Why you should care
Because drama in the world of boxing is more knuckle-biting than any fiction.
On November 19, boxing fans around the globe will obediently purchase pay-per-view screenings, tongues wagging for the toothsome treat they’ve long been craving. Andre Ward (30-0, 15 KOs) — America’s highest-ranked active boxer — meets Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs), a fearsome Russian knockout artist, in the first mega fight since 2015’s Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. one-sided snoozer. Saturday is boxing’s ideal response — and could change the sport by leading to more superfight deals.
In one corner we have Ward, 32, Ring magazine’s fourth-ranked pound-for-pound fighter and the former unified super middleweight champ. In 2004, Ward captured America’s last Olympic boxing gold medal. Since then, he’s been dominant, outclassing opponents via precision and defense.
In the other corner is Kovalev, 33, the unified light heavyweight champion. He is Ring’s second-ranked pound-for-pounder. If Ward is a defensive technician, Kovalev is a stalking assassin, aggressively punishing opponents and almost always finishing them with a vicious right hook. The Russian became infamous in 2011, when he knocked out countryman Roman Simakov in the seventh round. Simakov fell into a coma and died three days later. Kovalev donated his next fight’s winning purse to Simakov’s family.
Not much is known of Kovalev outside the ring, apart that he grew up on the streets of a small coal-mining town - Chelyabinsk - in western Russia, hits like a mule, and once asked Vladimir Putin to stand in his corner against Ward. Ward is equally quiet. The Oakland, California, native holds press conferences at the site where he learned to box — King’s Gym — and periodically pops up in the front row of Golden State Warriors games. Ward missed all of 2014 due to a shoulder injury and promotional dispute. He returned to the ring having abandoned his previous belts, seeking new glory in the light heavyweight division.
Last month, in an effort to learn more about the matchup, I took a train to Oakland in search of Ward. Google claims that King’s remains Ward’s sparring grounds. When I get off the train at Fruitvale Station, it’s evident I’ve been led astray. Rocky was fiction; the chances of a prizefighter continuing to train from his modest genesis are slim to none. King’s is located at the end of a dead-end street, wedged between a chop shop and Interstate 880. I meet Charles King, owner and lead trainer, on the floor as he puts an amateur bruiser through interval training.
King moves slowly as he sizes me up, asks for my measurements. “We’ll get you down to 160 like Kelly Pavlik, you’ve got the reach. Shake my hand again,” he instructs me, testing my grip strength. “Lose the boots,” he orders. King wants me in the ring.
King’s opened 32 years ago, the first boxing gym in the neighborhood. Ward’s late father, Frank, brought him in at age 9, and “the rest is history,” King says. King trained Ward alongside Virgil Hunter, Ward’s godfather and longtime trainer, but when hobby became profession, Ward left the gym and built his own training facility with Hunter. “Andre’s a good man — he still helps us out,” King says. “He does his press conferences here, gives back to the community.” Sometimes, King says, people just “outgrow their roots.” Ward’s success has also helped King’s stay afloat. “We’re hanging on,” King tells me. “When Andre fights, we get a bunch of kids in the next day.”
Standing on the front stoop, I wonder at first if King is being truthful. I don’t see any children, and a few city workers on extended lunch break can’t be enough to sustain business. But at about 3:30 p.m., five sets of children — some as young as 7 — start rolling in. King pokes his head outside. “School’s out. There’s more on the way,” he says. “Wait for November 20.”
Ward-Kovalev should decide the planet’s best pound-for-pound fighter. A win would cement Ward’s place as the next great American fighter, the best of his era. If Ward and Hunter do hoist light heavyweight belts and tip Champagne in Vegas, their old friends will be celebrating too. Another King’s press conference will be scheduled, and a new generation of Oakland boxers will be born.