A pair of designer sunglasses concealed Andre Ward’s bruised, swollen eyes as he assessed what should have been the crowning achievement of more than two decades spent in the cruelest sport. The greatest night of his professional life had swiftly turned into a deposition.
It was less than an hour after the 32-year-old from Oakland had wrested the WBA, WBO and IBF light heavyweight titles from Sergey Kovalev at the T-Mobile Arena, coming off the canvas to rally during the second half of the fight to nick a narrow, controversial unanimous decision. Behold the audible gasp across the T-Mobile Arena when it was announced that all three ringside judges had turned in identical scores of 114-113. (The Guardian had it 115-112 to Kovalev.)
The fight itself had been a gripping affair worthy of the hype: a rare matchup between two undefeated champions in their primes with legitimate aspirations to boxing’s pound-for-pound throne. It was close. That much everyone can agree on. And once the shock over the outcome settles down and the inevitable rematch is written into the calendar, it will be remembered as such. The master technician, who hadn’t known defeat since an amateur tournament when he was 13, did what he’s done every fight since: he found a way to scratch out the win.
But for now Ward was in the defensive crouch he’d found himself for most of the night against the Russian puncher nicknamed Krusher, who had outthrown and outlanded the Olympic champion over 12 grueling rounds.
"Classic hometown decision," grumbled longtime observer and former HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant from ringside to no one in particular. "In America, a gold medalist. A hometown decision."
Kovalev’s ramrod jab troubled Ward from the opening bell, wobbling him near the end of the first and early in the second and drawing a trickle of blood from his nostril. The intelligent pressure of the champion appeared had thrown Ward’s typical mastery of distance and range into disarray. He was simply too easy to hit, perhaps a consequence of fighting only four times in the last 50 months due to injuries and a promotional spat.
Then Kovalev connected with a wicked left-right combination that dumped Ward to the canvas for only the second time in his career. Ward smiled as he beat the count but was quickly overwhelmed by Kovalev along the ropes and fortunate to make it out of the round.
For all the talk of Kovalev’s concussive power, it was the Russian’s underrated boxing skills that padded his lead in the fourth, fifth and sixth. Ward’s punches seemed to have no effect on Kovalev, who fought with patience and an unnerving composure.
Matters began to turn for Ward in the seventh after he caught Kovalev flush with a jab and hook early in the round. His movement was improved as he circled the champion, peppering him with crisp shots. By now Kovalev had started to tire as Ward controlled the action with hand speed, territorial aptitude and precision punching to the head and body. Ward was the busier and more accurate fighter in the ninth, at one point landing a bolo punch that whipped the crowd into a frenzy. When the bell rang, nearly all of the 13,310 spectators were on their feet.
Ward’s superior in-fighting, the ability to score and maneuver in close quarters, helped him neutralize Kovalev’s prodigious power and close the gap over the final rounds. “It was about those in-the-trenches moments,” he’d say afterward. “Sergey has no inside game, so I focused on my mid-range and my inside game and that made all the difference.”
Kovalev found a second wind in the championship rounds, stalking Ward about the ring and putting the challenger on the back foot for the first time since the opening act. Ward knew he needed every round to have a chance and refused to back down. The only certainty when the final bell rang was that the ending would be controversial.
Kovalev (31-1-1, 26 KOs), who earned $2m for Saturday’s fight compared to Ward’s career-high $5m purse, was bemused if clearly disappointed in the aftermath.
“The witnesses are here, they saw it,” he said. “Look at his face and look at my face, who is the winner?
“The fight was clearer than the decision.”
Kovalev's promoter Kathy Duva called it the "wrong decision" and said the fighter would be exercising a clause in the fight contract that calls for an immediate rematch unless both parties agree to forgo it.
“We got a great fight, which is what we all wanted and what boxing needed,” she said. “What boxing didn’t need was another bad decision and we got that too.
“I think Ward would have a great career in the UFC. I haven’t seen so much wrestling since Conor McGregor on the UFC card last week. Ridiculous.”
Ward (31-0, 15 KOs), who was awarded 17 of a possible 18 rounds on all three judges’ scorecards during the second half of the fight, was defiant in victory.
“I knew it was going to be a tough fight,” said Ward, who landed 116 of 337 punches (34%) compared to 126 of 474 for Kovalev (27%). “I think after the second-round knockdown he realized I wasn’t going anywhere and I was stepping on the gas. Technically, there’s always stuff I can pick apart. I wasn’t happy about that knockdown but I didn’t panic. I was at peace. Now it’s time to really get to work. I wasn’t hurt by it. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t hurt by anything he threw.”
Added Ward's longtime trainer Virgil Hunter: "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."
Now Ward, a longtime champion at 168lbs who all but cleaned out the division, becomes only the seventh fighter to win titles at super middleweight and light heavyweight, a class that includes Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Iran Barkley and Roy Jones Jr.
Hunter had said this week that Ward and Kovalev, two of boxing’s finest practitioners who have yet to achieve crossover stardom, needed one another: “They can’t be great unless they fight each other.”
Now they just need to do it again.