LAS VEGAS — Andre Ward survived a second-round knockdown Saturday night to do just enough to win a narrow decision over Sergey Kovalev in a battle of unbeaten light heavyweights. Ward took Kovalev’s light heavyweight titles in a fight that lived up to its advance billing, winning enough rounds late to eke out a unanimous decision.
He remained unbeaten in his last 20 years in the ring, but it wasn’t without some moments of worry. All three ringside judges had Ward winning, 114-113. The Associated Press had Kovalev ahead, 116-111.
Kovalev knocked down Ward in the second round and chased him around the ring much of the early part of the fight. But Ward dug deep and managed to land some good punches of his own in a fight that built to a climax in the later rounds. The crowd at the T-Mobile Arena roared its approval as the two fighters went after each other, neither giving an inch. In the end, the judges favored Ward’s counter punching against the aggressive style of Kovalev.
The fight was billed as a matchup of U.S. and Russian fighters, with the 2004 Olympic gold medalist Ward against a Russian who lives mostly in the Los Angeles area. It was a classic matchup of puncher versus boxer, and for the early part of the fight the puncher was winning.
Kovalev flashed his power early, hitting Ward with a left hand midway through the first round that briefly wobbled Ward’s legs. Ward grabbed and held on and finished the round jabbing at the Russian, but the tone of the fight was set early. Midway through the second round, both fighters threw right hands but it was Kovalev’s that landed flush to the side of Ward’s head, putting him on the canvas.
He got up quickly and smiles as if not hurt but needed all of his supreme defensive skills to make it out of the round. Ward seemed unwilling to go inside after that, moving backward and trying to land jabs to control the action.
But he abandoned the style that had served him so well over the years and fought moving backward, throwing only one punch at a time, as Kovalev constantly pressed the attack. Ward did have some moments, including the seventh round when he landed a good left that snapped Kovalev’s head back. Ward earned $5 million, while Kovalev was paid $2 million plus a percentage of pay-per-view.
Olympian Shields wins pro debut
Claressa Shields didn’t feel at her best, but her pro debut was a winning one anyway.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist won a decision Saturday over Franchon Crews in a four-round super middleweight fight, making the transition to the pros after the most successful amateur career for an American woman.
Shields came back from a slow first round to land the bigger punches in an entertaining fight on the undercard of the Sergey Kovalev-Andrew Ward light heavyweight title fight on the Las Vegas Strip.
“It’s not what I wanted but to be called on, last minute, for a fight of this magnitude,” Shields said. “I am proud of myself. We will fight again in the future.”
Both women were fighting without headgear for the first time but it didn’t seem to be a factor as they traded punches freely before a sparse but appreciative crowd. Shields won all four rounds on the score cards of the three ringside judges.
Shields, who became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics and added another in Rio in August, had vowed to be impressive in her first pro fight. And she wasn’t shy about trading punches with Franchon, a Baltimore fighter who lost to her during the Olympic trials in 2012.
Shields was pushed to the canvas twice by Crews, who started strong but seemed to tire quickly.
“It feels so good to have just made my pro debut,” she said. “This is what I’ve been training for. I’m faster and I hit harder.”
Shields, from Flint, Michigan, weighed 167 pounds to 168 for Crews.
The 21-year-old Shields said she plans to fight up to 10 times in her first year as a pro. Her goal is to one day headline a pay-per-view card of her own.
“I believe 150 percent in my boxing ability,” she said before the fight. “I know I’m a great fighter. I fight better than 90 percent of the men who box now. I just know that, and I’m not at my best yet.”
Women’s boxing has largely been a fringe sport in recent years, and women have rarely appeared on televised cards. While the fight was on the undercard of Kovalev-Ward, it wasn’t a part of the pay-per-view telecast.