One needn’t look far to find ridicule of Saturday’s HBO main event, Andre Ward vs. Chad Dawson, and one needn’t have seen much of either man to come to the conclusion that watching Ward-Dawson is unlikely to overdose its viewers on adrenaline. But, then, one needn’t look far to find those who are quite eager for the contest nonetheless, and even Ward-Dawson’s most ardent detractors would be hard-pressed to deny that the battle will easily be the 2012 match-up with the two best fighters facing one another.
Whether Ward-Dawson will entertain depends on whether one derives entertainment from more than flying gristle. I love me some flying gristle, but I’m also the kind who likes to see what happens when one sublimely talented athlete faces another in competition, even if it’s flying gristle-free. By today’s standards, Ward-Dawson is impeccable on that second count. And it’s impressive that both men are willing to test themselves so severely.
Ward, the lineal super middleweight champion, might already be the world’s best fighter if not for welterweights Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao having longer resumes. And not so long ago, during one of his hiatuses, Mayweather declared Dawson — the current lineal light heavyweight champion — the best fighter in the world.
They meet this weekend in a bout that hadn’t occurred to much of anyone beforehand outside the two of them and HBO as a fight that need happen. But the fight will likely do much better at the box office and with the ratings than did last weekend’s middleweight clash between Gennady Golovkin and Grzegorz Proksa, even with the expectation of those in the know that Golovkin is a fighter of bone-crunching brutality and Proksa was dangerously willing to do his part in the dance. Some of that is a matter of investment: HBO has put serious muscle behind Ward-Dawson, from a “24/7” pseudo-documentary to pairing it with a Vitali Klitschko fight and “Klitschko” documentary airing about the heavyweight brothers.
Whether that investment will pay off or not depends. If Ward-Dawson does somehow turn into a thrilling blood-and-guts display, both men will have expanded their audience beyond the crowd that likes watching pound-for-pound level fighters ply their trade. If one man comes out of it impressively, blood and guts or no, then HBO might have itself the newly-minted American Mayweather heir apparent it sought but didn’t get with Timothy Bradley-Devon Alexander (although Bradley would subsequently generate enough demand to have two promoters fight over him and land a coveted Pacquiao fight; still, that junior welterweight fight is the basement for a large investment not entirely paying off under similar circumstances).
Remember that whatever your own tastes, they are not those of everyone. If only action fighters did ratings, junior middleweight James Kirkland would do big numbers, and he absolutely does not; by contrast, Mayweather has moved millions of pay-per-view sales with his “boring” style and the much-derided style of the Klitschko brothers is such that one of them is being used to buttress Ward-Dawson. And Ward-Dawson has an audience.
Setting aside the question of business practices and aesthetics, then, we turn to the competitive elements.
Ward is as complete a fighter as exists today, with top power his only obviously missing element. He is fast, smart, determined and strong, well-schooled in defense and a variety of offensive disciplines, capable of fighting inside, outside, leading, countering, or switching from orthodox to southpaw. If he has a weakness other than power, might be that he has a semi-shaky chin, but we haven’t seen evidence of it for years and years, because he doesn’t get hit very much and when he does he handles it well — he took a couple good ones early in his fight against Arthur Abraham, a fighter who can rearrange senses with the best of them, and while it clearly affected Ward, by fight’s end it was Ward who was backing up Abraham.
Ward loves dictating the terms of a fight; he lives off control. That means inside the ring he will drag people out of their comfort zones, as he does most often while fighting up close, a territory where very few boxers these days are all that acclimated. Outside the ring, he has dictated the terms of Ward-Dawson — the fight is in his native Oakland, which is probably the only place it would have sold tickets but also gives him a home court advantage. And the fight is at 168 pounds, rather than something north of it, because Dawson said he’d do it there and because subsequent entreaties for a catchweight were apparently rejected by the Ward camp.
Whether Ward is rusty or not after a long layoff, and whether he’s healed completely from the broken hand that helped sideline him, might be beyond his control. We last saw Ward nine months ago, when he defeated Carl Froch to become champ despite his hand injury. And broken hands tend to resurface time and again for boxers, once they’re broken for the first time.
We also don’t know how Ward will fare against a fighter like Dawson. I’ve thought Andre Dirrell would be the most dangerous opponent Ward could face — equal or greater speed, tall and long to keep Ward from wading in so easily and with enough power to test Ward’s chin. Allan Green had some similar elements to Dirrell, but proved too poorly-schooled and too weak of will for Ward. Dawson is tall and long and has equal or greater speed to Dawson, and he’s well-schooled. It’s the rest that is in question.
Dawson has had his desire derided, and he has deserved it, too, because he sometimes drifts through fights like they’re ho-hum affairs, so athletic is he that even people trying to punch him bores him. But he’s also shown flashes of fire: He was more willing to brawl it out than he should’ve been in the first Glen Johnson fight, a bout where he narrowly won; he emerged from a fight-long coma against Jean Pascal to press for the stoppage late, but a cut threw the fight to the scorecards and Dawson lost; and against Bernard Hopkins the first time, he responded to Hopkins’ fouls by heaving him to the ground, then in the rematch displayed some grit to simply ignore the fouls and beat Hopkins anyway. Against Ward, who can get a bit nasty on the inside, Dawson’s ability to push through borderline illegal or fully illegal tactics will come in handy. And in two fights under trainer John Scully, Dawson has been more consistently motivated than under the parade of previous trainers, although maybe it was Hopkins that motivated Dawson rather than his trainer.
Dawson is like Ward in that he hits hard enough to do damage, but isn’t some major power puncher. So if you’re building the formula for a perfect fighter to topple Ward, Dawson probably lacks this trait, although perhaps moving down a weight class he’ll hit hard enough to bother Ward. That move down in weight could hurt him, too, though, because fighters who drain their bodies tend to be more susceptible to being knocked out themselves. While Dawson’s team is saying he’s going to have no trouble making the weight, the rumor mill has had some interesting grist to the contrary, not that the rumor mill is to be trusted very often.
In pre-fight comments, Dawson has talked about wanting to turn this fight into a war, and while that might be just an attempt to hype the fight with the action-oriented crowd that is rightly skeptical of the match-up, it would be welcome with the fans if he tried to do that. Ward also welcomes it: A disciplined, cautious Dawson is probably harder for him to beat than a wild-slugging Dawson.
Although the odds were at one point 3:1 in Ward’s favor, I don’t think that’s where I’d set them if I was trying to accurately access each man’s chances of winning, rather than trying to induce bets. Dawson is the best fighter Ward has faced, talent and technique-wise, and his assets on paper could prove most troublesome to the former Olympic gold medalist. Ward ought to be the favorite, but a Dawson victory wouldn’t remotely come as a surprise. This is close to an even-money fight, for me.
So far as Ward has been compared to Hopkins, though, I see him pulling through. Dawson comprehensively beat Hopkins in their last fight, to be sure. But Hopkins is a 47-year-old man. Ward, like Dawson, is square in the middle of his prime. Despite his decisive loss, Hopkins was competitive with Dawson, despite possessing slower hands and feet, lacking stamina and being reduced to the periodic potshot followed by a clinch. Ward might not have the exact same bag of tricks as Hopkins, but he has a lot of them, and he has greater physical means for executing them at this point in their respective careers.
No amount of Dawson’s size, passion, ability or speed can make me pick against Ward’s enormous self-belief, talent, technique and cruel intellect. Dawson-Ward might be competitive early as Ward figures out how to get past Dawson’s jab and backwards-moving counters, and Dawson might find fleeting success with some back-up plan later in the fight, too. But on the whole, and by the end, it is Ward who will be doing what he loves: Taking control — most likely with his head in Dawson’s chest most of the time — and winning. Ward by unanimous decision.