Isaac Chilemba (24-4-2) went the distance with WBA, IBF and WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev (30-0-1) in Ekaterinburg, Russia on Monday, but he still hit the canvas in the seventh round and was dominated over the course of 12 frames.
Kovalev retained his titles via unanimous decision (116-111, 117-110, 118-109) and is now set to take on Andre Ward on November 19 in one of the sport's most anticipated bouts.
Chilemba is a skilled boxer with excellent defensive reflexes and a sturdy chin. He's still yet to be stopped in 30 fights.
Kovalev was gunning to be the first man to achieve the feat. Marcos Villegas of FightHub gave Chilemba credit for going the full 12 rounds:
marcos villegas @heyitsmarcosv
Props to chilemba. Not many can say they went the distance with Kovalev.2016-7-11 18:14:45
Kovalev's constant pressure and power put Chilemba on retreat most of the fight, though the Malawian fought effectively in spots while moving backward. He popped Kovalev with jabs and the occasional straight right hand, but by far the hardest and most effective shots came from the Russian champion.
In the seventh round, Kovalev landed a left hook to the body that weakened Chilemba. Sensing he had hurt the challenger, Kovalev launched a left and right that connected on Chilemba's face.
The challenger went down near the ropes and took an eight-count on one knee before resuming action.
That sequence seemed to take all of the steam out of Chilemba. He survived, but Kovalev walked away with an even more heightened level of ring control.
This fight was a good test for Kovalev, but some in the boxing community, such as Strictly Boxing Fans, believe the champion was exposed:
There's no doubt that Ward is slicker than Chilemba. The Malawian seemed to be able to find Kovalev with his jabs and straight right hands, but he lacked the punching power to make the shots count.
Ward has never been a prolific knockout fighter, but some would suggest he has a little more pop than Chilemba. If he can connect as frequently with Kovalev's chin as Chilemba did, that could lead to major issues for the champion.
Ward faces the lowly regarded Alexander Brand on August 6 in his final tuneup for the Kovalev fight. He has won his last two fights easily against Paul Smith and Sullivan Barrera, but he hasn't looked sharp.
Since Ward has fought just twice since 2013, those so-so performances could be the result of ring rust. He'll have the Brand fight and another training camp to get prepared for a hungry and dangerous champion in Kovalev.
In front of his home crowd, Kovalev took care of business. Now he must wait for the fight that could define his career.