No longer can Steven Ward be known as ‘Boring Ward’ following an instant classic at the Ulster Hall tonight.
The Newtownabbey light heavyweight climbed from the canvas and survived numerous ropey moments to defeat Liam Conroy on eighth round technical decision in the headline fight of the #MTKFightNight in Belfast, live on ESPN+.
Hurt badly, bleeding profusely from a cut which caused the eventual halt, Ward was able to do damage to his opponent a number of times himself and boxed well during the intermittent quiet moments – which was enough for him to pick up a tight and controversial unanimous decision win and the vacant WBO European rankings title.
An instant Fight of the Year contender, Ward is now right up there domestically, at last.
The Monkstown graduate had looked to be progressing last year when he defeated Stevie Collins Jr to claim the BUI Celtic title before beating Mexican champ Rolando Paredes in a dirty scrap. Injuries here, however, saw the forward march frustratingly slowed.
Two easy wins came earlier this year before confirmation of tonight’s headliner, a fight which made all the waiting worth it. Conroy, who has strong Galway links, was far and away the toughest test of Ward’s career and on another night could have gotten the win but it was Ward’s evening.
Following an early period of weight uncertainty and mixed results, the Barrow boxer put together an impressive nine-fight win streak that included, all by stoppage, a Northern Area title triumph over Steve Cooper, an English title win over Joel McIntyre, and defences versus Chris Hobbs and Miles Shinkwin. This all led to a British title fight with Rio Olympian and top prospect Joshua Buatsi, by whom Conroy was unceremoniously blasted out inside three rounds – although there was little shame in this.
When we eventually got going in Belfast the action rarely relented, with both boxers almost taking turns to hurt each other before the eventual end after eight-and-a-half breathless rounds.
There was damage done after a cagey opener with a cut opening on the top Conroy’s head, under his hair, following a coming together of craniums while the left eye of Ward was near instantly puffy – the same side of his face which suffered a fractured orbital versus Paredes.
The drama intensified in the second stanza as Conroy poured on the pressure, pinning Ward to the ropes and landing huge shots which could have seen the fight waved off. First drenched in the blood of his bullrushing opponent, Ward then saw his own haemoglobin slide down as a nasty cut opened to the side of his left eye. The first real crisis in his career, Ward managed to just about fight back and even landed some clean straight shots of his own to stem the tide and survive what was a BIG round for the visitor.
Ward tried to box at the start of the third but his legs were quickly turned wooden by some clipping shots from Conroy. To his credit the Ulsterman continued to battle but another salvo from Conroy almost had him down and it looked like it was only a matter of time. However, as we all know, boxing can throw up surprises, and a shot from nowhere had Conroy hurt. Both unsteady, both teetering, the pair traded for the remainder of a Round of the Year contender.
Ward started the fourth brightly but he was soon driven to the ropes where he took some big damage before being put down with a big left hook. ‘The Quiet Man’ rose and again survived the Conroy barrage, wearing one huge right hand particularly well, before an increasingly astounding fight took another turn as Ward hurt his opponent again right before the bell.
Ward now on top, he had Conroy hurt with straight rights at the start of the fifth and was controlling the round – as much as a round in this sort of fight can be controlled – before both took turns in trading heavy, clean shots. It was Ward though, AGAIN, who finished the stronger as the assembled audience at the Ulster Hall hoped that the tide had firmly turned.
It certainly seemed this way in the sixth and Ward was hurting Conroy with frequent left hooks to the body. The Commonwealth Games silver medallist, while boxing well, was by no means out of the woods, though, and also had his head rocked back by some straight shots from a tiring Conroy.
The cut to Ward’s brow required an inspection during Round 7, a session he had been in control of to that point but the break heralded in a charge from Conroy that left the Irishman absolutely out on his feet, further damaged his eye, and perhaps marked yet another shift in momentum.
The eight round was cagey to start before another inspection was required for Ward’s eye. Again, he passed, and again Conroy landed a big shot off the restart but Ward dealt better this time around. Indeed, Conroy was on the floor soon after. This, though, was ruled a slip and then a lot of things happened in a short amount of time. From the restart again Conroy landed a huge right hand that hurt Ward badly before referee Steve Gray intervened for what would be the final inspection of an increasingly bloody home fighter.
Waving the contest off, we would go to the cards for a technical decision, with the scores from the three judges for the seven completed rounds and the portion of the eighth being considered.
It would be close, it could hardly be closer, with three 76-75 scorecards, and it was Ward who got the nod on the narrowest of unanimous decisions.
Conroy did not agree with the decision – although treated his former sparring partner with class – and opinions ringside were split.
All Ward will care about, however, is the win which sees his record improve to 12(4)-0 – while Conroy slips to 17(9)-5(2)-1
The accompanying WBO European belt will also provide a Top 15 spot with the body whose current champion is Russian hardman Sergey Kovalev – who is expected to defend versus hyped British prospect Anthony Yarde next.
For Ward, though, the most logical step, surely, is a repeat of tonight’s instant classic.