Andre Ward’s career came within a punch or two of imploding at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Saturday night. Ward had been down before, but not quite like he was against Sergey Kovalev. A quick right hand in round 2 sent the 2004 Olympic gold medalist crashing to the canvas, plainly rattled when he rose.
As champions before him have done, Ward adjusted in the following round then wound up defeating the Russian-born unified light heavyweight champion by unanimous decision.
Many fans and members of ringside media quickly denounced the verdict, arguing that Kovalev had done enough to retain his belts and hand Ward his first loss. Ward, now 31-0 with 15 knockouts, scored likely his most significant win, but had to absorb more punches than he ever had before in doing so.
Kovalev, 30-1-1 with 26 knockouts, got out to an early lead by stunning Ward with a jab in the opening round before sending him down when the two traded right hands in the 2nd. Few have been able to escape “Krusher” Kovalev’s onslaught, and when Ward stared up a the champion he appeared no different from the other discarded challengers. In rising, fighting back and perhaps even winning the following round, Ward separated himself from Kovalev’s previous victims.
It became clear very quickly that when Kovalev neglected his jab the fight became more difficult. He had frozen Ward up in the early rounds with it, but when Ward used angles and landed sneaky punches, Kovalev inexplicably abandoned his most potent weapon.
From that point on it mostly became a question of whether one valued Ward’s ability to feint Kovalev out of position and out-box him, or Kovalev’s pressure and heavier shots, however infrequent they were.
What may have been a major factor in the scoring was Ward’s ability to roar back from a knockdown and make Kovalev fight on his terms. Even when Kovalev would land the errant hard power punch Ward would have nullified it with a cleaner-landing punch moments later. Kovalev also got sucked into a boxing match for much of the fight, rather than fighting the gritty tussle that might have given him a better chance at overwhelming the former super middleweight champion.
Ultimately Kovalev was unable to land much apart from an occasional right hand or hook in the middle rounds. Ward smothered Kovalev on the inside and out-tricked him from the outside in most exchanges, though the Bay Area native had a tougher fight than ever.
That was especially evident in the 10th and 12th rounds, when Kovalev marched forward and caught Ward on the ropes. Just as it seemed Ward might pull away with the fight entirely, Kovalev edged at least two of the championship rounds and entered the equation again. But it was too late on the cards as identical — and controversial — scores of 114-113 three times were tabbed for Ward.
“I want to transcend boxing,” Ward told reporters just before winning gold in 2004. “I want to really challenge the image of boxing.”
In truth Ward has fallen short of both; he hasn’t been able to break through to the mainstream despite his Olympic gold medal and subsequent success, and he’s gone through promotional issues, managerial issues and chronic injuries. In some ways he has only reinforced some of boxing’s stereotypes, good or bad.
The fight was neither the entertaining clash we’d hoped for nor the dominant outing both fighters could have used, but it was a competitive fight that boxing needed. Too often large or important events in the sport have fallen short of expectations, and this main event delivered in terms of intrigue. A slugfest would have been splendid, but many feared a dull fight in which Ward would suck the danger and thrill out of everything. Instead it was a high stakes match of skills.
That Ward triumphed rather unconvincingly means we should see a rematch, and what will probably be low Pay-Per-View numbers could push a rematch back onto regular HBO.
If Ward is as inactive as a light heavyweight as he was at super middleweight, we could be in for a tedious reign. In his post-fight interview with HBO Ward sounded like he was ready or another vacation. Pack your bags.
Kovalev, ever fueled by a mixture of annoyance and anger, was nearly rendered speechless by the decision. The Russian immediately called for a return bout and insisted he deserved the win while dismissing Ward’s performance. This 33-year-old bruiser won’t be easy to get rid of, but he’s on Andre Ward time now, unfortunately.
The best we can hope for is a rematch sometime in the next six months, and for that rematch to end more decisively. But that doesn’t sound like it concerns Ward, who is now the fighter to beat at light heavyweight and easily one of the best fighters in the world.