This writing appeared on the boxing website ucnlive.com as part of a monthly column series. The published version can be seen here: http://ucnlive.com/proud-men-sergey-kovalev-vs-andre-ward/

 

9/2016

The Proud Men: Kovalev vs Ward

 

In the first week of September two proud men stared each other down for the better part of fifty three seconds in New York City. Their demeanor was calm; yet steady. Their height, nearly equal. Neither seemed eager to break the silent trance of respect that had broken out between them. The first one to yield might be seen as the first one to show weakness on the long road to an agreed settlement of differences on November 19th in Las Vegas. A third party deemed it necessary that her involvement was needed to coerce the proud men to break their stand off in order for the events of the day to be brought to a conclusion. As she gently touched one of the proud men on the arm he began to realize that he would indeed have to turn his gaze away from the other proud man. A slight smile came across his face as if to say: ‘I see you; and you see me - both of us know what the deal is.’ The other proud man returned the smile in acknowledgement; and they both turned to face the onlookers who had witnessed their measure of respect.

One of the proud men involved in that early September face-off was Sergey ‘Krusher’ Kovalev. The Russian born Kovalev is the current WBA, WBO, and IBF light heavyweight champion of the world. The other proud man involved that day was Andre ‘S.O.G.’ (Son Of God) Ward. Ward is a former WBC and WBA super middleweight champion and 2004 Olympic gold medalist. Both men have won thirty professional bouts; and neither has tasted defeat. Their showdown on November 19th in Las Vegas for the light heavyweight championship of the world is one of (if not the) best fights boxing has produced this year. And to paraphrase what Main Events CEO Kathy Duva said on that day when the proud men were forced to avert their gaze of respect: ‘There was a time when fighters on the road to the hall of fame sought greater and greater challenges. There was a time when fighters were courageous athletes; and not cynical businessmen. The two men here today have chosen to put their ‘0’s’ on the line to find out who is the very best.’ Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward have much to lose on November 19th. Yet the lives of both men seemed to have defined the boundaries of how each has come to view the nature of their occupation.

Sergey Kovalev (like many fighters) came up ‘the hard way’ as some like to say. In a Yahoo Sports piece earlier this year by Chris Mannix, Eglis Klimas (Kovalev’s manager) said: ‘He grow up in a poor environment, so when he open up the fridge and there are two or three eggs in there - it’s a good day’. In the same Yahoo piece, Kovalev himself said: ‘I grew up in Chelyabinsk - it gave me everything to be a world champion.’ Kovalev’s words are the words of a man whose approach to the sport of boxing has been molded by not only what he learned in the ring, but by the circumstances that formed his character. Every fighter brings their life story into the ring with them. Yet not every fighter fights as if they were fueled by convictions born from the sometimes cruel nature of life itself. As Kovalev is fond of saying; boxing for him is like a street fight - only with rules. It might not be true, but I would guess that kind of mentality is drawn from experiences growing up in a mountainous coal mining region of Russia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kovalev’s professional accomplishments give him a unique place among the ranks of active fighters. Yet his distinction is also marked by a rather sad occurrence. Kovalev is one of the few fighters who have had an opponent die as a result of their encounter in the ring. Roman Simakov passed away three days after his bout with Kovalev in 2011. As one can imagine this kind of event cuts straight to the very bottom of a man’s soul. It’s the kind of event that will ask questions of a man which cannot go unanswered. For these questions become attached to him - like a sixty pound rucksack he can never remove.

In the Yahoo Sports piece mentioned earlier; Natalia Kovalev (Kovalev’s wife) spoke about the effect Simakov’s passing had on Kovalev: ‘The worst thing was that he retreated into himself. He is the kind of person who keeps everything inside. He very seldom expresses his emotions - he was brought up this way’. She would go on to say: ‘He has an obligation to his family and loved ones. He is the only breadwinner in this family. He doesn't know how to sell. He's not a businessman. He is a boxer.’ Forced into quiet introspection, it seems Kovalev answered the questions Simakov’s death had asked of him. He would carry on; buoyed by his faith, his family, and his upbringing. His career would continue; for as his wife Natalia said - he is a boxer. As Eglis Klimas reminded those in attendance at that early September press conference in New York City, Kovalev was never protected in his career. He paid his dues traveling from town to town on the east coast looking for opponents to fight. He never asked his manager who his opponent was; just when the fight was and what weight it was at. The proud man would simply do what needed to be done, do the best he could, and move forward one day at a time.

For Sergey Kovalev the trials of life and the trials of his profession collided and became forever entangled. Yet for Andre Ward, the trials of life have come to remain in their own realm - while the trials of his profession have remained in another. As he told Jerry Rose of The Total Living Network in 2012: ‘Boxing is what I do; it’s not who I am. I’m a child of God, a husband, and a father.’ Expanding on this notion Ward would tell Rose: ‘When I go home I can get on my knees and say thank you (to God) for the victory. I’m thankful that you’re walking with me. That's what gets you over. Because one day an athlete’s going to have to hang up the gloves and say - who am I? And if you don't have another foundation than the sport you compete in, it's going to be a reality check.’ For Ward, the realm of faith will always reign supreme over the realm of boxing. If Ward’s life was a house, boxing would only occupy a room - or a floor at most. Yet if one examined the foundation of such a house; they'd be sure to find the echoes of Ward’s upbringing.

Ward went into great detail about his early years in an August interview with The Undefeated website. The interview was conducted by Brin-Jonathan Butler. The following is a condensed and paraphrased version of what Ward told Butler about his childhood.

Ward’s father was white, while his mother was African American. Being biracial left him with questions and feelings shaped by the opinions of both races who weren’t always so accepting of his identity. Both of Ward’s parents had issues with drug abuse. His mother battled crack addiction and lived on the streets of San Francisco for twenty years. Ward’s father battled his own addiction to heroin. Ward remembers seeing his father retire to his room after work and transform into a ‘glassy-eyed, entirely different person’. Ward’s mother would promise and promise to come see her son; but she rarely did (he would wait for her by his bedroom window). Ward’s mother once stabbed his father during a heated argument; he told Butler that he never forgot that day. When Ward’s father entered drug treatment; Ward moved in with his trainer, Virgil Hunter. When Butler asked Ward why he moved in with Hunter and not relatives; Ward replied: ‘Nobody raised their hands’.

Ward got his eventual wife pregnant at the age of 16. His father passed away suddenly when he was 18; a loss which his brother never recovered from. Ward became angry at God; for losing his dad was the worst thing that could have happened to him. He didn’t want to feel anything anymore; he wanted to be numb. Yet his anger towards God would slowly be turned back towards faith. As his trainer Virgil Hunter told him in the wake of his father’s passing: ‘I don’t know who you rolling with, but I know this - God’s got his hand on you son.’ Like Kovalev, the trials of life placed a sixty pound rucksack on Ward’s back. It seems embracing his beliefs as a proud man of faith allowed him to place it down.

There are similarities and differences to the ways Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward have dealt with life’s obstacles. Yet both have shown a resilience and a fortitude that has informed the way they approach the sport of boxing. Both have sought and answered challenges in their career that others might have looked to avoid. This is not to say either man is perfect of course. Kovalev has ruffled some with his comments on women boxers and a racial joke at the expense of Adonis Stevenson. And Ward has often come across as arrogant and entitled; including his long legal dispute with the late boxing promoter Dan Goossen. However, I don’t believe either man’s perceived shortcomings are relevant to any sentiments surrounding their upcoming bout.

It is true that neither Kovalev or Ward has built a substantial fan base over their career. It is true that the fighting styles of both men might not combine to yield a night filled with action and suspense. Yet it is also true that Sergey Kovalev vs Andre Ward represents much of the best that boxing has to offer. As Peter Nelson (Executive Vice President at HBO Sports) said that early September day in New York City: ‘Fighters like Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward putting titles, pound for pound status, undefeated status, money, power, daring to be great, (and) legacy on the line is what makes great fights. The rest of the business then takes care of itself. That's what great fighters do.’ More than likely Kovalev vs Ward will not do great numbers on PPV. The amount of business the fight does will not be an adequate measure of its importance. Yet for those who do tune in on November 19th, they will witness a rare occurrence. Two proud men crossing paths not just for money, or even titles - but for a chance at greatness. Boxing used to provide these opportunities for greatness more frequently in the past. Let us hope that for one night on November 19th; we are at least reminded of the way things used to be.