Andre Ward has an Olympic gold medal, and the Oakland fighter showed the type of world-class professional mettle Saturday night that he believes should entrench his status as the world’s top pound-for-pound fighter.
Ward scored a spirited victory over rival Sergey Kovalev, enhancing his debatable unanimous-decision triumph over the Russian in November with an eighth-round technical knockout at Mandalay Bay.
With three light-heavyweight world-title belts on the line, Ward (32-0, 16 knockouts) set up the finish by rocking Kovalev (30-2-1) with a massive punch to the head earlier in the eighth.
Then, after punching through Kovalev complaints that he had been hit low in the round — and previously in the bout — Ward battered Kovalev in a corner with two devastating body blows on the belt that forced him to keel over and inspire referee Tony Weeks to stop the bout two minutes 29 seconds into the round.
“He was reacting to my body shots and I knew I had him. I knew he was hurt,” Ward said.
Ward was leading by one point on two of three judges’ scorecards when the fight ended while Kovalev had a three-point bulge on one card thanks to an effective early start.
“It felt like I was up [on the scorecards], but a championship fight starts after the sixth round,” Ward said. “He was trying to cover up his body. He was dazed, so I just had to try to find the right shot.”
Kovalev said he believed he could have continued even as he dropped forward tiredly into the perilous position.
“This is fighting. We are boxers. Why stop the fight? This is amazing,” Kovalev said.
Yet, while Kovalev added, “I want to get another fight,” the rivalry seems to be over with no rematch clause in effect and Ward saying afterward he might want to move to cruiserweight.
With victory in hand, Ward turned his focus to boosting his case that he, not unbeaten three-belt middleweight champ Gennady Golovkin, is the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer. “Am I No. 1 now?” Ward asked.
Ward’s trainer, Virgil Hunter, said this was only his second training camp with Ward in which they trained for a knockout in an effort to leave no doubt after Ward won by three 114-113 scores in November.
“Now, we have quieted all those who were whining and didn’t get it the first time,” Hunter said.
Earlier Saturday, super-bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux escaped from a lengthy review by the Nevada Athletic Commission to post a first-round knockout of Mexico’s Moises Flores.
Referee Vic Drakulich, after consulting with commission executive director Bob Bennett, ruled that Cuba’s unbeaten Rigondeaux (18-0, 12 KOs) threw his knockout punch just before Drakulich was intervening as the bell rang.
An HBO replay appeared to show the knockout punch was delivered after the bell.
Flores (25-1), caught hard behind the right ear by the power punch, fell backward to the canvas, lay motionless with his arms sprawled upward for several seconds, then groggily moved toward his stool, raising suspicions that he exaggerated the effect of the final blow in an attempt to win a no-decision ruling.
“It’s not fair. It’s clear that the bell rang,” Flores said. “I was winning the round and he waited for after the bell to throw a punch when I dropped my hands down.”
Bennett said on HBO the outcome could be revisited, and if it turns out the punch was delivered after the bell, the result could even be changed to a Rigondeaux disqualification.
A knockout “was only a matter of time,” Rigondeaux said. “I hope the whole world sees what it’s like to get in the ring with me. I am tired of the press and everyone saying I am boring.”
The Cuban retains his World Boxing Assn. title and said afterward, as one of the sport’s most avoided fighters, that he’d be willing to meet either former super-flyweight world champion Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez or super-featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko in a catch-weight bout.