“I won, but I didn't beat him.”
—-a distraught Apollo Creed, after barely beating Rocky Balboa
(Las Vegas): It started with an incredible, spine-tingling rendition of the star spangled banner.
Sang at full voltage by Jennifer Nettles in an electrified T-Mobile Arena, it set the tone for Michael Buffer's legendary “Let's get ready to rumble!!!”, as all 13,300 fans in attendance braced themselves for an epic encounter between WBA/WBO/IBF light heavyweight ruler Sergey Kovalev and all-time great super middleweight Andre Ward.
Then, the crucifixion of the “Son of God” began.
After 3:00's with the “Krusher”, Ward looked as if he'd been pushed into a closet with Satan without the Holy Ghost. Punishing jabs and thunderous right hands had a battered Ward reeling in the 2nd round, before he was bombed to the canvas. It was… Shocking. For me, it was somewhat similar to Floyd Mayweather's disastrous 2nd round against Shane Mosley in May 2010.
Gamely trying to stay in it, while basically still getting his ass kicked in rounds 3 and 4, there was a very palpable feeling at ringside that one of the greatest pure boxers of any generation was about to be stopped.
It was as if Kovalev was the son of Ivan Drago beating up Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler, the character Ward portrayed in “Creed”, before Ward remembered that this was not a movie.
He had a better 5th round– which in itself may have resulted in judges finding a way to give him the round, but he still didn't win it while clearly losing the 6th. That gave Kovalev a 60-53 advantage heading into the 7th round on my scorecard.
This was right around the time Ward put on a cape and went superhero on the villainous Kovalev, to remind us all why this was indeed a superfight.
“I watched Sugar Ray Leonard a lot before this,” Ward reflected later. “Thomas Hearns, Hagler… All of the greats to get a feel for this moment.”
Perhaps his trainer, Virgil Hunter, had thoughts of Angelo Dundee in mind (who, in one of the most memorable lines in boxing history, told Leonard late against Hearns, “You're blowing it son… You're blowing it!”), redirecting a resurgent Ward to bravely begin sweet science'ing a fading Kovalev. Ward won rounds 7, 8 and 9 with solid ring generalship.
The pivotal 10th round– the best round of the fight, went to Kovalev, who reestablished control with his powerful jab and aggression. This round should've essentially given Kovalev the fight; so when he won the 12th round for the hell of it, I personally can't see any way Andre Ward prevailed. We'll go out on a limb and say Main Events boss Kathy Duva, boxing's badass Erin Brockovich, agreed.
“Andre Ward clearly lost this fight and has a future with the UFC,” said a thoroughly disgusted Duva. “He wins 3 rounds- maybe 4, and got knocked down. We dealt with a terrible referee, wrestling and running, and we will immediately exercise the rematch clause to right this wrong.”
The real reason for outrage has a lot to do with Ward being measured against himself, and that is unfair to both him and a generational great fighter in Kovalev.
He moved up in weight to face a top 3 pound-for-pound killer, and wasn't allowed to fight not to lose. For perspective, this was the equivalent of Mayweather facing “GGG” at a full 160 with no choice but to engage. Think Floyd survives? The way he thought (or perhaps hoped) Ward wouldn't?
Life in the ring is the art of drawing without an eraser, and though the portrait painted was flawed, it was nonetheless beautiful and worthy of Picasso.
Seated with his joyously pugilistic son (adorable as he hit figurative mitts with Hunter), Andre is finished with the post fight press conference, when I pulled a Ward from the back of the press corps and refused to be denied.
“Andre, you chased Floyd for years and fought so long for recognition… Do you think with this performance you've earned the right to be called the best fighter in the world?” I shouted from a distance without a mic.
Pausing to process this with a very real humility, the new three belt and multi-division world champion waxed optimistic. “I hope so man… I hope so,” said Ward with a hint of relief. “I don't get a vote, but I hope so.”
He's got mine.