(In the original e-mail where Showtime sent this image, Ward’s ankle was listed at 17.5″, thicker than his calf. That’s some cankle, right there.)
The latest installment of the Super Six tournament Saturday has a lot going for it, but a lot going wrong for it, too. Of the first round match-ups in Showtime’s bold super middleweight tournament, Mikkel Kessler-Andre Ward is the most interesting, featuring a skilled power puncher against a skilled technician, both of whom are aggressive. Kessler and Ward each have star potential of a kind that differs from anyone else in the tournament, with Ward a 2004 American Olympian gold medalist and Kessler with appeal in Denmark that exceeds any other fighter’s indigenous following. The fight is happening, too, in a week for boxing unlike any since I’ve been a hardcore fan, with the sport suddenly having prominence because of Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto that it hasn’t had in forever, so Kessler-Ward should be getting some fringe benefits.
Where things get a touch sour is that the first round of the tournament still has a little bit of a hangover from the inaugural two fights, and Kessler-Ward’s build-up has done nothing to erase the unhappy memories. The refereeing in Arthur Abraham-Jermain Taylor and Carl Froch-Andre Dirrell left a lot to be desired, as did the judging in Froch-Dirrell, at least for a lot of fans. So naturally, the judges and referee selected for Kessler-Ward would appear to give a hefty edge to Ward in his native Oakland despite the rules of the fighters’ Super Six contracts, although that’s in the process of being resolved. Separately, Taylor, who was savagely knocked for the third time in five fights to the point that many called for his retirement, said on Twitter he’d continue fighting on in the tournament, tarnishing the tourney some. And Kessler-Ward is competing with HBO’s replay of Pacquiao-Cotto.
But I think, still, it will be a good fight, just looking at the fight itself. One that, perhaps, will have a surprising result.
Ward is the ultimate nice guy, the fighter who everybody else in the tournament seems to like the most, a handsome (or so I’m told), devoutly religious, all-American type. Kessler’s handsome too (I swear, I’m informed this is the case) although he has more of a dangerous edge with one side of his body tattooed up; but he is gregarious enough that he was picked a couple years ago by ESPN the Magazine to be a breakout star in boxing in America – and even his last, routine fight drew nearly three-fourths of the television audience in Denmark that night.
Kessler comes in to the tournament as the co-favorite, with Abraham. He does so with good reason. Until 2007, when he ran until the best super middleweight who ever lived, Joe Calzaghe, Kessler had knocked off four top-10-level 168-pounders. And he beat Anthony Mundine, Eric Lucas, Markus Beyer and Librado Andrade with no trouble whatsoever. Since 2007, he’s not done much, alas. The Calzaghe loss seemed to affect his confidence, and he ran into some promotional difficulties. From November 2007 until today, he’s had just three fights, all against competition that wasn’t acceptable for a fighter of his level (even if one bout was for a vacant title strap and the other two were mandatory challengers). So on this, the second anniversary of his only career loss, Kessler is finally fighting someone worthy.
By virtue of his old resume, and how much trouble he gave Calzaghe, and his very obvious quality as a fighter, he has retained his ranking as the #1 super middleweight, and he’s still in most top-20 pound-for-pound lists. I’m straining my brain trying to think of anyone in the sport who has a better 1-2. Wladimir Klitschko, maybe. That Kessler left jab is stiff and mean, mean enough that it was the punch that finished Haussler, and that right cross is one of the single most powerful punches in the sport. Offensively, there’s not much more to him – he’ll work in the occasional left hook or cross to the body – but he doesn’t need much more. He varies things up so much with that simple 1-2, and he has such good timing, and he’s good enough speed, that he’ll find just about everybody he fights with it. Defensively, he is adept at taking a step back and keeps his gloves in good position, although head movement isn’t an asset. His chin is first-class, and his effort in the 12th round against Calzaghe showed me that even if he’s outclassed, even if he’s made to fight the other man’s fight, he’ll go for the knockout win rather than run out the clock.
Ward is way out of his depths experience-wise compared to Kessler. Certainly, being an Olympic gold medalist is a good foundation, but from 2004 until earlier this year, Ward’s opposition was probably inferior to Kessler’s recent run of under-qualified opponents. It hardly even warrants mention, really. The only thing we learned from him beating Henry “Sugar Poo” Buchanan was that he could more easily beat a fighter he was expected to beat than other people had. Some of the competition level was related to Ward hitting some snags, coming up with some injuries, having to go back into the shop to work on his game. But all things considered, it did the trick. When Ward fought Edison Miranda earlier this year, Miranda being his first high-quality opponent, Ward was polished, delivering one of the best performances of 2008.
Ward showed a lot in that fight. We didn’t know if he could take a punch, and Miranda if nothing else has that. When Miranda landed, Ward wasn’t bothered. In fact, he did a lot of close quarters combat with Miranda, relying on skillful in and out movement. Ward endured a bad cut without any hesitation. And he just had far too much diversity in his game for Miranda. Sometimes, as low-key as he is, Ward seems like he’s showing off, as if he’s saying, “Look, I’ll fight this way now!” He can move every which way, fight with every which hand, stand in every which stance, punch with every which punch. He can lead or counter, defend with his gloves or head movement or body movement, walk and chew gum at the same time, pat his head while rubbing his belly. Granted, Miranda is low-skilled enough to make anyone look like a boxing expert, but Ward showed extraordinary versatility, smarts and guts. Physically, he hits hard but not that hard. His primary physical asset is speed.
Kesssler says he’s a much better fighter than the boxer who lost to Calzaghe, but I haven’t seen it yet. Surely he knows that the things that bothered him about Calzaghe – smarts, guts, speed, in and out movement – are things that Ward does well, too. Calzaghe has assets Ward didn’t, but Ward won’t get sloppy like Calzaghe did for stretches, so I think it counterbalances. Maybe Kessler has some kind of battle plan to make up for losing to Calzaghe’s style. I don’t know. But I like Ward to pull off this upset, and I think he’ll do it much like Calzaghe did, with a pretty close fight early as each fighter adjusts to the other (Kessler’s pretty smart his damn self) before Ward dials it in and pulls out the decision late by virtue of being able to fight in more ways than one.
What’s funny is I still think Kessler should be the favorite to win the tournament. I don’t see anybody but Ward beating Kessler, not that the other fighters can’t give him a run for his money. But I do see Ward having big trouble with Dirrell and Abraham. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rematch of this fight for the tournament victory.