Ward did not see it at first. He stood off, leaving Kovalev teetering on his feet. But then he set about him, hammering the Russian across the ring, powering in shots. He ground Kovalev into the ropes, battering him down, folding him over a hook.
Kovalev was trapped in the ropes, wedged between the strands. He looked plaintively to the referee, complaining at a low blow but Tony Weeks took that as a sign of distress. He stepped in to wave it off there and then, at 2-29 of the eighth round. The light-heavyweight championship of the world was settled. Andre Ward retained the IBF, WBA and WBO titles.
The Russian seemed spent at that point but soon made his outrage clear. “He didn’t hurt me. I got tired but I still could fight,” Sergey said. “He punched me [with] low blows already a few times during the fight. I don’t have a metal ass.”
He had come into the fight complaining, about the points decision in their first fight last November, about Ward shirking his promotional responsibilities and about the allegations the American’s team had tried to poach his trainer, and Kovalev left incensed even further, fuming at Weeks’ intervention. “Who knows who would have got the victory if he didn’t stop the fight. I didn’t agree,” he added.
But Ward was in the process of ushering him out of the contest. He had Kovalev in a dangerous place and, to me, it was more a question of the referee’s timing of the stoppage, of when the American would finish it, rather than the outcome being somehow illegitimate.
In a harsher assessment Ward and his team thought Kovalev had been looking for a way out. “He quit. I know what I possess and I’ve been fortunate to show a high level of skill against the best in the world,” Andre said. “I think there should be discussion if there’s some intentional foul, over and over, if I’m trying to get out of trouble and I hit him low because I’m hurt. But when he’s bending over, you’re going to hit a guy on the belt line sometimes… If you’re going to talk about low blows, let’s talk about the rabbit punches. I got knocked on the side of my head. Let’s talk about that. We talk about one side, we’ve got to talk about the other.”
Ward’s trainer Virgil Hunter can take some vindication. Ahead of the fight he said he had been training his man for a knockout win, at the time an unlikely prospect. But Ward proved that he could hurt “Krusher”.
The Russian had found Ward’s mauling clinches frustrating, but the American had also been more effective on the inside, working in close to sink in hard hooks and uppercuts. There was no denying now that Kovalev had felt the body shots. As the first half of the contest progressed his hands drifted lower, resting his gloves on his hips for a moment as he sucked in air.
He remonstrated too much, bending forward after a low blow as if to prompt the referee to intervene. He had left himself exposed earlier in the eighth round too, bending over at the waist, trying to highlight another low blow but the referee had said nothing. Ward could have taken a free hit at him then but he declined.
“I was confused,” Ward said. “When I hit him with a body shot he tried to act like it was a low blow. It was borderline. I was looking at Weeks like ‘Can I go? Can I not go?’ I didn’t want to get a point taken, I didn’t want something crazy to happen.”
It was a far cry from the menace with which Kovalev began the fight. He loomed taller than Ward, looking the stronger man. He advanced and launched a lead right at the body. Andre got off a right of his own and tapped in his jab. These shots didn’t dissuade Kovalev and his forward march continued.
But crucially Ward began to choose the ground where the battle was fought. Kovalev wanted him on the end of his straight punches. But Ward either manoeuvred well clear, circling round him or mauled forward, tying up the increasingly agitated Sergey in clinches but, crucially, also working on the inside.
He ducked under many of Kovalev’s rushes and made the Russian miss a lot of his punches. Wary of him in their opening exchanges, especially as Sergey brought his heavy jab to bear, Ward began to contain those multiple threats. They were neck and neck after the first half of the fight (on two of the judges’ cards and in my opinion).
But Ward’s sapping attacks to the body were taking their toll. Kovalev was breathing heavily. Nevertheless he jabbed in hard. Sergey flung a right through at the end of the seventh round, but only after enduring a wide left hook swept in to the head.
“I think he was pretty much the same as the first time so I knew what he liked to do and what he didn’t like to do. A quality fighter but I was able to do some different things tonight,” Ward said.
“I’m not fighting a C-class fighter. I’m fighting a world champion so there’s not a lot that separates you in these kind of fights.”
But he added, “I’m used to being uncomfortable. That’s how I train. I knew he was going downhill round by round by round. I could tell.”
Just as Ward was beginning to nose ahead in the contest he launched that decisive right cross.
The blow drilled across Kovalev’s jaw hurting him like never before. That was the moment of truth.
From there Sergey unravelled, reeling across the ring as Andre swarmed forward. Kovalev crumpled over, trapped on the ropes. Even with the last punch wayward, he was in a bad position with nowhere to go. It’s easy to see why the referee, who had to make his judgement in that wild moment, spared him further punishment.
“He was out on his feet. I showed that I could hurt a bigger man,” Ward said. “I did what I had to do… The ref maybe could have let it go on a little longer. But that’s not my fault. That’s not my problem. I did my job.”
Sometimes in boxing even a knockout can be disputed. But Ward is unquestionably the finest light-heavyweight in the world. He is dominant in his second weight class. After shocking Mikkel Kessler, controlling Carl Froch and taking out Chad Dawson, this win is another key moment in his search for greatness.
“We seem to keep knocking down giants one by one,” Ward says. “Can I get on top of the pound for pound list now? Is it possible?”
I suspect so.