By Leslie Marshall
Sergey Kovalev’s excellent jab was dictating the fight, and Andrew Ward had no answers; he even held on for dear life after a counter right dropped him in the second round.
The Russian continued to pile up round after round, but then Ward figured it all out.
He made an adjustment — ducking under Kovalev’s powerful shots while taking a step back to fight at the right distance — and it all came together.
Ward, 32, took over during the second half of an HBO pay-per-view fight in Las Vegas to cement himself as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the sport with a unanimous decision victory over Kovalev.
All three judges scored it 114-113.
“We did it, baby,” a jubilant Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) said with three belts draped around him. “It’s a lot of hardware — surreal. This is what we set out to do. I’m a five-time world champion in two different weight classes, man. It’s amazing.
“I have been a champ before, I knew it was going to be a tough fight. It wasn’t the first time in my career I was dropped.”
Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs) was understandably frustrated by the scoring — many rounds were incredibly difficult to judge.
“Krusher,” though, was having a hard time accepting his first professional defeat. After all, he had cruised through seven title defenses and was totally in control during the first half of this matchup.
“It’s the wrong decision,” Kovalev, 33, said. ” … The witnesses are here — they saw it. It was the 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. Of course, I want a rematch, and I will kick his (expletive) I want to show good boxing.”
Everyone else wants a return bout, too. And fans are going to get one.
Main Events CEO Kathy Duva told reporters she will send a letter to Ward promoter Roc Nation Sports today to officially inform them the immediate rematch clause will be exercised.
“I’m happy we had a great fight, boxing really needed a great fight,” she said. “Ward is a brilliant fighter, but Sergey was the better man tonight.
“The wrestling (from Ward) was outrageous. The referee (Robert Byrd) did absolutely nothing about it. And I’m really upset about that.”
It was quite a physical affair with each man’s nose leaking blood. Ward’s face was marked up in particular, a rare sight for the defensively gifted athlete.
A master of inside fighting, he tied Kovalev up time and again and threw debilitating shots to the midsection. Kovalev responded by wisely bulldozing Ward to the ropes, and Byrd let them fight it out.
Kovalev piled up rounds early, winning four of the first five on all three judges’ scorecards with an extra-point advantage due to the knockdown.
But the Bay Area-fighter made the proper adjustments around the midway point of the fight, and won each of the last six rounds on two cards and five of those on the third.
Perhaps nothing shifted the trajectory of the fight more than the knockdown.
Ward said when he still charged forward despite the knockdown, it showed Kovalev he was there to fight and that he could indeed take his best shot.
When they engaged, Ward landed the cleaner punches, and that seemed to resonate with judges. It also didn’t hurt that the crowd went wild with each Ward jab — and there were many of them — that snapped Kovalev’s head back over the second half.
It’s amazing that Ward even made it to the second half of the fight. The second-round knockdown came toward the tail end of the frame, and Ward, clearly on wobbly legs, was able to make it to the bell.
Ward’s jab seemed to stymie Kovalev’s rhythm, and his taunting bolo punches frustrated Kovalev to the point he recklessly charged in.
“He only knows how the fight one way,” Ward told USA TODAY Sports, admitting the showboating was meant to rattle Kovalev. “He’s an emotional fighter.”
Ward already cleaned out the super middleweight division and stands as the top guy at 175 pounds for now, but a return encounter awaits, and it can’t come soon enough.
“I’ve tasted everything you can taste as a professional fighter,” Ward said, “except a los