WBA, WBO, and IBF light heavyweight champion Andre Ward (32-0, 16 KOs) won his rematch with Sergey Kovalev (30-2-1, 26 KOs) by eighth round TKO on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, Las Vegas.
In their first fight in November, Ward rallied from a second round knockdown to win a disputed decision against Kovalev, who many believed won the bout.
The rematch was no less controversial.
Ward hurt Kovalev with a right hand to the head, then hit Kovalev with three low blows before referee Tony Weeks stepped in and, instead of giving Kovalev time to recover, shockingly stopped the fight.
Going into the eighth, Ward led 67-66 on two scorecards while Kovalev was ahead 68-65 on the third.
After a cagey and evenly fought opening round, Kovalev was getting the better of the second, landing several hard shots before a low blow from Ward stopped him in his tracks. Ward was warned by Weeks.
The Russian’s measured attacks troubled Ward early in the fight but many of the rounds were hard to score because of all the grappling and punching from the clinch.
By the fifth, the American was taking over the fight with his clever counters and body shots, although many of them was on or below the belt line.
In a similar pattern to their first meeting, Ward started coming on strong with Kovalev less effective as the fight progressed.
Kovalev appeared gassed and Ward piled on more punishment.
In the eighth, Ward unleased a huge right that left Kovalev on unsteady legs. Ward then battered Kovalev on the ropes with a succession of shots around the belt line and Weeks stepped in at 2:29 of the round.
“I could tell he was reacting to my body shots, and I knew I had him then. I knew he was hurt,” said Ward.
“Kovalev fought a good fight, but once I compute a fighter in my brain, I know what I had to do the next time around.
“Facing great fighters, you’ve got to raise your game to the next level and I’m thankful we did that tonight.”
As debatable as the stoppage was, many will now view Ward as the pound-for-pound number one.
Kovalev said: “It didn’t hurt like I could go down on the floor, but it was a low blow.
“Right now, I could have continued. I didn’t feel that hurt.
“Why stop the fight? It’s crazy.”
Kovalev also said he hoped to have a third fight with Ward but that seems unlikely.
Ward will likely pursue a unification fight with WBC champion Adonis Stevenson or move up in weight.
“Cruiserweight? Heavyweight? I dream big, and everything is possible when you have God,” said Ward.
Also on the card, WBA super bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux (18-0, 12 KOs) knocked out WBA interim titleholder Moses Flores (25-1, 17 KOs) at the end of the first round with a left hook after the bell in another controversial ending.
The Cuban moved well and landed occasional shots while avoiding his taller opponent’s winging punches.
Towards the end of the round, Rigondeaux grabbed Flores behind the head and hit him with two left uppercuts. Referee Vic Drakulich went to separate the two fighters as they were throwing punches at the bell and Rigondeaux landed a devastating left hand to the chin. The Mexican took a step back before falling down. Flores stayed on his back and Drakulich counted him out.
Following a lengthy discussion, Drakulich and Nevada State Athletic Commissioner Bob Bennett, ruled the final punch legal and a first round KO victory for Rigondeaux, who retained his world title for the eighth time.
After the fight, Rigondeaux said that if nobody will get in the ring with him at 122lb, he would be interested in catchweight fights with Roman Gonzalez and Vasyl Lomachenko.