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Sergey Kovalev’s black hat inscribed with one word, “WAR,” nearly said more than he did before he angrily walked off the stage at his news conference with bitter rival Andre Ward.

Kovalev, 34, is stewing about many things as Saturday’s rematch looms, raising the most important question that looms before the HBO pay-per-view bout: How much fighting rage is too much?

In November, Kovalev suffered his first loss and surrendered his three light-heavyweight belts to Oakland’s unbeaten Ward by the narrowest of margins, 114-113 on all three scorecards.

Ward and his team have salted the wound by saying things that have left Kovalev to fend off questions about a social media post with racial overtones; the possibility that his trainer, John David Jackson, considered leaving him for Ward’s team; and that he’s fortunate to be receiving the rematch.

“I can say they are liars,” Kovalev told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday before failing to attend a larger group interview with reporters Thursday morning. “[Ward] said he gave the boxing fans a present” by permitting this rematch. “It was in the contract before the first fight. I don’t like a lot of things they say.”

The depth of that disdain — seen when Kovalev started his news conference walk-off by pointing to Ward and saying, “You, be prepared,” with Ward replying, “Don’t point your finger at me” — left Kovalev promoter Kathy Duva to offer her assessment that the Russian is “as mean as a snake right now.”

“He can be as mad as he wants to be. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing,” said Ward (31-0, 15 knockouts), whose pedigree is built on a clever, sophisticated approach. “If he wants to come in there hot-headed, we’re going to cool him off round by round. It’s my job to turn him away.”

In the first bout, Kovalev dropped Ward in the second round before Ward rallied by winning several narrow rounds in the second half of the bout to trigger the frustration that has continued to escalate.

“He’s working himself into a lather, but I think it’s going to backfire,” Ward said. “With a guy like him, you’ve got to get him mentally first. Once he sees he can’t do what he wants, he’s got to dig deep mentally and see if he has the fortitude to press like he says he wants to press.”

Kovalev sought to mask anger’s toll before losing his cool at the news conference.

“I am most upset and disappointed because I’m getting less money [than Ward], not over the loss on my record.” Kovalev said. “OK, I lost, but this doesn’t break me. It makes me stronger for this next fight.”

Duva and Kovalev’s manager, Egis Klimas, identified three other occasions where their fighter was most inflamed: his 2012 rematch with Darnell Boone following a split-decision victory; a 2013 bout against Ismayl Sillah, when the Ukrainian spoke ill of Kovalev; and last year’s rematch with Canadian Jean Pascal, where racism again was raised.

Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev
Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev
Boone and Sillah were both knocked out in the second round, Pascal was battered and forced to retire after seven rounds.

“He’s done his best work when he’s angry, he focuses better,” Duva said. “He takes that rage and focuses it in the ring. It’s what makes him better. All this [with Ward] is terrific.”

Duva was reminded of a story Kovalev told her about being confronted at age 18 by 10 guys who intended to rough him up.

Kovalev told Duva, “I could’ve run or I could fight. If I run, I have to live with this. If I stay, I might get hurt and I’m scared, so let’s go.”

He knocked down five of the young men and remembered he had a hammer in his car, grabbing it before turning around and watching the five others flee down the street.

“Sergey’s life is fighting, and it started in the street,” Duva said. “From early on, he had to learn to not let his anger and rage prevent him from knocking out five guys.

“[Kovalev] was nobody and he’s grown into this place where he’s the No. 2 fighter in the world. It’s just been grating to him that all the talk this week seems to be about everything but the fight and this progression he’s taken.”

The desperation a first-fight loser faces in a high-profile rematch is stark, said former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, who overcame a 1992 unanimous-decision loss to Riddick Bowe to defeat Bowe by majority decision a year later.

“You have to be honest with what you did wrong and minimize those mistakes. That’s the key, be accountable for you,” Holyfield said. “I didn’t think about how desperate it was for my legacy. I decided to go out there and give my all, and stand on that. And 99 percent of the time, if you out-work somebody, you win the fight.”

Those lessons helped Holyfield proceed to two victories over Mike Tyson in a career that found him inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Kovalev’s strides this camp were to align with a Russian Olympic biathlon coach for conditioning and to accept more schooling from his trainer Jackson, who said he has “proof in my phone” that attempts to recruit him by Ward trainer Virgil Hunter and manager James Prince between fights were no more than mental gamesmanship.

“Last time, I was caught up in this fight for No. 1 pound-for-pound, fighting the best American, Andre Ward, my first pay-per-view … ,” Kovalev said. “I was very excited and pushed myself too much every day and nobody was around to stop me.

“I went over all my past mistakes and I’m very excited. I don’t have any more patience remaining left. I just want to kick Ward’s [rear].”

Source: Lance Pugmire| LA Times