LAS VEGAS -- Andre Ward, the new No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world?
He made a case -- but not a convincing one -- as he won a razor-close but controversial unanimous decision against Sergey Kovalev to claim three light heavyweight world title belts before an adoring crowd of 13,310 on Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena.
All three judges scored the bout 114-113 for Ward, who survived a second-round knockdown and some shaky moments. ESPN.com scored the fight 115-112 for Kovalev, who appeared to land the much more powerful punches. HBO's unofficial scorer, Hall of Fame judge Harold Lederman, had Kovalev winning 116-111. Many media members sitting ringside also had Kovalev winning.
If judges Glenn Trowbridge and John McKaie had given Kovalev the final round, the fight would have been a split decision win for Kovalev. Judge Burt Clements gave Kovalev the 12th round but had Ward ahead going into the round.
"This is a beautiful thing. We did it, baby. It's a lot of hardware," Ward said as he was presented with the belts. "Surreal. This is what we set out to do. I'm a five-[belt] world champion in two different weight classes. Man, it's amazing.
"This sounds good -- the new light heavyweight champ. This was my most important and satisfying win."
There were many who believed that the Kovalev-Ward winner would be worthy of replacing junior bantamweight titlist Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez as the new pound-for-pound king. And some might elevate Ward into that lofty perch coming off the best victory of his career, which already includes wins against such top opponents as Carl Froch, Mikkel Kessler and Chad Dawson.
Ward said he was not startled that he got the nod.
"I was not surprised when I heard the decision," he said. "I don't know where you got that from. I know it was a close fight. The crowd, you can hear they thought I won.
"[Kovalev] did everything I expected him to do. He started to show up as I expected. He started to fight like I expected. My coach [Virgil Hunter] did a great job."
Kovalev, who was making his ninth title defense, strongly disagreed with the scoring.
"It's the wrong decision. I don't want to say my opinion," he said. "The witnesses are here. They saw it. It's my job. It was a fight of my life. I am disappointed in the judges' decision.
"[Ward] got maybe a few rounds. I agree with that. I kept control. I lost maybe three rounds the whole fight. It is the USA and all the judges were from the USA. It's a sport. Don't make it politics. It's a sport, and I won the fight."
Main Events promoter Kathy Duva, Kovalev's promoter, also was not happy with the decision.
"My impression was that was the wrong decision," she said. "We thought he was clearly ahead on points. I think Ward could have a great career in the UFC. I haven't seen so much wrestling since Conor McGregor in the UFC card last week."
Ward did initiate many clinches, and referee Robert Byrd did little to stop it, allowing the fighters to work their way out of it.
"I thought for sure it was not going to be a one-way fight, but the wrestling was outrageous," Duva said. "The referee didn't do anything about it, and I'm really upset. [Kovalev] won the first six rounds, and he had a knockdown. How the hell did he lose a decision?"
Ward will likely have to face Kovalev in a rematch. Duva said her side would exercise its right to an immediate rematch.
"We're going to get him back in the ring as soon as we can and right this wrong," Duva said.
"Of course, I want a rematch, and I will kick his ass," Kovalev said. "I want to show good boxing."
Michael Yormark of Roc Nation Sports, Ward's promoter, said it was too soon to talk about a sequel and declined to acknowledge the rematch clause.
"It's too early to discuss a rematch at this point," Yormark said. "Andre will enjoy the moment, spend time with his family and, obviously, embrace those three belts. We'll decide where we go from here over the next weeks."
Ward offered his take.
"Of course, I would do a rematch," Ward said. "I am not going to negotiate a fight right now. I will go home and relax and see what's next."
Ward, a 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, got off to a very rough start, as Kovalev appeared to hurt him midway through the opening round with a stiff left jab that forced Ward to grab on to him around the waist.
Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) had blood coming from his right nostril early in the second round. Then a left hand and a right drove him into the ropes. Moments later, Kovalev connected with a booming right hand to the forehead, and Ward went down to all fours. It was only the second time in Ward's career he had been knocked down. Ward made it out of the round but looked a bit shaky and tried to hold Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs) in the third round.
When Kovalev, who earned $2 million but stands to earn much more because of his percentage of the promotion, got rough in response to Ward holding him, Byrd warned them to knock it off.
"This sounds good -- the new light heavyweight champ. This was my most important and satisfying win." Andre Ward
"I knew it was going to be a tough fight," Ward said of the knockdown. "I think after the second-round knockdown, he realized I wasn't going anywhere and I was stepping on the gas. Technically, there's always stuff I can pick apart. I wasn't happy about that knockdown, but I didn't panic. I was at peace. Now it's time to really get to work. I wasn't hurt by it. As a matter of fact, I wasn't hurt by anything he threw."
Byrd was busy throughout the fight, breaking hard clinches -- many of which were initiated by Ward as he tried to come inside and avoid Kovalev's big punches.
The great speed and slickness of Ward was not very evident, as Kovalev popped him with jabs and right hands. Ward got off some good shots, but Kovalev walked right through them. But whatever speed and defense Ward lacked, he showed immense toughness and guile under a constant assault from "Krusher" Kovalev, known as one of boxing's most devastating punchers.
"Your last fight is always the most important, but I really needed this," said Ward, who has not lost a fight since he was a 13-year-old amateur. "It was about those in-the-trenches moments. Sergey has no inside game, so I focused on my midrange and my inside game, and that made all the difference."
Ward, who earned a career-high $5 million, had a strong seventh round. He landed a clean stiff jab that got Kovalev's attention and excited the crowd. Moments later, both fighters were warned by Byrd for hitting behind the head while in a clinch. And even though Kovalev landed a hard left hand late in the round, Ward, 32, of Oakland, California, returned fire.
There was a lot of back-and-forth action in the ninth round, but Ward had some big moments, lashing Kovalev, 33, a Russia native living in Los Angeles, with shots that sent him ducking under the top ring rope and brought the crowd to its feet.
They continued to go at each other in the 10th round. Ward landed a good left hand that backed Kovalev up, and Ward stuffed a left jab down the middle that connected cleanly. It was an exciting round that was hard to score.
The 11th round was another close one, with Kovalev landing a hard jab and right hand but Ward coming right back with a solid left hook. Kovalev had Ward on the run in the final seconds of the round.
Sensing the decision victory might be up for grabs in the 12th round, the boxers responded with toe-to-toe action and rough stuff on the inside during clinches. They did not let up until the final bell, and then they fell into an embrace when it was over.
"This is a good feeling," Hunter said. "We were a little careless with that knockdown in the second round, but we landed the cleaner punches. Kovalev was aggressive but not effective. That's why we won. I'm happy for Andre."
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Kovalev landed 126 of 474 punches (27 percent), and while Ward threw and landed fewer punches (116 of 337) than Kovalev, Ward landed at a higher percentage (34 percent).
Ward, who unified super middleweight world titles by rolling through the 2009 to 2011 Super Six World Boxing Classic, was fighting his first top opponent since a dominant 2012 knockout of then-light heavyweight champion Dawson, who dropped down in weight to challenge him. Ward had some long layoffs in the ensuing years because of injuries and a battle over his promotional contract, but he signed with Roc Nation Sports in 2015 and was fighting for the fourth time since then.
But Ward, already a probable Hall of Famer even before the win against Kovalev, shied away from lauding himself.
"It's hard for me to call myself great," he said. "At the end of the day, I am a two-weight division champion."