Gennady Golovkin admitted it was a "bad day" at the office but a "huge experience" after coming through a tough outing against Sergiy Derevyanchenko to reclaim his IBF middleweight title via unanimous decision.
"GGG" had Derevyanchenko down in the first round and opened up a cut over his opponent's eye in the second. But the Ukrainian put up a brave fight and punished Golovkin with some punishing body shots before the Kazakhstani was awarded the fight on all three judges' scorecards at Madison Square Garden.
"After the first round I didn't think this was an easy fight. I told myself this is a tough fight," said Golovkin, who increased his record to 40 wins with one draw and a loss from 42 pro bouts.
Derevyanchenko must have feared the worst when he was on the canvas two minutes into the opening stanza but recovered quickly to take the fight to the 37-year-old.
In the second round, Derevyanchenko started bleeding from a nasty cut over the right eye that referee Harvey Dock mistakenly called a head butt.
Video replays showed the cut came from a vicious left hook to the brow that had Derevyanchenko pawing at his eye to try and wipe the blood off.
If anything, the sight of his own blood only worked to spur on Derevyanchenko. While Golovkin was clearly the aggressor, the challenger's ability to work his way out of trouble with neat footwork and score with effective counter-punches made the fight a lot closer than it should have been.
By the 12th round, Golovkin looked the more tired of the two but he had won enough rounds early on and scored the knockdown, which allowed him to take the close decision.
One judge scored it 114-113 and the other two had it 115-112 for Golovkin, who was stripped of the IBF title last year when he failed to make a mandatory defence against Derevyanchenko. He instead opted for a rematch with Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, the Mexican who would go on inflict a first defeat of Golovkin's career in September 2018.
The 33-year-old Derevyanchenko, who falls to 13-2 with 10 KOs, was hoping to score a huge upset and dim the prospects for a third Golovkin-Alvarez bout in 2020.
The shadow of another Alvarez fight next year has loomed large over this bout. Alvarez, the WBA and WBC middleweight champion, returns to the ring on November 2 against light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev in a fight that will see Alvarez move up two weight divisions.
Assuming he comes through that fight unscathed, a potential third installment of Alvarez-Golovkin – the first fight ended in a draw – could be on the cards for May 2020.
Speaking in the ring immediately after the fight, Golovkin said would have to improve before he fights Alvarez again.
"Right now, I know exactly what I need. I understand I need more," he said. "Everything is ready. Just call to Canelo and if he says yes, let's do it."