LOS ANGELES - Glen Johnson had to work for everything he could get against Antonio Tarver last night and, thanks to his steady pressure and strong final two rounds, he proved to be the world's best light heavyweight with a split decision at Staples Center.
"I'm still not the best, but I'm still looking for Mr. Best," said Johnson, 35, who earned his way into the fight by dominating Roy Jones Jr., and knocking him out in the ninth round in September.
"Definitely, Antonio is a great fighter. He surprised me with how he fought as hard as he did. He proved to be a true champion, but this is surprising because it was a close decision and that never happens for me."
Judges Melvina Lathan and Chuck Giampa scored the bout in favor of Johnson, 115-113. Judge Marty Denkin had Tarver winning, 116-112.
"My heart was beating real fast," Johnson said with a smile when asked if he was concerned about the outcome.
Although both fighters share various light heavyweight titles, the 12-round bout was not sanctioned by a major organization because the boxers chose to relinquish them to fight each other rather than give in to the order to face a mandatory challenger in a less-lucrative and less-meaningful fight. Tarver no longer has the World Boxing Council title, and Johnson relinquished the International Boxing Federation crown.
Tarver, 36, who moved into boxing's upper class with a knockout victory over Jones in May, had trouble dictating the pace of the fight against Johnson (42-9-2), who kept coming forward and throwing punches.
But Tarver, who hurt his left hand early in the fight, still thought that he won because he landed the harder punches. Tarver, who was the favorite, landed 80 more power punches than Johnson.
"Of course, it's always been all or nothing for me," said Tarver (22-3). "Go to the cards and then it's not me. I thought I hurt him in the last round, but I guess I have to knock people out to win a fight."
From the opening round, Johnson's game plan was to keep pressure on Tarver. Early on, the tactic worked as Tarver got off to a slow start, but as the fight got into the later rounds, the bout turned into a steady flow of action.
Over the final two rounds, both fighters appeared exhausted at times, with Tarver taking the worst of it in the 11th. Johnson ended the round with a flurry that seemed to rock Tarver before the bell.
In the 12th, Tarver dominated early and appeared to have Johnson in trouble, but over the final minute of the round, Johnson turned things around and had Tarver hanging on by the end of the fight.
Johnson said "it was heart and hard work" that won the fight.
Tarver and Johnson each received a guaranteed $1.05 million. Promoter Joe DeGuardia said Tarver would earn more than another $1 million, based on profits from the bout.
On the undercard, Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward made a successful professional debut, stopping Christopher Molina at 40 seconds of the second round.
Referee Jose Cobian stopped the fight after Ward, 20, sent Molina reeling with a shot above the right eye.
"It was a blessing - a wonderful thing," Ward said. "I figured he'd come out and try to maul me. They look at my physique, and they misread me. He wanted me to slug with him, and I wouldn't do it."
The 6-foot-1 Ward, from Oakland, Calif., weighed 165 pounds.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.