.

With all that being said, the sport could use some help here. If Ward-Kovalev can somehow meet expectations — if Kovalev can clip Ward with heavy shots and dictate the pace, or if Ward chooses to go toe-to-toe with the "Krusher" — then boxing will receive the shot in the arm that it desperately needs after a lackluster 2016. Nobody should boo Ward-Kovalev if it is a tactical showcase rather than a slugfest. But a back-and-forth battle could do wonders for the sport.

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