LAS VEGAS – Andre Ward said it would be Round 13.
That he didn’t want to hear any excuses this time from Sergey Kovalev; that there would be no controversy.
And guess what? Ward delivered. Big.
He claimed the vacant RING light heavyweight championship with a legacy-building performance, an eighth-round stoppage of Sergey Kovalev on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in the headline bout on HBO Pay-Per-View. Ward accomplished the stunning finish with deliberate, punishing body blows that broke Kovalev down.
It appeared the Russian wanted out after he turned away from Ward the previous round. Then in Round 8, Ward absolutely buckled Kovalev with a straight right that turned his legs to jelly.
Ward (32-0, 16 knockouts) sensed the moment and followed Kovalev around the ring. He winged more blows to the midsection and Kovalev didn’t answer. Ward let loose with body punch after body punch – the last one clearly below the belt line – in the corner until referee Tony Weeks stepped in and halted the 175-pound contest at 2:29 of Round 8.
“I knew this was going to be different,” said Ward, who sported red Air Jordan trunks and matching boots. “He fought a good fight the first time but when I went back and looked at it, I computed it and tonight I came out all right.
“Can I ask a question? Am I No. 1 now?”
Ward was referencing boxing’s mythical pound-for-pound list, on which he already sits atop when it comes to THE RING’s rankings. After a performance like this, it’s going to be hard for anyone else to deny him that recognition.
The Bay Area native won the first fight via unanimous decision but endured a firestorm of controversy afterward, with many fans and media members favoring Kovalev, who scored a second-round knockdown in the November meeting.
The second time around, Ward promised, there would be no such talk.
It appeared for a while, though, that we were all heading toward another razor-thin finish.
At the time of stoppage, Ward led 67-66 on two official scorecards, with Kovalev ahead 68-65 on the third. RingTV.com had Ward ahead 67-66 as well, but there were many tough-to-score swing rounds.
Kovalev (30-2, 25 KOs) laid down some tremendous work, even though he came up short. His measured jab gave Ward fits over the early rounds – just like the first fight – and his chopping right scored time and again.
The animosity between the two fighters – built up over months and months of trash talk and resentment from the first bout – was palpable. Simply put, these guys hate each other.
Every time Ward landed flush, Kovalev – in silver and black — became visibly agitated and charged forward. The 34-year-old boxer-puncher was ornery all week and part of the reason was his purse, likely between $1 million and $2 million due to a 75 percent split of promoter Main Events’ 40 percent cut of the revenue. Ward earned a guaranteed $6.5 million.
But Kovalev was earning every dollar in the early going. His chopping right found its home, and he even mixed in some lead, feinting rights that seemed to befuddle Ward.
By Round 6, Kovalev appeared completely gassed. His mouth was agape, and Ward seemingly noticed. There were plenty of clinches over the first three rounds, but now the Olympic gold medalist was really wrestling with Kovalev in an attempt to tire him out further.
The damage began to take its toll, with Ward now zeroing in with clean left hook leads and straight right that drew “oohs” from the pro-Ward crowd with each connect. Trainer Virgil Hunter promised throughout fight week that he trained Ward for a knockout, and it showed.
Kovalev claimed he overtrained for the first fight, and was “empty” by Round 5. He hired a new strength and condition coach and though he remedied the issue, but his fitness crept up again.
“I don’t know, I can’t really explain it,” Kovalev said of the finish. “(I didn’t win) every round, but I thought I was doing very good. I was better and he was better this fight. I didn’t feel like I was getting knocked down by the power of his punches.”
He pointed to repeated low blows landed by Ward – the champ was warned in Round 2 – especially in Rounds 7 and 8. Those punches, Kovalev said, took a lot of steam out of him.
“I could have continued,” he insisted. “I didn’t feel he could throw the punch that would end the fight. This is fighting; we are boxers. Yes, he did punch me, but he didn’t hurt me. The fight should have continued.
“I would like it very much to fight him again.”
That’s unlikely to ever happen. Not with all the animosity that remains between the two camps, even extending to the promoters and trainers.
And certainly not after Ward has now beat him not once, but twice, this time with a resounding finish that left no doubts.
Surely, Kovalev will be back. He’s still one of the best fighters in the world, and the long-anticipated battle with lineal light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson would still be a big-time fight.
Kovalev is back to the drawing board, but Ward is right where he needs to be: atop the pound-for-pound list as the best boxer in the world.
Mike Coppinger is the Senior Writer for RingTV.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger
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