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Andre Ward told us all it was coming.
He insisted across several press conferences and media sessions ahead of Saturday night’s rematch with Sergey Kovalev that it would be he, and not the burly Russian, who’d end the fight via knockout.
And while Kovalev and his cadre of supporters may lament the way it ultimately arrived, it’ll be much harder for them to argue the point the Californian proved at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Now 33 years old and seven months past an initial victory many considered debatable, Ward out-bullied the heretofore more menacing Kovalev with precise head shots and debilitating body blows on the way to an eighth-round stoppage that let him retain his three-belt hold on the 175-pound ranks.
But, more importantly, it gave him a claim to a title he considers far more meaningful.
He is the best in the world. Period.
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“I don’t think it’ll be possible to keep you out of the No. 1 ranking, because of who you did it against,” HBO’s Max Kellerman told a scraped-up but beaming Ward in the ring.
“I think you are the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world tonight.”
Indeed, the win boosted Ward to 32-0 and marked his 16th stoppage in a career that’s now six months past its 12th birthday, stretching back to when he came out of the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, with the only U.S. boxing gold medal.
The pro resume he’s compiled had already included a super middleweight cleanout that claimed the top-end likes of Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch, not to mention a champ-vs.-champ erasure of Chad Dawson that effectively ruined the one-time light heavyweight king’s career.
Those wins had earned Ward a predictably high profile among the sport’s list-making cognoscenti, but his prolonged bouts of inactivity—thanks to myriad physical zigs and endless promotional zags—threatened to become a lasting career legacy before a jump in weight became a new beginning.
He lost two of 33 rounds while plowing through second-class citizenry at 175 but provided as many questions as answers following a reed-thin defeat of Kovalev last November in which he was dropped in the second, rattled several more times and greeted by calls of “bulls—” from the beaten man’s camp.
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The second go-round appeared destined for similar debate, as Kovalev took an early lead before Ward began asserting himself offensively while making a concerted effort to work to the naturally bigger man’s body. Bleacher Report had the challenger up, 68-65, through seven rounds, but two of the three official cards had Ward ahead—and the optics were surely turning in his favor.
That apparently wasn’t by coincidence.
“Once I compute a fighter in my brain, I know what to do the next time around,” he told Kellerman. “[Kovalev’s] a great fighter. Facing a great fighter, you’ve got to raise your game to the next level.”
The payoff came suddenly in the eighth, when a flush right to the jaw clearly wobbled Kovalev, who remained unsteady as Ward pinned him along the ropes and delivered three consecutive left hooks to the belly. The first appeared to land directly on Kovalev’s waistband, while the subsequent two strayed a shade lower—prompting the challenger to lurch forward and referee Tony Weeks to intervene at 2:29.
“Championship fights really start in the second half,” Ward said. “When I saw him react to shots that were borderline, I knew what I had.”
Lou DiBella @loudibella
Ok haters, hear this: @andreward is a great fighter.
Kovalev contended the blows were fouls and demanded another immediate rematch, but his less-than-fearsome posture prior to the climax indicated the intangible tide had already turned and effectively took the teeth out of yet another “I’ll kick his a— (next time)” post-fight promise.
He’ll presumably need a new string of victories—and perhaps a win in a long-teased showdown with lineal division champ Adonis Stevenson—to get back on Ward’s radar.
But even that might not get it done.
Ward was already in the process of reconfiguring his career arc before he left the ring, suggesting to Kellerman that belts in the two biggest divisions—cruiserweight (200-pound weight limit) and heavyweight (201 and above)—had “always been a dream” and that “anything was possible” after extending a win streak that dates back to his days as a teenage amateur.
And after Saturday, when he had a 14.4-percent edge in power punches and a 10.3-percent edge in overall punches over a guy with 26 KOs in 30 wins, only a fool would suggest it’s a fantasy.
“I’ve never been the most talented guy and I’ve never been the biggest guy,” Ward said, “but we seem to keep knocking guys out.”