For the first seven rounds, it looked as if little had changed in the eight months since Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev last met for the unified light heavyweight title.

Kovalev took the early lead Saturday at Mandalay Bay, and Ward came back strong, picking up the pace earlier than he did in the first fight, which he won by unanimous decision. By the midpoint of the fight, it was another dogfight and both men had their moments.

Things changed dramatically in the eighth round. Ward landed a low blow on Kovalev’s belt-line, which backed the Russian toward the ropes.

Ward, the defensive wizard, turned the tables and went on the attack. He landed a big right hand that snapped Kovalev’s head back and really signaled the beginning of the end.

The 2004 American Olympic gold medalist, who fought far more aggressively this time around, sensed Kovalev was in trouble and went in for the kill.

He went to the body with several lefts. Ward twisted the full weight of his body into the lefts and Kovalev bent over at the waist. Referee Tony Weeks had seen enough and stopped it at 2:25 of the eighth.

“I told them this week I’ve only trained Andre for knockouts twice, the first was Chad Dawson and the second was tonight,” Ward trainer Virgil Hunter said. “They laughed at me. But I knew what was going to happen because he was healthy. Now we have quieted all those who were whining and thought we didn’t get it the first time.”

It was a shocking end to a bitter rivalry in which the hate between the two men seemed to increase by the day, by the round and by the punch.

When the fight began, Kovalev sneered at Ward and the men refused to touch gloves.

The fight was intense, and early, Kovalev’s boxing was carrying the day.

But Ward, who adjusted in the second half of the first fight and came from behind to win, made his move much earlier. By the third round, he was pressuring Kovalev and bringing the fight to him.

Several times, Kovalev seemed to back away and at one point in the seventh while they were fighting in Kovalev’s corner, Kovalev backed off to the ropes. Ward seemed confused and shouted at Weeks, who ordered Kovalev to fight.

Ward, who a few days before the bout had said that his punching power was vastly underrated, looked like the killer who had 26 knockouts in 32 fights, not Kovalev.

“I’ve never been the best, but I’ve always worked the hardest,” Ward said. “I could tell he was reacting to my body shots and I knew I had him then. I knew he was hurt. It takes something to do something.”

There was at least one low blow in the eighth – the first that started the final sequence – and potentially two others.

Kovalev, though, had the look of a beaten man long before that.

Ward landed 33.6 percent of his punches and tore Kovalev’s body apart.

The win moved him to 32-0 and may have made him the clear-cut pound-for-pound best in the world.

“Can I ask a question?” Ward said. “Am I No. 1 now? Of course I hope so, but I don’t have a vote, but hopefully, I’ll top that pound-for-pound list.”

Ward later spoke of moving up to fight at either cruiserweight or even heavyweight – “I dream big,” he said – but he earned a respect Saturday that had eluded him throughout a nearly perfect professional career.

There was no controversy about the result or doubt about the way the fight was fought.

Kovalev noted the low blows in the eighth, but he was gassed far before the finale from Ward’s assault.

Source: Kevin Iole| Combat columnist