SANTA YNEZ — Art Hovhannisyan arrived upon the doorstep of becoming a title contender with devastation, looking to knock the door down.
But former World Boxing Assn. lightweight champion Miguel Acosta knocked right back, making for a pulse-pounding lightweight main event at Showtime's Shobox card at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez on Friday night. But it was Hovhannisyan's early brilliance and late fortitude that brought the fighter known as the Lionheart the biggest victory of his career, as he defeated Acosta via split decision to remain undefeated.
"This one is the biggest fight of my career," said Hovhannisyan, who fights out of the Glendale Fighting Club. "But I think it's the beginning."
Judges scored it 95-93 twice for Hovhannisyan (15-0-2, eight knockouts), while Acosta was given a 96-92 nod. The News-Press scored it 95-93 with the fight even heading into the ninth round, with Glendale's Hovhannisyan taking the final two stanzas to grab victory.
"I knew Art pulled off the last two rounds for sure," said Edmond Tarverdyan, Hovhannisyan's trainer.
Hovhannisyan made a quick statement, as the 10-second warning hit in the first round and he exploded out of a crouch with a devastating overhand right that sent Acosta to the canvas. Acosta rose just in time and the round ended emphatically.
"We worked on that," Tarverdyan said. "We knew Acosta has problems with the right hand."
Just as Acosta beat the 10-count, the bell rang to end the round.
"He was lucky with the bell," Hovhannisyan said.
But while Hovhannisyan dominated early, the veteran Acosta, who's now lost three of his last four bouts, came on in the middle rounds and often outworked Hovhannisyan and recorded a flash knockdown in the fifth that matched the fighters with 10-8 rounds. Much of the fight seemed to turn, as Hovhannisyan looked to tire a bit and Acosta started to get off first.
"When Art was moving forward, Acosta couldn't do anything," said Tarverdyan, who told Hovhannisyan before the ninth that he needed to move forward and be the aggressor. "When he waited, Acosta was winning.
"[Hovhannisyan] seemed to lose his legs in the later rounds. When he lost his legs he was there to get hit.
"I think if Art had his legs under him, he would've stopped him."
At the conclusion of 10 furious rounds, the two combined for just under 1,000 punches thrown, as Hovhannisyan landed 104 of 407 punches and Acosta connected on 124 of 592 blows.
Following the first-round knockdown, Hovhannisyan wasted no time in the second, as the first punch thrown was a huge left hook by him that connected. He continued with a torrid pace of power punches that clearly won him the round. He was the aggressor in the third, as well, but began to slow down slightly.
In the fourth, aside from landing a sturdy overhand right, Hovhannisyan's attack waned and Acosta was the busier fighter, landing a brilliant 1-2 that was his best offense to that point, although Hovhannisyan clearly wasn't fazed.
In the fifth, though, Hovhannisyan came out with more energy, but as both he and Acosta threw rights. Acosta's landed first and stunned Hovhannisyan, whose knee touched the canvas before he jumped up, as Acosta took the round with the knockdown. Acosta continued on the attack for the most part in the sixth, though Hovhannisyan did land a solid right late in the round.
"He's a veteran and he knows what he's doing," said Tarverdyan of Acosta.
The seventh was razor thin, with Acosta looking a bit busier, but Hovhannisyan landing the more effective blows. The eighth was close as well, but much more of an action round, going back and forth with both landing good straight rights at times, though Acosta came on late.
In what appeared headed to be the most lopsided round since the fifth, Hovhannisyan walked down Acosta in the ninth, was clearly the aggressor and landed his share of hooks, but Acosta rallied late to make it a bit closer.
In the 10th, with both having landed punishing lefts early in the round, Hovhannisyan landed a big right hook and followed with a flurry in the corner. Moments later, the combatants finished the fight in classic fashion, winging back and forth as the crowd erupted to close the show.
As for what's next for the unbeaten "Lionheart," Tarverdyan believes his charge made a statement, knocking down Acosta, usually a 135-pound fighter, in the 132-pound lightweight tilt.
"This is the biggest win of his career," Tarverdyan said. "Art's a 130-pound fighter and he put him down, so I don't think a lot of [130-pounders] can take him.
"We'll see what happens next."
Also in attendance was Strikeforce women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who did a live interview ahead of her Aug. 18 title defense in San Diego against Sarah Kaufman. Rousey, donning a Team Lionheart fight jacket, was also there to support Hovhannisyan, as the two both train at the Glendale Fighting Club.