Like some madcap boxing version of “The Cannonball Run,” Showtime’s Super Six began as a daring experiment featuring contestants with a wide variety of styles, and along the way there were a whole bunch of crazy schemes and roadblocks in a very long journey. Some of the original cast even got bumped off the road. But two of them are fighting Saturday night in the semifinals, and for all the doubters who panicked at every glimpse of trouble the Super Six tournament encountered, all signs point to this thing making it to the finish line. And, as David P. Greisman and I discussed here, it has often been fulfilling.
Though super middleweight Andre Ward isn’t everyone’s flavor, there can be little doubt that he is the most promising young American talent today. Like a young Bernard Hopkins, he has an unusual combination of old-school technical skill and old-school nastiness. (Their personalities are nothing alike, though — Hopkins is colorful and cantankerous, while Ward is sportsmanlike and almost eerily peaceful.) After his opening round stomping of tournament co-favorite Mikkel Kessler, he quickly became the man everyone picked to win it all. If he wins the whole tournament, he could emerge as THE prize that the Super Six gave boxing.
Arthur Abraham began the tournament sharing the favorite slot with Kessler, but his stock has dropped as steeply as Ward’s has risen. He started off well enough, knocking out Jermain Taylor, but he has taken two straight drubbings. I hate the word “exposed” in boxing; Abraham was, once, legitimately, a pound-for-pound top-20 fighter — maybe he even once broke into the top 10, where Ward resides right now. But insofar as anyone can get exposed, Abraham was. The weaknesses in his fighting style, previously unencountered, were laid bare in consecutive fights by Andre Dirrell and Carl Froch, and it’s hard to imagine him fixing himself at this moment in his career.
Ward-Abraham, then, begins as a perceived mismatch. If Dirrell and Froch were able to so soundly outbox Ward, then Ward, the thinking goes, should be able to do so twice as easily. But power, the saying goes, is the great equalizer. And if Abraham has a chance, it is in power that has produced some of the past decade’s most violent knockouts. And while finding someone who isn’t German or Armenian who is picking Abraham to win is a mission impossible, Abraham is fighting in a tournament that has been marked by sudden reversals, in a year where wild upsets have been the norm. I’m not saying Abraham has much of a chance. But if he does, it is in that set of conditions.
It was once thought that Ward couldn’t take a punch. He’d been decked earlier in his career by a light puncher, prompting a dialing back of the competition that had some doubting that the 2004 Olympics’ only American to win a gold medal was going to amount to anything. But since he’s taken some pretty hard shots from some pretty big punchers. Edison Miranda, Kessler, Allan Green and Sakio Bika — his last four noteworthy opponents, in that order — all can really light someone up. Abraham, even at super middleweight, is probably the biggest puncher of them all.
The key is that with his excellent defense he hasn’t taken very many of them, and when he has, he’s been clever enough to dull the blows. He has a knack for keeping people on the back of their heels with his aggression, which makes it hard for them to set their feet and get all their power going. He can even do it in different ways; sometimes, he did it from range, but he also is a gifted inside fighter, probably the best practitioner of an art that appears virtually forgotten today, and he owned Green on the inside. Green, a big, rangy fighter, couldn’t get any leverage on his long punches because Ward’s head was planted in his chest.
If that skill and aggression isn’t enough to frustrate his opponents, and it often is, there’s also a bit of indomitable will that Ward has going for him. Critics say he is dirty, but for the most part I think he uses his noggin legally, guiding his opponents around the ring with it more than he actually deploys it as a weapon. But he isn’t above doing that. If anyone was going to out-dirty Ward and make him submit, it would have been Bika. But by the end of as dirty a fight as you’ll ever see, Bika was fairly tamed, and Ward was undaunted. That Ward is a technician, and that he has proven capable of stretching the rules — the latter all the more peculiar because he goes by the nickname “S.O.G.,” aka “Son of God” — makes him unpopular in some quarters. I like him better when he lays off the rough stuff, for sure, but I can’t help but appreciate a cerebral fighter who is aggressive about dismantling his opponents.
Abraham knows about dismantling. He used to do it all the time, but now it’s what gets done to him. Every Abraham fight after his bizarre first meeting with Miranda was the same. He’d spend the first few rounds getting a look at his opponent, hardly doing anything, usually losing the rounds outside of throwing a couple big punches. Then he would step it up, the damage would begin to accumulate and rare was the opponent who could make it to the final bell. Dirrell discovered something about Abraham, however. If you could keep him on the outside, and Abraham is very short for the weight class, then keep his high guard busy with punches between, through and around it, Abraham would wait and wait and wait until you were done to fire back. But if your feet were fleet enough, and/or you had a knack for angles, you could be gone by the time Abraham began to launch. Then, he’d have to reset and the same process would happen all over again.
At least against Dirrell, he kept coming, and even appeared like he would have the gifted but screwy American in trouble for the final rounds. Unfortunately for everyone, Dirrell slipped and Abraham punched him while he was on the ground, leading to a disqualification. By the time of the Froch fight, the frustration Abraham showed in trying to catch Dirrell had morphed into submission. Froch did to Abraham what Dirrell did to him, only better. Abraham basically acknowledged he couldn’t do anything about it, and ended up suffering a lopsided decision loss.
There was much handwringing in Abraham’s camp about all this, and in their last fight, a tuneup against Stjepan Bozic, he showed signs of trying to change his style. He came out a bit more aggressive, which would reduce his chances of giving away too many rounds early and digging himself a hole. He showed he might try to punch between his opponents’ punches, rather than focusing on absorbing shots on his arms before punching back. What it did is make it so Bozic actually fared pretty well, because Abraham usually doesn’t take much damage behind that tight high guard and suddenly he was. Bozic retired with an injury in the 2nd round, so we didn’t get to see how the new Abraham would work out over the course of a fight. What we did see was an Abraham having some of the right ideas, but failing to execute them in a way that offered much hope that he could truly correct his weaknesses.
It wasn’t enough for me. Every puncher of Abraham’s natural ability is going to be dangerous, period. But even an improved Abraham wouldn’t have much of a chance against Ward, unless Ward, eager to up a low knockout ratio that has limited his appeal with some fans, gets extremely reckless. I don’t think Ward is that stupid. On the contrary, he’s extremely smart. His assessment in interviews of the Abraham he expects to show up Saturday, a modified version of himself who starts faster and throws a little bit more, is probably accurate and the kind of opponent Ward should have little difficulty beating.
In short, I’m a big believer in Ward against basically anybody, and against Abraham in particular. He’ll pull out an easy unanimous decision here, with Abraham maybe on the verge of being stopped late in the fight. The next round is where things get at least a little interesting for Ward. Froch and Glen Johnson have shown themselves to be nearly as indomitable of will as Ward, and both are good punchers with underrated boxing skills. We’ll have to wait for the next dose of Super Six drama until Froch-Johnson, and then, maybe, the winner of that fight against Ward for all the marbles. What we’ll get Saturday is Ward once more picking the wings off a fly, one who once looked like a nasty stinging wasp.