LAS VEGAS — A few days before Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev stepped into a boxing ring here to battle it out for light heavyweight supremacy, Kovalev’s promoter said that this would be the super fight that everyone wanted between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao but never got.
She was right.
Kovalev dominated the early rounds of this back-and-forth match, and then Ward sprang to life and came away with a close but unanimous decision victory here in Las Vegas. All three judges scored the fight 114-113 in favor of Ward.
With the victory, Ward improved his perfect record to 31-0 and made a strong case for recognition as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. The victory represented a resounding return to prominence for Ward, 32, who had not appeared in a marquee fight in about four years — a period marred by injury, and defined by sporadic matches and a dispute with his promoter.
“This was a beautiful thing,” Ward said after Saturday’s decision, which allowed him to take the W.B.O., W.B.A. and I.B.F. light heavyweight titles from Kovalev. “We did it, baby. It’s a lot of hardware. Surreal.”
But the fight was so close and so exciting that Ward will inevitably face Kovalev again if he wants to prove decisively that he is the best light heavyweight in the world. In fact, Kathy Duva, Kovalev’s promoter, said after the fight that they would take advantage of a contractual right to a rematch.
Kovalev, who absorbed his first defeat in 32 fights as a professional, appeared stunned by the outcome. And it was hard to blame him. Although the late rounds were very close, with the fighters trading punches, Kovalev had dominated the early rounds and knocked down Ward in the second.
“He won the first six rounds, how the hell does he lose the decision?” Duva said.
Still, being that this is a business, she grudgingly conceded that even a loss could be a win.
“I’m happy we had a great fight,” she said. “Boxing really needed a great fight.”
Kovalev, 33, established control early with a powerful left jab that stunned Ward on several occasions. Ward appeared to be measuring opportunities to hit Kovalev and then get inside and smother him before he could return fire. But every time Ward ducked in, Kovalev would swat him off.
With about 40 seconds left in the second round, Kovalev’s power caught up with Ward. Ward threw a looping right fist, but before it could get to Kovalev’s chin, Kovalev answered with a short but powerful straight right fist that sent Ward to the mat. Ward stumbled around the ring for the rest of the round and was saved by the bell.
But what seemed most impressive is that Ward refused to cower after getting knocked down.
“I wasn’t happy about that knockdown, but I didn’t panic,” Ward said. “I was at peace. Now it was time to really get to work.”
Kovalev clearly was imposing his strategy of punishing his opponent with his heavy hands. But Ward managed to start getting in close on Kovalev in the middle of the fight. He would lunge in with a punch, and as Kovalev tried to retaliate, Ward would grab his arms and wrestle him toward the ropes. As the pair tangled, they also attempted to fling each other and poke shots at close range.
As the match wore on, Kovalev stopped throwing the jab that was so effective early in the fight. When he did throw it, it was lazy, and Ward made him pay. In the ninth round, when Kovalev flailed his left hand, Ward easily bent out of the way and fired a jab that landed squarely on Kovalev’s face.
“I think after the second-round knockdown, he realized I wasn’t going anywhere and I was stepping on the gas,” Ward said.
Kovalev’s drop in activity allowed Ward to lock him up so he could not throw his big punches. When he could get free, Kovalev had trouble connecting cleanly in the second half of the fight. He would swing and Ward would duck low, leaving Kovalev looking as if he was grabbing at the air.
But even as the momentum appeared to turn, the match remained tight, the fighters seemingly reading each others’ minds and countering each other effectively. Midway through the 10th round, for instance, Ward connected on a sharp jab, but almost immediately ate one from Kovalev. A short time later, Ward came forward again with a looping right and a jab, but there was Kovalev again, raking Ward’s head back with his stiff left fist.
In this match, both fighters surpassed milestones that were long overdue for boxers of their talent. Before Saturday night, neither man had headlined a fight card on pay-per-view, which is a chief indicator of a boxer’s prominence. And this was Ward’s first time fighting in Las Vegas — home of boxing’s marquee contests — and Kovalev’s second.
The new T-Mobile Arena that hosted the fight had plenty of empty seats. With an attendance of 13,310, the fight won’t break any records and most likely will not be a pay-per-view landmark, either.
But with their performance, Ward and Kovalev have almost assured themselves another turn on boxing’s biggest stage, and that it will be even more heavily anticipated.