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Los Angeles (AFP) – Andre Ward of the United States scored a comeback unanimous decision victory over Russia’s Sergey Kovalev to claim the defending champion’s unified lightheavyweight title.
Ward, the 2004 Olympic champion, recovered from a second round knockdown to defeat Kovalev by 114-113 on all three judges cards after a gruelling battle at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena.
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The win saw Ward, 32, improve his unbeaten record to 31-0 with 15 knockouts.
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It was defending WBA, WBO and IBF champion Kovalev’s first defeat, leaving him at 30-1 with 26 knockouts.
Ward, stepping up a weight division, bounced back after a disastrous start that saw Kovalev dominate the early rounds and send his American crashing to the canvas in the second round.
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The Oakland-based fighter slowly began picking up rounds in the second half of the fight to take the decision, surprising many ringside pundits who felt Kovalev had done enough to win.
“It was a close fight,” a delighted Ward said. “You never know how judges are going to see it. But take nothing away from Kovalev.
“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.”
Ward, meanwhile, was satisfied at the way he came back after his second-round knockdown.
“I knew it was going to be a tough fight but you never anticipate getting dropped,” he said.
“That was the first time in my career I got dropped. I’m pleased with the way I responded.”
– ‘Sport, not politics’ –
Kovalev could not hide his disgust at the decision, suggesting his Russian nationality had been a factor in the judge’s verdict in favor of his US rival.
“It’s the wrong decision. 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.”
Earlier, Kovalev had quickly made his superior punching power tell, rocking the challenger with two stiff jabs that appeared to startle Ward towards the end of the first round.
Ward was soon in trouble in the second round, with Kovalev piercing his gloves at will with stinging jabs. With 40 seconds left in the round, Kovalev dumped ward on the floor, softening him up with a left jab before a short chopping right landed flush on his chin.
Ward scrambled to recover his senses and was clinging on for the bell.
Kovalev had the better of the exchanges in the third round, but Ward did well to steady the ship without troubling the Russian.
Ward managed to frustrate Kovalev in the fourth, fighting in clinches and attempting to keep his rival off balance.
But the statistics told the story after four rounds, with Kovalev landing 22 power shots to Ward’s seven.
Ward, however, refused to buckle and enjoyed his best period of the fight through the fifth and sixth, sticking and moving to score consistently.
Another good round in the seventh, with Ward connecting with three stiff jabs, drew loud cheers, but Kovalev was still landing shots.
As the fight moved into the later rounds, Ward appeared to be increasingly comfortable, keeping his distance and uncorking several energy-sapping body-shots to the Russian.
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