By Kieran Mulvaney
LAS VEGAS – When Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward first met in the ring last November, it was in a battle for pound-for-pound supremacy that ended inconclusively and controversially. Neither man was able to stake a clear claim to be the very best boxer in the world, and Kovalev and his promoters spent the subsequent six months vehemently disputing Ward’s close decision win.
The second time Kovalev and Ward met in the ring, in the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Saturday, the result was more conclusive, and the case of one man to be pound-for-pound number one was, in the immediate aftermath, seemingly greatly strengthened. But it was ultimately no less controversial, at least in the eyes of Team Kovalev, who left the arena dejected and protesting the circumstances surrounding the Russian’s eighth-round stoppage loss.
Ward’s razor-thin victory the first time around came on the back of a strong showing in the second half of the bout; but he admitted in the build-up to the rematch that he had “dug a hole” for himself with a slow start that included a second-round knockdown. He was determined, he said, to start faster this time, and he came flying out of his corner at the first bell on Saturday, as if determined to make a statement and leave an impression. Even so, the fight soon settled into a pattern of Kovalev (30-2-1, 26 KOs) stalking and attempting to cut off the ring, while Ward (32-0, 16 KOs) circled and sought to land strong counters. The fight was fast-paced and tense from the get-go, with each man feinting and slipping to avoid incoming artillery as well as trying to land definitive blows of his own. And although Ward may have shaded the opening frame, it was Kovalev who settled into his rhythm more rapidly, landing stiff jabs and coming ever closer to dialing in his patented straight right behind it.
The most significant harbinger, as it turned out, came in the second, when, in the midst of an exchange in close, Kovalev doubled over from a low blow, prompting referee Tony Weeks to give Ward a warning. After a brief pause the two boxers resumed battle, and Kovalev probably won that round and the subsequent one; but, through three, the contest was shaping up to be as close as it had been the first time around.
The first easy-to-score round of the fight was the fourth; after opening with Ward walking into a sharp Kovalev counter, it came alive as Ward torqued a booming lead right that just missed and followed up with a stinging straight left that snapped back Kovalev’s head. As the two men worked in close, Ward launched a hook and an uppercut to the Kovalev torso; and in the fifth, he stepped up his aggression, stepping to the side and ripping lefts and rights from angles. Kovalev’s offense, in contrast, suddenly looked plodding, as he stalked forward in straight lines behind his jab.
But if the Russian’s punches were predictable, they remained highly powerful, which was underlined when a sharp counter left from Kovalev hurt Ward and rendered him hesitant in the sixth. The fight was evenly poised on the cards at the halfway point, but at the start of the seventh, Kovalev suddenly appeared spent. The two men leaned on each other, Ward ripping more uppercuts to the body as they worked in close and Kovalev again sagging from an apparent low blow. Kovalev returned to action almost immediately, but received a stinging left hook for his efforts.
The end came in the eighth. An exhausted-looking Kovalev doubled over again, once more complaining of a low blow, and this time Ward spread his arms out wide in disbelief, confident that the body blows he was landing were both legal and sapping the strength from his foe. Ward was now not only clinching with Kovalev, he was pushing him back across the ring. Then, suddenly, Ward had the space he was looking for, and he launched a massive right hand that twisted Kovalev’s head to one side and caused his leg to dance. For a second or so, Ward seemed not to fully comprehend the damage he had caused, but then he pounced, ripping punches to Kovalev’s body and assaulting his head. A left to the ribcage sent Kovalev sideways and Ward followed him to the ropes, violently launching uppercuts to the body; again, Kovalev sagged and bent forward, this time slumping so that he was sitting on the ropes, which prompted Weeks to intervene and call a halt to the contest. The official time was 2:25 of round 8.
Kovalev afterward seemed stunned and confused by what had happened.
“I cannot explain what happened,” he said in the ring afterward. “Yes, sure I could have continued. This is a fight. I could continue the fight. He didn’t hurt me, except with the low blows.” By the time he showed up for the postfight press conference, he was stronger in his exhortation. “He’s really lucky,” he said. “He’s not the best opponent I ever faced. He’s the best of the dirty fighters.”
Kovalev’s manager Egis Klimas was even more forthright.
“What happened today, as many of you saw, was Ward got away with what he’s good at. He’s a lucky fucking champion.” Kovalev’s promoter Kathy Duva was reportedly considering filing a protest over the low blows – but, while replays showed that some of the punches that landed in the conclusive barrage were indeed borderline at best, others were clearly above the belt.
For his part, Ward argued that “we can’t talk about the low blows without talking about the rabbit punches [that Kovalev landed].” Besides, he said, “if the fight had gone one more round, it would have been ugly. He was hurt to the body and the head. We earned this victory tonight, we earned it.”
In the glowing aftermath of victory, Ward had one simple question.
“Can I get the top of the pound-for-pound list now?”
Seven months after the question was first meant to be answered, he now has a compelling case.