Over the last four or five years, time did to Andre Ward what it previously did to Floyd Mayweather Jr., Roy Jones Jr. and every other pound-for-pound king before him.
Ward lost a half step. His reflexes slowed.
That explains why Ward, at 32, found himself with his knees and gloves on the T-Mobile Arena canvas Saturday.
The second-round knockdown ensured that his victory over defending light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev would be the least convincing of the 31 on his resume. Under boxing’s often-curious logic, his visit to the floor also made the win the most celebrated of his 12-year career, however disputed the decision.
Ward wasn’t anywhere near as dominant against Kovalev as he was in lopsided wins over Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch or Chad Dawson. But the early-round adversity offered him a rare platform for him to showcase the depth of his courage.
If his previous 30 wins were a reflection to his technical superiority, his victory over Kovalev was a symbol of his valor.
“Sometimes you get touted as a cute boxer or, ‘He’s slick,’ but I know what I have inside me,” Ward said. “Sometimes when something like that happens, the masses get a chance to say, ‘OK, maybe he does have heart, maybe he is more than a boxer.’ But I’ve always known what I have in me.”
Ward’s virtuosity was often held against him. He has only 15 knockouts, which was interpreted as an aversion to risk, even though it was really a function of his lack of punching power.
But there were always signs of Ward’s resiliency. Ward’s trainer and godfather, Virgil Hunter, said he knew from the time the fighter was 9 years old.
“I learned a lot about him when he was playing football in the street, diving on the concrete to make a catch for a touchdown,” Hunter said. “That showed me something.”
As a professional fighter, Ward showed uncommon mental and emotional endurance, controlling the tempo of almost every round in each of his fights. He engaged opponents only on his terms. He wouldn’t budge, not even when he was ahead comfortably.
What he did against Kovalev was considerably more dramatic. Ward spent the majority of his career seven pounds south at 168 pounds, and it became evident early on that Kovalev was the bigger and stronger fighter.
Kovalev dominated the early rounds behind a thudding jab that was thrown with the force of a power punch. In the second round, Kovalev landed a counter right that dropped Ward to the canvas for only the second time in his career.
“We showed we can eat a big shot and get up,” Ward said.
Over the next couple of rounds, Ward showed what he was about. Kovalev continued to win rounds with his jab, which kept Ward at a distance. Ward looked lost. He was receiving a steady stream of punishment. He would never admit this, but he was probably scared.
In this crisis situation, he somehow found a solution. He started ducking, which allowed him to close the distance while avoiding Kovalev’s pole-ax jab. Sometimes, he stepped out of range.
“Things are happening so fast, it’s hard to explain,” Ward said. “Obviously, when you’re getting hit with a couple of good power jabs, you know you’re not in the right position, something’s not right.”
Suddenly, Kovalev couldn’t find Ward with his jab. With his left hand no longer a viable start point of his attack, Kovalev had trouble landing anything. The momentum shifted in Ward’s favor. The second half of the fight wasn’t particularly graceful, as the two fighters frequently clinched, but Ward was piling up rounds.
“Just making him feel me,” Ward said. “You can feel after knocking a guy down if he’s intimidated, you can feel if he’s being reluctant, or you can feel he has the mentality to say, ‘I’m coming to get that back.’ I think more than any technical adjustment that I made, he felt that.”
Ward swept the last six rounds on two of the three official scorecards. He won seven of the last eight on the other.
The result was a unanimous verdict, with all three judges scoring the fight, 114-113.
“I would love to win every fight by as a shutout. I would love to have every fight take place where I barely get touched, but you have to win fights like this sometimes,” Ward said.
Ringside observers were divided in their opinions of the decision — my unofficial card had the same score as the judges, but my colleague Lance Pugmire had Kovalev winning, 115-112 — leading to widespread calls for a rematch. But there was no dispute about Ward’s resolve.