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LAS VEGAS – This one had the look and smell of a loss for Andre Ward. He was being bullied around the ring Saturday for by the bigger and more powerful Sergey Kovalev.
He was dropped in the second round by a straight right by the Russian bear, who by about the third or fourth round seemed ready to crush Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist.
But Ward is one of the wisest and shrewdest boxers of the last 50 years and he proved it on Saturday in his showdown with Kovalev for the light heavyweight title at T-Mobile Arena.
Ward won 114-113 on all three cards, the same score as Yahoo Sports had, to win the IBF, WBA and WBO belts. It also likely gives him the recognition as the world’s best pound-for-pound boxer.
“This is a beautiful thing,” Ward said. “We did it, baby.”
He’ll have to do it again in order to remain champion. Kovalev has a rematch clause and promoter Kathy Duva said she’d exercise it.
“We have 30 days to make the decision and we’ve already made it,” she said.
Kovalev was physically overwhelming Ward early in the fight. He was hitting him with clean, hard shots and mauling him when they got into the clinches.
But around the fifth round, two things changed. Kovalev quit using his right hand for the most part and Ward did what the truly great fighters do: He figured out the distance, he figured out the angle and he changed the way the fight was fought.
Kovalev kept charging forward but Ward spun and slipped out of danger. And Ward found a home for his jab, raking Kovalev repeatedly with his jab.
The bout largely turned into a jabbing contest and Ward won it easily. According to CompuBox, Kovalev landed just 19.8 percent of his jabs, while Ward landed 32.7.
Kovalev threw 137 more punches, but landed just 10 more, as Ward repeatedly made him miss over the second half.
“He did everything I expected him to do,” said Ward, who is now 31-0. “He started to show up as I expected he started to fight like I expected. My coach did a great job.”
Ward hasn’t lost since he was beaten by Jesus “Ernie” Gonzales as a 12-year-old in the amateurs. A major reason for that is his awareness in the ring and his understanding not only of what he’s trying to do, but also of his opponent.
Ward seemed to be wobbled by jabs in the first two rounds and then went down hard on the seat of his pants when Kovalev landed a lead right to the nose.
The crowd roared and if ever there was a moment Ward was going to break, that was it.
But Ward got up, gathered himself and went about his job. It wasn’t pretty. There was a lot of grappling and mauling and Kovalev’s side wasn’t thrilled with the work of referee Robert Byrd.
Duva made reference to UFC 205 in New York last week as she complained about the clinches that Ward initiated.
“Ward would have a great career in the UFC,” Duva said sarcastically. “I haven’t seen wrestling like that since Conor McGregor in New York.”
Byrd could have done more to prevent the clinches, no question, but it didn’t seem that the clinches made that much of a difference.
It was a maestro controlling the orchestra. Kovalev allowed Ward to dictate the pace of the fight and the distance it was fought at after the first couple of rounds.
Had Kovalev pushed the pace and kept firing his right, Ward might not have been able to make it to the finish.
But like a veteran quarterback whose legs are gone and who is being overwhelmed by the pass rush, Ward figured out a way to alter the momentum. He won most of the inside exchanges, getting so confident at one point that he resorted to the bolo punch to frustrate Kovalev.
“It was about those in-the-trenches moments,” Ward said. “Sergey had no inside game, so I focused on my mid-range and my inside game and that made all the difference.”
Kovalev, who fell to 30-1-1, didn’t see it the same way. He felt he’d done enough, and it was a reasonable decision given the tight nature of most of the rounds.
“It’s the wrong decision,” Kovalev said. “I don’t want to say my opinion. The witnesses are here. They saw it. It’s my job. It was a fight of my life I am disappointed in the judges decision. He got maybe a few rounds. I agree with that. I kept control. I lost maybe three rounds the whole fight.”
It was a close fight and there were a lot of close rounds that were difficult to judge. And the titles were up for grab as the 12th started.
Judges John McKaie and Glenn Trowbridge had it even, 104-104, after 11, and both gave Ward the 12th. Judge Burt Clements had Ward up 105-103 and gave Kovalev the 12th.
Kovalev would have won the bout had all three judges scored the 12th for him. That would have given him a split-decision win.
But this was Ward’s night. He showed why he won a 2004 Olympic gold medal, why he won the Super Six tournament and why he’s long been considered among the two or three greatest fighters in the world.
Now, he’s ascended to the top. With the wins on his résumé, it’s hard to say there is anyone better.
“I think after the second-round knockdown, he realized I wasn’t going anywhere and I was stepping on the gas,” Ward said. “This sounds so good: The new light heavyweight champion. This is my most important and satisfying win.”
And it’s one he got as much with his guile and his ring smarts as he did his physical skills.
It was typical Andre Ward.