Andre Ward survived an early knockdown to edge a nail-biting points win over Sergey Kovalev and capture the IBF, WBA Super and WBO world light-heavyweight titles.
The American held onto his unbeaten record courtesy of a unanimous decision, with all three judges at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas scoring it 114-113 in his favour.
Ward was put on the canvas in a sensational second round as Kovalev made the faster start and had the majority of the vociferous crowd expecting him to get the decision.
The Russian called for an immediate rematch and insisted politics had played a hand in the first loss of his stellar light-heavyweight career on a night when the winner was likely to be labelled as the new pound-for-pound best.
Ward will take the glory but after an opening round that saw him on the backfoot, Kovalev put him through a career-defining test in the second with a stunning knockdown.
Andre Ward survived a second-round knockdown on Saturday night and came back in the final six rounds to earn a narrow decision over Sergey Kovalev in a battle of unbeaten light heavyweights here in Sin City, writes Gareth A Davies.
Ward took Kovalev’s three light heavyweight titles in a fight that saw Kovalev put extreme pressure on the American for six rounds, before the unbeaten Ward managed to change the pattern of the fight – and get the eye of the judges. All three ringside judges had Ward winning 114-113. I had Kovalev the victor 115-112.
I scored rounds 1, 2 (a 10-8 with the knockdown) 3, and 4 then 6, 8 and 10 for the Russian. Ward won the rest, but there were several close rounds.
“It’s the wrong decision,” Kovalev said afterwards. “But I don’t want to give my opinion. Everybody is here, witnesses are here, everybody saw what happened,” he said.
“He got maybe a few rounds. But not the whole fight. I kept control. I lost maybe three rounds.
“I’m a guest here in the USA and he’s a local, and all the judges are from the USA. I agree they support their boxer but honestly, this is sport. Don’t make it like politics.”
The tight nature of the contest makes a rematch almost inevitable.
Asked if he would face Ward again, Kovalev replied: “Sure – and I’ll kick his ass.”
“You never know how judges are going to see it. But take nothing away from Kovalev,” he said.
“In a tight fight, he’s going to feel like he got robbed, I’d have been been disappointed. But we got the belts tonight.”
Kovalev knocked Ward down in the second stanza and then pursued Ward around the ring much of the early part of the fight. Ward showed his brilliance by changing the slant of the fight, though it was greeted as controversial by many when the decision was read out.
Veteran fight commentator Larry Merchant told me that if it had been had in Russia, it would not have surprised him if Kovalev had been awarded nine of the rounds.
Kovalev flashed his power early, hitting Ward with a left hand midway through the first round that briefly wobbled Ward’s legs. Ward grabbed and held on and finished the round jabbing at the Russian, but the tone of the fight was set early.
Midway through the second round, both fighters threw right hands but it was Kovalev’s that landed flush to the side of Ward’s head, putting him on the canvas. He got up quickly and smiled as if not hurt but needed all of his supreme defensive skills to make it out of the round.
Ward seemed unwilling to go inside after that, moving backward and trying to land jabs to control the action. But he abandoned the style that had served him so well over the years and fought moving backward, throwing only one punch at a time, as Kovalev constantly pressed the attack.
Ward did have some moments, including the seventh round when he landed a good left that snapped Kovalev’s head back.
Ward earned $5 million, while Kovalev was paid $2 million plus a percentage of pay-per-view.