Photo by Darryl Cobb.
Leading into one of the best-matched world championship fights of recent years tonight in Sergey Kovalev against Andre Ward, the boxing community is buzzing over what will happen in the ultimate pairing of boxer vs. puncher. Not many men can say that they have shared the ring with both fighters, and one member of that elite crew is super middleweight contender Derrick “Take it to the Bank” Webster (21-1, 11 KOs), who has been in separate training camps with each of the two world-class combatants.
Before light heavyweight world champion Sergey Kovalev became must-see TV, he was a relatively unknown fighter on trial with Main Events. Even his now head trainer John David Jackson was not sure if he wanted to work with the power-punching Russian at the time. The year was 2012, Kovalev was amid preparation for a rematch with Darnell Boone, and he had been running through sparring partners. Boone had taken Kovalev to a split decision in their first outing, and he also stands as the only man who has dropped Andre Ward. Webster and Boone would later share the ring as well in 2013, with Webster claiming a decision win over the ever-durable veteran.
In need of sparring partners, Webster got the call to help Kovalev finish his camp for Boone, and the Glassboro native immediately headed down to Florida.
“When I went into camp with Kovalev, I was there when no one knew exactly who he was,” Webster recalled. “When I got the phone call, a fight of my own had just fallen out, so I decided to go down to Florida to make some money for my family. I thought I was just going to box an up-and-coming guy, and I had no idea who it really was. Once I got down there, he was a nice guy and someone who was really into his craft. When I got into that camp, John David Jackson didn’t even really want to fool with him yet.”
With just a few weeks remaining until the fight with Boone, Webster quickly found out what had made so many other fighters take an early exit from the camp.
“The first time I got into the ring with him, I got off some good shots,” he said. “I thought the camp was going to be easy, but he quickly adjusted after that round. He has both an inside game and an outside game. He can really fight, and his power is most definitely real. Those few weeks in camp with him were hell. I remember calling my trainer Denny Brown and telling him ‘Get me out of this camp’ (laughing). My trainer laughed about it, and I obviously stayed in the camp. I had to learn the hard way why I was the only sparring partner in camp with him. It’s hard to get people to stand in there with that guy. I went into that camp at 162 pounds because I was training for my own fight, and Kovalev was almost 190 pounds. It was just rough all the way across the board.”
On one particular occasion, Webster stated that he got a complete dose of how significant Kovalev’s power truly was.
“One time with Kovalev, I threw a lead left, and he threw a lead right. But his got there first,” he recalled. “The power behind that punch made my entire back lock up on me, and I remember my whole back going hot. His power is real.”
Webster made some adjustments during the camp, and he eventually looked to finish it off on a high note on the last day.
“The last sparring session we had, I gave him all that I had,” he remarked. “After we got done, he said ‘You seem very mad at me.’ I looked him and said ‘You’re damn right! (laughing) All of these beatings you’ve been handing out over these past couple of weeks, and I know you’re taking me to the airport after this?’ You better believe that I gave him all that I had. But you know, I learned so much in that camp. When we finished up, he said ‘After me, you’ll be a world champion. Nobody will be able to put you through what I put you through.’ I still hold onto that to this day.”
Being a southpaw who stands 6-foot-4, Webster used to find himself as the ideal candidate for fighters who were training for a bout with former world champion Chad Dawson. One of those calls came in late 2012 when Andre Ward was preparing to take on Dawson in Oakland.
“Andre Ward is an incredible person all the way across the board,” Webster stated. “You can’t say anything negative about him in that town without having somebody hop on you. His city truly loves him, and he carries himself so well both inside and outside the ring. One of the first things you learn by training with him is that he is very focused on his craft. Sometimes, he doesn’t like sharing the ring with anyone if he’s working on something, and he just prefers to have the entire ring to himself in those situations. He is definitely a man at work.”
Ward was already acknowledged as one of the best fighters on the planet when Webster headed into camp with him, so it was a different situation than Kovalev in terms of knowing what to expect. However, Webster quickly realized some similarities between the two.
“Being inside the ring with him and sparring with him, it was similar to the camp with Kovalev,” Webster confirmed. “In the first sparring session, I got some good shots off on him, but he came back and had instantly adjusted. It’s more than just a chess match in there with him. He knows how to use his distance, and everything he does is done correctly. You never see any lapses, and you never see him showboat. He sticks to his craft, and he is an all-around amazing fighter.”
Being around another world-class fighter in Ward, Webster saw his overall boxing pedigree increase even more.
“I remember one round when I thought to myself ‘When is this round going to end?’” he recalled. “He is like that annoying gnat at a barbeque that you can’t get away from. He hits you wherever he wants to hit you, and he is precise with everything that he throws. You never see him waste any punches, and he finds a way to take away your strengths. When you have someone take away the best thing you have to give to him, and he’s just there beating on you, it creates an extremely frustrating situation. Andre Ward is boxing. He is truly incredible.”
With the experiences that he shared in the ring with both Kovalev and Ward, Webster will look upon their championship bout tonight with an even more profound attentiveness.
“What gets me most excited about this fight is the fact that I have had the experience of being in the ring with both of these great world champions,” he remarked. “In terms of what I am looking for in the fight, I am looking to see if Andre can take the power and pressure of Kovalev. I am also looking to see if Kovalev can rise to the occasion of being in the ring with a guy like Andre Ward and realize that he is not going to be able to bully him around the ring. Both of these guys are exciting fighters and great boxers. There are levels to this game, and I am itching to see who rises to the occasion. I have my prediction, but I am most interested in seeing who truly rises to the occasion.”
Kovalev vs. Ward is available tonight via HBO Boxing PPV. Contact your local cable provider to order this highly anticipated match-up.