LAS VEGAS — On the Las Vegas strip you're constantly being sold something. Everywhere you go, there's a cacophony of noise, lights and creepy men trying to convince you that they have exactly what you need to feel good.
Saturday night at the T-Mobile Arena, Andre Ward sold three judges on the premise that he'd won a prizefight against WBO, WBA and IBF light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev. Despite his battered face, despite a Kovalev right hand that dropped him in the second round, Ward walked away with his head held high, the recipient of unanimous 114-113 scorecards and three championship belts.
The fight was hyped as a rare battle of greats in their primes. For once, boxing delivered on its promise.
For six rounds Kovalev chased Ward around the ring, battering him with heavy punches, knocking him to the mat and nearly giving the partisan crowd a nervous breakdown. The loud chants for Ward faded, replaced by bated breath and the intake of air that comes when a heavy puncher is on the prowl. When Kovalev is stalking, every moment is fraught with peril, every right hand a potential fight-ender.
By the time the bell rang to open the seventh round, however, everything had changed. Ward had Kovalev's timing down, and his work to the body began paying dividends. At times he stood and exchanged, the two men trading punches that echoed the classic Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns fights Ward said he consumed before the fight. Other times he charged into Kovalev and engaged in a hybrid wrestling match of sorts.
Kovalev, by the end, had no idea what to expect. Ward, once the passive victim, was quietly dictating the bout. It was the thrilling athletic contest we'd all been promised and, as the final bell rang, the crowd gave both men a rousing ovation.
But, while the fight delivered a classic in the ring, it ended, as boxing matches so often do, in controversy.
"I have a lot of mixed emotions right now," promoter Kathy Duva said. "We got a great fight, which is what boxing needed. But we also got a bad decision, which is not what boxing needed."
"Everybody saw what happened," Kovalev told the press after the fight. "Look at his face and look at my face. Who was winner?"
It was an explosive ending for a fight promotion that had fizzled to that point. Fight week on the Vegas strip was a low-key affair. Unlike when Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather Jr. headlined, boxing was not the talk of the town, falling a distant third behind slots and giant novelty containers filled with fruity concoctions.
In the days leading up to the fight, I saw as many people on the strip dressed up as Spider-Man as I did wearing a Kovalev-Ward T-shirt (that number, for those curious, was three). But by the time the two men stepped into the ring, more than 13,000 fans, including Dave Chappelle and Marshawn Lynch, came out of the woodwork to bear witness to the fight of the year.
The crowd was the kind of diverse grouping you can only find in America. There were women with dresses taped strategically to body parts to avoid a charge of indecent exposure, two men with turbans and huge smiles, a gentleman wearing what might be the last Members Only jacket in the world and a throng of boisterous Ward fans that included Claressa Shields, the Olympic champion who won her pro debut earlier in the night over Franchon Crews.
Loud chants of "S-O-G" serenaded Ward on his way to the ring and throughout the fight. But the "Son of God" looked all too mortal early. Kovalev was the aggressor throughout and marked up the challenger's face with a thudding jab that came at Ward from odd angles.
But, like all the great fighters, Ward refused to bow to adversity. It was a fight all about toughness. Much of it was conducted in a brutal clinch. The two men did everything but claw and scratch, shoving each other around as referee Robert Byrd looked on helplessly.
"You get touted as a cute boxer," Ward said after the fight. "But I know what I have inside of me...I've always known who I am."
Ward roared back to win the final six rounds on two of the three judges' scorecards, and with them the fight.
"The urgency changed," Ward said. "I felt like I needed every single round."
Debate was loud and unhinged on press row afterward, with stalwarts making strong cases for both men. The best line, as usual, went to veteran HBO commentator Larry Merchant.
"I think of this as Ocean's 11 in the ring," he said. "A robbery."
Robbery or not, Ward left the ring with Kovalev's championship belts. When he came to the arena while Kovalev was addressing the press, his entourage screamed out "the champ is here" with the kind of passion born only in love.
"Tonight was a great night," Ward said. On that, at least, everyone could agree.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.