Talking After Walking: Ward/Kovalev 2 Presser
Looking in at Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev, we see two men linked by more than a fight and an upcoming rematch…
Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev have already walked together once, not hand-in-hand but fist-to-face. That’s why I decided to attend this morning’s NYC presser. I expected their talk about their upcoming second fight to be calibrated by knowledge and truth, a refreshing change from the stuff of usual press conferences full of hype, hypotheticals and, too often, hopeless hope.
Le Parker Meridien may have a French article, but le hotel is all-American—pre-fab and glass on the outside, a homogenized conference room on the inside, where the usual cameras were lined behind rows of standard-issue seats. Not standard issue were the two main attractions, one American and one Russian; both men glistened with health and athleticism and celebrity. Sergey Kovalev, who now lives in Ft. Lauderdale, sported a blue sweater with red trim over a white button-down, looking patriotically American. Andre Ward wore a gray suit over a black shirt, all business.
At the dais table, sides were drawn, Ward’s people stage right, Kovalev’s, perhaps in a nod to Communism, stage left.
First to speak was Michael Yormark, president of Roc Nation, which represents Ward. A corporate guy in a corporate suit, Yormark started stately, “Legacies are built on seminal moments,” then quickly shifted to his true role as circus barker, claiming the Kovalev camp had been making excuses about fight number one, predicting Andre Ward would put the final nail in the light-heavyweight coffin in fight number two. Yormark continued, “For Sergey, he has a lot to prove. He’s been active on social media. In one tweet he wrote Pray to me. I think he meant Pray for me.” Kovalev listened, moving his thumb over his lip like Belmondo (who boxed before he acted) did in Breathless. Kovalev seemed revved-up, ready to spring, but he also looked Belmondo-cool.
Kathy Duva, who promotes Kovalev, complimented Yormark on his eloquence, then said what she needed to say, bluntly, “My greatest hope for June 17th is that the winner wins this time.”
When Kovalev stepped up to the mic, he was blunt as well, “I will speak in Russian. I can say more of what I think and want to say in my native language,” and then continued through his interpreter, “I’m thankful the fight will take place on June 17th. I also want to apologize to my fans for my performance in the last fight. The rematch will square everything away. I’m not going to do much talking. I only hope a week before the fight Andre Ward will not get injured and he’ll have enough balls to fight.”
Kovalev had said his piece. He sat down. Yormark, acting as MC, stood up and said, “Thank you, Sergey,” to which Kovalev replied in perfectly-enunciated English, “You’re welcome.” The polite fuck-you got the laugh of the day.
Next up was James Prince, Ward’s manager, who pretended to take the high road as he dismantled Kovalev’s character, “This is David and Goliath part two. Nothing much has changed since the first fight except your code has been cracked. Don’t be surprised if Kovalev gets knocked out. I notice you (Kovalev) have been real vulgar, but you need to know we have no fear. Once again the U.S. will be victorious over Russia.”
Prince’s knowledge of world history got some idiot applause.
Had Egis Klimas, Kovalev’s manager, been in the room (Klimas couldn’t make the press conference because he’d been at last night’s fights in L.A.) he would have countered Prince with ease. Klimas, it should be noted, received this year’s BWAA award for Manager of the Year.
Josh Dubin, Ward’s attorney, spoke next, praising Prince and Ward as upstanding men, as kings, then followed Yormark’s strategy and jabbed at Kovalev, “You can keep tweeting on your phone over there, but we already won. This is a formality. You can cry and complain; that’s what bullies do. You didn’t get your way. You’re not going to get your way. The moral arc of the universe bends to kings.”
I guess Andre Ward’s team are also Sons of God, the universe at their beck and call.
Finally it was Andre Ward’s turn. He spoke about perception and reality. He spoke about the business side of boxing and the fight side of boxing. He spoke about his own ring prowess, how he has run from no one. “This is chess, not checkers. You can make all the moves you want but then there’s checkmate. The fighting is academic. There’s nothing scary about this man. Everyone wants to talk about the knockdown, but in the biggest moment of my career I got up. I didn’t get to this point in my career out of weakness. I didn’t get to this point in my career by happenstance. We don’t need to tweet back. He’s got to see me on June 17th. That’s the reality of the situation. We locked heads for twelve rounds. He knows. And that’s enough for me. Whether you’re with me or against me, tune in. It’s going to be a great show. June 17th. Tune in. He got what he asked for.”
Andre Ward is articulate and poised and charismatic. He is confident without bluster. He can hold any room. If boxing wishes to redeem itself, boxing should make Andre Ward the face of the sport that’s more than sport.
If you tuned in to Ward/Kovalev 1, you know the decision wasn’t controversial because it was a one-sided fight judged badly. It was controversial because die-hard Kovalev fans believed their man had won—he was the early aggressor, he knocked Ward down in the second, and he landed the harder shots to the head throughout. Die-hard Ward-ites believed Ward’s win was just—he was the master technician, he delivered point-scoring, energy-sapping body blows, and he swept the fight’s second half, stunning Kovalev the way he’s rarely been stunned.
For the record, though I have no proof since my living-room pronouncement went unrecorded, I predicted Ward would win by a point right before the verdict was announced. That doesn’t mean I thought Ward won. It means I thought he’d get the decision. I had the fight a draw. I admit my fight-eyes are sometimes biased, but for this bout I felt my assessment was impartial since I’m very partial to both fighters. I’ve always been a fan of Andre Ward and consider him the smartest boxer in the business. Outside the ring, his post-fight interviews, his during-fight color commentary, and his press-conference poise (which he displayed today) show an insightful mind, a boxer who knows boxing’s layers. Inside the ring, Ward’s supreme intelligence, his ability to assess, process, and formulate a game plan round by round, shows he not only preaches (as S.O.G. should) but practices. As for Kovalev, I’ve also always been a fan. I admire his power. I admire his boxing acumen. I admire his earned cockiness. I admire his inner strength. Sergey Kovalev killed a man in the ring, but, unlike most fighters who’ve done the ultimate damage, he showed himself the consummate professional by compartmentalizing that ring tragedy as part of boxing (which, sadly, it is), and by continuing to fight, without hesitation, like the Krusher.
Ward/Kovalev 1 wasn’t an overly-dramatic fight, but the back and forth was so skilled, the ring generalship so rich with experience, that I’d classify it as an excellent fight. The subtle power shifts, mirroring the nuanced pivots and parries of each fighter, made Ward/Kovalev 1 memorable.
Back to Le Parker Meridien. The formal proceedings ended, the customary face-off was orchestrated without a hitch—these pros are self-controlled in and out of the squared circle. Ward held out a finger, number 1. Kovalev kept his hands at his sides. While a woman barked out poses, Ward and Kovalev listened and struck their poses. The final pose was eyes to eyes. The stare went on for five seconds, then Kovalev broke eye contact and turned his body away. This wasn’t fear. This was a man dismissing a promotion’s silly formality.
The fighters and their people separated and took places on opposite sides of the room for interviews. It’s easy to judge the fighter du jour by the number of hovering reporters, and to the victor went the media spoils. Ward had the crowd. I went over to Kovalev’s side first. He stood with his hands folded behind his back, answered questions in soft-spoken English. When asked, point blank, by a man with a microphone looking for an easy reaction, what he, Kovalev, would like to do to Ward, Kovalev kept his voice low-key, “I want to punch him. I want to destroy him. I want to get back my belts.” When asked if he thought Ward was the best pound-for-pound fighter, Kovalev sneered his famous sneer. “In my eyes Lomachenko. Ward not even top five.”
On Ward’s side, the more-crowded side, Andre was fielding questions with ease. Away from the dais he is even more personable, a young man enjoying the back and forth, but never losing focus of his task at hand. A number of questions were about possible fights after this fight. To those, Ward refused to speculate. “I’m not thinking beyond. I’ve got to look in.”
Looking in at Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev, we see two men linked by more than a fight and an upcoming rematch. Both men were undefeated when they first met. More important, at least to their development as men, both had rough relationships with their fathers. Sergey’s father left home when Sergey was three. Andre’s father was a heroin addict.
But fighters have trainers, father-figures who teach, who nurture, who provide calm, when necessary, between rounds, or light fires when heat is required. Ward and Kovalev, professional fighters, have professional trainers, men who know their business well. While their boxing fathers were not present, their presence was felt.
In a recent interview, John David Jackson, trainer to Kovalev, said the one thing his fighter needed to improve was conditioning. The biggest knock against the Krusher is that he sometimes slows as the rounds progress. Fatigue may make cowards of us all, but I’ve never seen cowardice in Kovalev, even when his tank nears empty. If Kovalev can improve his stamina (a big if because at this stage of his career he is, as Popeye might say, what he is), if Kovalev can beat his late-round fatigue, he’ll have a real chance to best Ward the second time around.
Virgil Hunter, a father figure to Ward beyond the gym, is paternal personified. Between rounds Hunter talks with a voice so patient he must make all his charges feel he can protect them even they move alone in the ring. He is sure of himself and sure of his pupil/son. If Kovalev fights with the same code, Ward will win because he knows the combination. But Hunter, like Ward, understands boxing’s nuances—there’s no doubt Hunter has been working with Ward on other codes.
Fathers and sons. Each of these father figures believes their kid will win. That’s what fathers do.
I haven’t been to a live boxing card in two years. My Dad, who taught me to love boxing, died almost two years ago. When that happens, you don’t give a shit about much in life. And my father’s other son, David Berlin, who served as Executive Director of the NY State Athletic Commission, who this year won the BWAA’s James A. Farley Award for Honesty and Integrity, was removed from his post eleven months ago, a weak political decision that highlighted so many other weaknesses in this sport too-often run by weak people. Boxing, for me, at least for now, just isn’t. I still watch the fights, sometimes. I still read the boxing sites, sometimes. I still write about boxing, not nearly as much as I used to. I went to today’s press conference to hear two fine fighters speak, but maybe, too, to kill off a beautiful spring-break morning when I didn’t feel like feeling spring.
Walking the walk. Talking the talk. The walking and talking that brings me joy these days comes from my son, who weighs in at 19 months, who can throw kid-punches, who points to a photo of Rocky Marciano in our apartment and says Daddy—we look nothing alike, Me and Rocky, but I don’t correct my kid.
I don’t know if my son will become a fight fan. I don’t know if I’ll ever regain the rabid interest in a sport that, beyond being more than sport, was more than sport for me because I watched it with my Dad. If I do return more whole-heartedly to boxing, it will be because of fighters who’ve walked the walk like Andre Ward, the most intelligent fighter I’ve seen in my lifetime, and Sergey Kovalev, whose determination can serve as a model for the best of what it means to be a man. I’ll watch Ward/Kovalev 2. I won’t root for either fighter. I’ll admire both.
Adam Berlin is the author of four novels, most recently the boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). He teaches writing at John Jay College/CUNY. For more, please visit adamberlin.com.