LAS VEGAS (AP) — Andre Ward has done just about everything in boxing except the one thing that truly defines fighters these days — headline a pay-per-view card in this gambling city.
It’s been a long time coming but he can check that off Saturday when he meets Sergey Kovalev in what might be the best fight of what has been a down year for the sport. The two meet for Kovalev’s light heavyweight titles in a rare matchup of unbeaten fighters in their prime.
“I’ve been here so many times for so many fights. I just wasn’t fighting,” Ward said. “The difference is I’m the headliner now and it feels good. What this town represents for the sport of boxing, it’s an honor to be headlining here.”
The fight is a classic clash of styles, pitting the slick-boxing Ward against a big puncher who has knocked out almost everyone put in front of him. It’s also a Cold War reprise of sorts, with Ward a 2004 American Olympic gold medalist and Kovalev coming from Russia without much love for his challenger.
“I’m going to deal with the elephant in the room: This is Russia vs. the USA,” Ward’s manager, James Prince, said at the final prefight news conference this week. “And the best of Russia can’t beat the best of the United States of America. In nothing!”
Actually, Kovalev has fought most of his career in the U.S., has a home in Los Angeles and has made himself fluent in English. But this is boxing, and there’s a pay-per-view to sell for $64.95 to fans who haven’t reached into their wallets for recent bouts.
The fight itself needs no extra hype. Oddsmakers slightly favor Ward for his ability to win a decision, but neither fighter has lost and Kovalev is always just one big punch away from ending any fight.
“I will try to make it an interesting fight,” Kovalev said. “If Andre Ward wins the fight all boxing fans will lose some interesting fights in the future because his fights are boring. If I win they will see interesting fights again.”
Ward has fought only three times in the last three years because of an injured shoulder and a court dispute with his late promoter, Dan Goossen. He’s a former 168-pound champion now comfortable at 175 pounds, and has not lost a fight, amateur or pro, in 20 years.
If there’s a knock against him it’s that he’s defensive minded and has rarely fought outside his hometown of Oakland, California. He’s also never captured the hearts of casual fight fans, even while long being considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
“Everyone has their own journey and this is how the chips fell,” Ward said. “I think it’s just a good thing it’s happening now. Just finding the right opponent has something to do with it. Something where people want to come and travel from around the country to see the fight.”
The right opponent seems to be Kovalev, who came to America from Russia seven years ago to try to make his mark in boxing. He fought on undercards in small arenas for years before finally becoming a regular attraction on HBO, largely because of his knockout power.
He’s even more popular at home in Russia, where promoters say the fight will be televised live on state-run broadcaster Channel One.
“America gave me opportunity,” Kovalev said. “It’s two great countries for me. I love both countries, which is why I have two houses, Russia and America. I’m very comfortable with the people and the boxing in America.”
Both fighters are 30-0, though Kovalev has 27 knockouts to 15 for Ward, who was the last American to win a boxing gold medal when he did it at the Athens Olympics 12 years ago. Ward counters that power with better speed, more experience, and the confidence that not having lost since the age of 13 can give a fighter.
“He’s a good boxer and obviously he can punch,” Ward said. “He’s stubborn and I’m stubborn. Who’s going to break? That’s what it comes down to. It’s about going out there and doing it and I’ve done it my entire career.”