By Keith Idec
LAS VEGAS – Andre Ward was forced to dig down deeper Saturday night than ever before in a professional prizefight.
He couldn’t have responded better.
The former undisputed super middleweight champion overcame a second-round knockdown and dealt Sergey Kovalev his first defeat, an extremely close unanimous decision before a crowd of 13,310 at T-Mobile Arena. Ward won Kovalev’s IBF, WBA and WBO light heavyweight titles in a captivating yet largely clumsy clash between two of the best boxers in the world.
“This was a beautiful thing,” said Ward, a Hayward, California native. “We did it, baby. This is a lot of hardware. This is what we set out to do. I’m a five-time world champion. Man, it’s amazing.”
The 32-year-old Ward (31-0, 15 KOs), who hasn’t lost since he was a 12-year-old amateur, also kept his 20-year winning streak intact in a fight that featured several rounds that were difficult to score.
All three judges – Reno, Nevada’s Burt Clements, New York’s John McKaie and Las Vegas’ Glenn Trowbridge – scored the fight 114-113 for Ward. That means each judge scored seven of the 12 rounds for the 2004 Olympic gold medalist.
Referee Robert Byrd also had a difficult assignment. Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter, criticized how Byrd handled the clinching and wrestling.
Ward recovered from a second-round knockdown, eventually settled into a rhythm and gave Kovalev everything the hard-hitting Russian knockout artist could handle throughout a physical, rough fight that at times resembled UFC and WWE as much as boxing. When they threw punches, their jarring jabs were the most consistent weapons for both fighters.
The 33-year-old Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs) built a lead during the first half of this highly competitive battle, but Ward was able to stand his ground and made it much more difficult for Russia’s Kovalev to catch him clean in the final six rounds. A tiring Kovalev had some moments of success in those six rounds as well, but not nearly as many as he produced in the first half of the bout.
“It’s the wrong decision,” Kovalev said. “I don’t want to say my opinion. The witnesses are here. They saw it.”
Ward, whose Nevada State Athletic Commission contract guaranteed him $5 million, won the WBO 175-pound championship Kovalev won from Wales’ Nathan Cleverly in August 2013. He also captured the IBF and WBA titles Kovalev later won from Bernard Hopkins.
Nevertheless, the close, entertaining nature of their fight sparked talk at ringside of an immediate rematch, which Kovalev is owed in his contract.
Whatever occurs in the rematch, Ward silenced skeptics who questioned the often-cautious, cerebral boxer’s willingness to engage in an dangerous, back-and-forth brawl with a powerful opponent who had knocked out 26 of his first 31 opponents.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Virgil Hunter, Ward’s trainer. “We were a little careless with that knockdown in the second round. But we landed the cleaner punches. Kovalev was aggressive, but not effective. That’s why we won.”
Ward caught Kovalev with separate jabs that got Kovalev’s attention in the seventh round. By the end of that round, Kolalev connected with stinging jab of his own, which Ward demonstratively shook off to show the crowd he wasn’t hurt.
Kovalev connected with a right hand in the first half of the second round that caused Ward’s nose to start bleeding. That didn’t stop Ward from engaging, but it cost him because Kovalev connected with a counter right hand that dropped Ward for the first time in 11 years.
A stunned Ward smiled as he reached his feet, but he remained stunned. Kovalev attacked Ward as soon as Byrd allowed them to box again, but Ward made it to the end of the second round.
Ward was aggressive to start the third round, though, and shoved Kovalev across the ring. Byrd stepped in at that point and warned both fighters to stop wrestling and shoving each other.
Kovalev and Ward spent much of the third and fourth rounds wrestling for position on the inside. When they did fight at a distance, neither fighter was particularly effective in this two rounds before they tied up one another.
Ward felt Kovalev’s heavy hands very early in the fight. A stiff Kovalev jab affected Ward in the first round and initiated a clinch, which left both boxers tangled up in the ropes. The first round was filled with clinches and borderline dirty tactics that made it clear immediately that this would be a grueling fight for however long it lasted.
Ward landed a very hard jab that snapped back Kovalev’s head just before the midway mark of the fifth round. Kovalev came back quickly with a right hand that made Ward retreat.
Ward drilled Kovalev with a left hook later in the fifth that knocked Kovalev off balance. Kovalev didn’t seem as hurt at any point in the fight, though, as Ward was during the second round.
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.