The Square Jungle: Ward-Kovalev, Mayweather-McGregor and Company
A knockout is the most definitive ending in sports. The photo-finish in horse racing, the Hail Mary pass in the NFL, the buzzer-beater in the NBA, the shootout in hockey or soccer, the walk-off home run in baseball – none of these flashpoint climaxes, as exciting as they are, can match the KO for categorically settling an athletic contest. There is no arguing the 10-count or even the TKO, when a referee intervenes to save a battered fighter in one of the few instances of mercy to be found in a blood sport. Or something like that. Because boxing specializes in through-the-rabbit-hole moments; however, not even a definitive end can be considered a definitive end, at times. If Andre Ward thought stopping Sergey Kovalev would give him the widespread respect he deserved, he must have been surprised at just how unrewarding even a victory in boxing can seem. Instead, Ward saw his triumph instantaneously annotated with the all-too-common designation “controversial,” which is unfortunate, because he finally short-circuited “Krusher,” the baleful cyborg, in the seventh and eighth rounds of an ugly fight that failed to provide the closure a rematch usually entails.
By avoiding a slow start (he was down on the scorecards by multiple points across the board in the first fight), Ward was able to stay fresh and focus on applying his disruptive game plan from round to round. Ward kept Kovalev off-balance by offering him a bewildering array of looks: He boxed neatly from the perimeter, mauled and mangled in the trenches and then opened up a crossfire attack in the fateful eighth, when Kovalev was out of sorts. A fatigued Kovalev, rattled by shots to the body, both legal and not-so-legal, committed one of the worst errors a fighter can make against world-class opposition: He switched stances within striking range. After slipping clumsily between southpaw and orthodox, Kovalev was poorly positioned for the weak jab he pushed out like a drunk reaching for the refrigerator in the dark. Ward, who saw the slow-motion opening develop, fired a straight right hand, true as an arrow. This blow, launched from the shoulder with the geometric precision required to maximize its impact, caught Kovalev square on the jaw and led to the final contentious moments. Ward pursued Kovalev around the ring and into the ropes, where he whipsawed a series of borderline shots to the body. Referee Tony Weeks, until now, perhaps best known for butchering Spanish during pre-fight instructions and for a retro haircut straight out of “Crooklyn” or “House Party II” – halted the bout after Ward landed a final withering low blow that left an already disheveled Kovalev doubled-over in distress. Rarely are fights stopped after a barrage of body punches; rarer still are they stopped after a clear foul has been committed. To make matters worse, Weeks had already reprimanded Ward for a low blow earlier in the round.
In recent years, Ward has only been able to score knockouts under peculiar circumstances. He stopped a debilitated Chad Dawson (who looked like he was auditioning to the play the part of Billy Halleck in a reboot of “Thinner”) and he pummeled woebegone U.K. import Paul Smith, who did not bother to train, missed weight by more than four pounds and, in doing so, ensured his lack of fitness by fight night. (Similarly, Guillermo Rigondeaux can only offer excitement when dry-gulching unsuspecting opponents after the bell or looking to touch gloves. This, it seems, is his way of rising to the occasion.) Now we have Kovalev, who was visibly affected by at least one or two blows that were unquestionably foul. During the final instructions at ring center, Weeks made it clear that the beltlines of both fighters were subject to interpretation. Kovalev was wearing his cup too high (though nothing like Lennox Lewis used to get away with years ago) but the final thunderous blow did not require an anatomy chart to determine its illicit nature.
Although Kovalev seemed slightly ahead, at the time Weeks halted the action, he also seemed on the verge of a meltdown. And his menacing aura? It took a bigger blow than his protective cup did in the last round. None of his pre-fight promises of GBH were fulfilled and his sinister mien seemed positively meek when Ward pursued him with a rare show of killer instinct.
For years, Ward has been chased by a reputation for being a dirty fighter and his TKO over Kovalev may have only underscored this distinction. But somewhat lost in the hubbub of the strange TKO ruling, however, was the fact that Ward hurt Kovalev more than once in the final two rounds and closed the sixth with a looping right to the head. A vicious left hook to the rib cage sent Kovalev staggering, at one point in the seventh, and the right hand he landed late in the eighth left Kovalev hearing the sounds of dulcimers in his head. In the end, Ward broke down a man who seemed ill-prepared for a rough-and-tumble night at the office. And that, finally, may be what will get some to turn the page on Ward, whose attitude often suggests a quote from Rousseau: “I am not made like any one I have met, perhaps like no one in existence.” Certainly Kovalev, if no one else, will admit to that.
With the announcement that former boxing buzz king Floyd Mayweather Jr. and MMA madball Conor McGregor will be facing off on August 26, boxing has entered its second Penny-Click Golden Era. From 2009 to roughly 2013, Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao produced an AdSense bonanza for typists with little more than a URL to call distinguished. This time around, MMA pseudo-journos – such as the Sports Illustrated and Fansided hack (in more ways than one) Mike “The Lice” Dyce – can cash in on the clickbait action. Thankfully, this pre-farce hype will only last for a couple of months. Even in a sport as stuffed with sham as boxing – in which, as recently as 30 years ago, a woman fought a man, a half-blind Aaron Pryor was given a license and Craig Bodzianowski challenged for a world title, despite missing a foot – Mayweather-McGregor is beyond the pale.
Its historical precedent – Floyd Patterson defending his heavyweight title against debuting Pete Rademacher in 1957 – falls far short of a scam by comparison. Rademacher, after all, was an Olympic gold medalist and an accomplished amateur. McGregor, by contrast, is an MMA practitioner who would get decapitated by Carson Jones, much less an elite talent like Mayweather.
Since following up his stupor-fight against Manny Pacquiao by outpointing Andre Berto in a pay-per-view of such disastrous proportions that not even Showtime’s Stephen Espinoza could brag about it, Mayweather has kept himself in the unblinking public eye (now a 24/7 global operation thanks to the advent of social media), with antics calculated to attract the ADD, TMZ and OMG! audience. And McGregor, also a larger-than-life character (likely honed by UFC script stooges), has helped Mayweather remain in the spotlight by hectoring him jovially at every turn.
That a mismatch of such grotesque proportions has been rubber-stamped by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, in the wake of fresh tragedies involving Tim Hague and Daniel Franco (as well as the less recent but all too haunting cases of Magomed Abdusalamov and Prichard Colon) is breathtaking and hints at something beyond moral bankruptcy and avarice – the traditional twin pillars of boxing. It would be no surprise to find out that Mayweather-McGregor has more in common with Andre the Giant-Chuck Wepner than just its sideshow aspect. Kayfabe, with a sly wink, appears to be the last sub rosa link.
Not only has Mayweather guaranteed himself a Powerball-sized paycheck for facing the easiest easy mark possible but he has also managed, once again, to sandbag his old nemesis Oscar De La Hoya. Mayweather loathes De La Hoya as much as Norman Mailer despised Gore Vidal (in fact, Mailer once headbutted Vidal at a party) and his long-running feud with the “Golden Boy” is now revived in the form of a sideshow event that threatens to knock some of the steam out of the Saul Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin extravaganza scheduled for September 16. To ensure maximum sabotage potential, Mayweather chose a date that operates as a traditional dead zone in boxing. Late August has been a non-starter in the fight racket from time immemorial because “Sin City” is in the middle of a desert and attracting tourists (as well as the high rollers necessary to ensure a significant drop from casino to casino) to a scorching climate is no easy thing. But Mayweather seems to have more than memere bamboozlement on his mind.
When De La Hoya penned a (no doubt ghost-written) farewell letter to Mayweather for Playboy in 2015, he did so with the gratuitous venom of a second-rate boxing blogger (aka Gif Monkey). Maybe Mayweather deserved such a nasty cyber-epistle (“Boxing will also be a better place without the Mouth. Your mouth, to be precise, the one that created ‘Money’ Mayweather. I know you needed that Money Mayweather persona. Before he – and Golden Boy Promotions – came along, nobody watched your fights.”) but De La Hoya ensured that Mayweather would look to land a sucker punch somewhere down the line. For De La Hoya, who always had a solid chin during his in-ring heyday, this one is going to hurt.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.