In 1972, a young Roberto Duran savagely mauled lightweight champion Ken Buchanan for thirteen rounds to win his first title. According to boxing historian Richard O’Brien, “Buchanan complained afterward that he’d been fouled at the finish, which was rather like a man who had just been run over by a train griping that the conductor had been rude to him.” Duran did indeed punch Buchanan square in the balls for good measure during that fateful thirteenth round onslaught, but the outcome of the bout was never in doubt regardless. The foul was a moot point.
Forty-five years later, Andre Ward’s TKO of Sergey Kovalev in the biggest re-match of the 2017 ended on a similar note, though the modern version wasn’t nearly as one-sided, and the outcome wasn’t nearly as certain since Kovalev still had a little fight left in him. Exactly how little is the question.
As expected, Ward came out much more in rhythm than in their first fight seven months ago, though Kovalev did surprisingly well boxing behind a stiff jab, and was winning the bout’s early rounds. Ward began to find the range for his jab after a few rounds though, and started repeating the body attack blueprint of their first bout, with the same withering effect.
Truth be told I only watched the fight once on YouTube—which they’ve since deleted, the pricks—while heavily medicated for my pesky glaucoma, so it’s not a razor sharp memory, but somewhere around the fourth or fifth Ward landed his first low blow. The ref stopped the action to let Kovalev recover, and told Ward he knew it was accidental. A round or two later and two body shots landed that Kovalev complained to the ref about to no avail. The punches in question were barely low however. They were on the beltline, and Kovalev was wearing his trunks high. At this point though Kovalev was starting to wilt, and complaints came more frequently. Ward had begun pulling away and had punished Kovalev for two straight rounds heading into what turned out to be the final frame.
Before the re-match, Ward stated emphatically that he felt he mentally broke Kovalev in their first fight, and while that remains debatable, this performance strengthened Ward’s claim as Kovalev continued to badly fade as the bout wore on. Then in the eighth round after yet another bogus Kovalev complaint, Ward landed a crushing right hand to the chin that shook Kovalev to the core and sent him stumbling backwards. Ward pursed landing shots as a visibly hurt Kovalev retreated with his gloves dangling dangerously at his waist, absorbing punishment. Finally Ward trapped him along the ropes, and although Kovalev fired his first punch since the initial Ward right that hurt him, it had little sting as Kovalev sagged forward. Ward then delivered three textbook uppercuts in a row. All of them were smack dab in the balls however.
I mean it was plain as day. Ward was trying to dig to the body, and with little room to land on Kovalev’s torso as he bent forward, the shots sailed lower than intended. This is where the fight got controversial however. In one of the worst and most inexplicable stoppages in recent years, the ref jumped in and stopped the fight as Kovalev sank to the canvas, effectively ending the fight on a foul.
For his part, Kovalev had little protest about wanting to resume the bout and instead protested that Ward should be DQ’d. Kovalev did not look or act like a man who wanted to continue after a debatable low blow, sort of reminiscent of the ending of the first Bowe-Golota fight. If the fight wasn’t handed to Kovalev on a foul at that point, he didn’t seem interested in going on. That’s what makes the stoppage more acceptable. Even if the ref didn’t panic and halt the bout way too quickly, it’s unlikely Kovalev could have made it out of the next round anyway. He was hurt, exhausted, and discouraged. In short, he was a beaten man. Just like the re-match, if they fight again it will be even easier for Ward to win, probably by mid-round stoppage.
It’s highly unlikely that will happen however. The so-called controversial ending notwithstanding, I doubt Kovalev wants a rubber match with what would have to be a supremely confident Ward, whose combination of tactical skill and mental toughness at this point in his career is simply on another level than anyone in the sport.