Boxing’s old adage that the challenger dethrones the champion only with a convincing performance repeatedly has been dispelled with historically disputed judges’ decisions.
Sergey Kovalev left the ring at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas late Saturday without the three sanctioning body light-heavyweight belts he earned during the past three years. The three fight judges who scored his title defense against Andre Ward believed Kovalev’s body of work throughout the 12-round distance was not sufficient to extend his reign.
Despite knocking down Ward, exerting repeated pressure the first half of the bout and never backing away from Ward’s shots, Kovalev became the victim of another questionable verdict in Nevada supervised marquee bouts.
Ward, considered one of the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighters, decorated American Olympic gold medalist from the 2004 Games and former super-middleweight champion, won a tight unanimous decision.
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Judges Burt Clements, Glenn Trowbridge and John McKaie had Ward winning by identical 114-113 scores.
“I knew it was a close fight, I was in it,” Ward said. “You never know how the judges are going to sway it.
“Taking nothing from Kovalev, in a tight fight he’s going feel like he got robbed. I would have been disappointed (had Ward lost). Take nothing away from him, we got the belts tonight.”
Ward (31-0) far from resembled someone who would add new hardware early in the bout. Kovalev (30-1-1) established pace with a lead left jab and sent Ward into a deeper deficit when he dropped him with a right to the head in the second round for the fight’s only knockdown.
A native of Russia and part-time Fort Lauderdale resident, Kovalev continued to force the action through the middle rounds even as Ward increased his punch activity with left jabs and body shots.
The final three rounds featured both fighters enjoying productive moments. Kovalev landed jabs and rights to the head and Ward scored with short lefts to the head and repeated shots to the body.
The late rounds were close yet Clements, Trowbridge and McKaie tilted most in Ward’s column. In fact, McKaie and Trowbridge scored the final six rounds for Ward.
“It’s the wrong decision, I don’t want to say my opinion,” Kovalev said. “People witnessed it here. Witnesses are here. Everybody saw what happened.
“This is the most important fight of my life. I’m disappointed with the judges’ decision.”
Ward countered Kovalev’s claims about the judges’ scoring and cited his second half performance as the fight-turning point.
“I got up tonight, I smiled at the guy that was the biggest puncher in the division,” Ward said. “I went up in weight to fight for his belt. And then I went and took the fight to him and closed the show.”
Given the bout’s close and controversial result, Kovalev called for an immediate rematch but is concerned that Ward again could benefit from favorable scoring.
“I’m a guest here in the USA, he’s a local and all the judges were from the USA,” Kovalev said.
Overnight and throughout Sunday, Kovalev, 33, gained growing support from social media blasting the decision and questioning the judges’ competence.
“Look, it’s boxing, you always know you’re going to have differences of opinion with judges and I’m not going to go accuse people of doing anything deliberately,” Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter, said in a post-fight press conference. “I understand crowds have effects on judges. Every time the crowd favorite lands a jab they’re oohing and aahing in a way they’re not when Sergey was landing.
“It affects judges and nobody’s perfect. I’m disappointed.”
Saturday (10:35 p.m., HBO): Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Nicholas Walters, 12, for Lomanchenko’s WBO junior-lightweight title; replay of the Sergey Kovalev-Andre Ward light-heavyweight title fight.