Ward-Kovalev II has potential for greatness, but is there any interest in it?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS – It’s a generic term that gets thrown around a lot in boxing, particularly before a bout: It’s a great fight.

And this week, you’ll undoubtedly hear that a lot in discussion about the rematch between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev at Mandalay Bay for the IBF, WBA and WBO light heavyweight titles.

What makes a bout a big fight? There seem to be three areas where a match can be judged:

• Does it promise competitive action?
• Are the stakes for the match high?
• Is there significant fan interest in the bout?

There is no question that the stakes are high for Ward-Kovalev II. Not only is it for three of the four major light heavyweight belts – Adonis Stevenson holds the WBC title – but both Ward and Kovalev are regarded among the top-10 pound-for-pound best boxers in the world.

The first fight suggests that the rematch should be at least as good. The first bout was entertaining and had plenty of drama. Kovalev came out strong, shockingly dumped Ward in the second round as he raced to an early lead and then hung on as Ward battled back.

The judges all favored Ward by the same 114-113 margin. Fan opinion was split, but leaned toward Kovalev more than Ward. Kovalev won the first half of the bout, with a doubt. Ward seemed to win the second half. The issue for the scoring is how one viewed the swing rounds, those that were close enough that two neutral observers could have rightly gone either way.

The rivalry between the fighters is real, and the word hate, which isn’t often used in boxing, is very much a part of this promotion.

Given that, the first two boxes have been checked.

Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev trade blows during their first fight. (Getty)

The fight, though, seems to have generated little buzz. The first bout didn’t do a significant pay-per-view number, and it’s not expected that Saturday’s will, either. The fight is at the 11,000-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center instead of at the 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena just a block or so away.

Good seats, as they say, are still available.

Even as fight week began, the big news in the Las Vegas media was whether Floyd Mayweather had picked Aug. 26 as a date to fight UFC champion Conor McGregor and how the city’s first major league team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, will put together their roster at the upcoming expansion draft.

Not much has been heard in Las Vegas about Ward-Kovalev.

It’s strange, because this is the kind of fight that, if you surveyed them, boxing fans would say they want. Promoters get hammered mercilessly by fans and media for not pitting the top stars against one other, but in this case, Main Events and Roc Nation have done it not once but twice.

Ward and Kovalev are in that small group that includes Gennady Golovkin, Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford as the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Three of the four major belts are at stake, though purists would note that Stevenson holds the linear championship.

Combined, Ward and Kovalev have a record of 61-1-1 with 41 knockouts. And while records are often deceiving in boxing, both men have beaten their share of elite opponents.

But the passion that existed for 2017 bouts such as Keith Thurman-Danny Garcia, Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko, Kell Brook-Errol Spence Jr. and even Canelo Alvarez-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. doesn’t seem to be there for Ward-Kovalev II.

The Alvarez-Chavez fight sold 1 million pay-per-views, drew a T-Mobile Arena-record 20,510 fans who paid $10.6 million to see it. It was the 20th-largest paid gate in Nevada history.

The Ward-Kovalev bouts won’t come within half the combined sales of what Alvarez-Chavez did, and Saturday’s gate won’t be anywhere near $10 million.

It makes little sense given the quality of the fighters, the rivalry between them and the stakes.

Kovalev is Russian and English is his second language. He’s never been a warm and fuzzy kind of a guy, but his image took a hit when he engaged in what appeared to be racist behavior toward African-American fighters Jean Pascal and Stevenson.

Ward is as well-spoken as they come – he is outstanding on television, and did a brilliant job as an HBO Sports ringside analyst – and he’s a 2004 U.S. Olympian, and the last American man to win a boxing gold medal.

Yet, fans haven’t seemingly warmed to him, either. He’s kept his personal story close to the vest and perhaps because the public hasn’t had a chance to get to know him intimately, it doesn’t feel a personal connection to him that makes them want to follow him closely.

As a result, what should be a glorious night for boxing will instead be largely ignored beyond the insular world of the sport’s hardcore fan base.

It’s a boxer vs. slugger match between two of the best in the world, but five days before the first bell, the promotion already seems on life support.

Don’t be surprised if the two act up when they see each other for the first time at Thursday’s news conference. They need to do something to capture the public’s attention, or the bout will die a grisly death at the box office.

It’s a potentially great fight that is badly in need of a spark.

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