There was a time, and it wasn’t terribly long ago, when Andre Ward was perched quite high on the shortlist of elite fighters. He had just blown right through Showtime’s ambitious but troubled Super Six Tournament, a round-robin battle between the world’s best super middleweights (at least, according to Showtime). He was barely tested, easily defeating Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch, with a non-tournament shutout win over Sakio Bika thrown in there because, well, why not?
He then scored his signature victory, a one-sided massacre of then-light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson. If the tournament raised his profile, the knockout win over Dawson (knockouts have been fleeting in Ward’s career, more on that later) shot him up the mythical pound-for-pound list, placing him directly under Floyd Mayweather in most credible rankings. And then… he did a whole lot of nothing, except get his ass handed to him repeatedly in court.
He desperately tried to break out of his promotional deal with Dan Goossen, even though most observers agreed that Goossen had done a pretty phenomenal job with a guy who had very little following and wasn’t terribly exciting to watch on most nights. And so Ward, one of the best fighters in the world, sat on the shelf. When he steps into the ring against Britain’s Paul Smith on Saturday, it will be his first fight in 19 months, and just his fifth since 2010. He wasn’t packing stadiums before his hiatus. His layoff certainly didn’t help matters.
His first fight in 19 months will be broadcast on the BET channel, against a guy who has lost two straight fights. Probably not the massive comeback fight his fans were hoping for. Especially when you consider that Ward’s last fight, a hideous unanimous decision victory over Edwin Rodriguez back in November of 2013, didn’t exactly cause anybody to cheer joyously. The good news is that he is back in the ring courtesy of a new deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports, which bought him out of his contract with Goossen. Now he’s got some serious catching up to do.
When we last saw him, super middleweight was a bit of a mess. He had basically cleaned out the division, including the only other top dog, Carl Froch. Although Froch seemed to badly want a rematch, their first fight wasn’t terribly close, and it wasn’t terribly interesting either. Ward didn’t really have a partner to dance with.
In the time he’s been gone, we’ve seen a couple of monsters explode onto the scene, one right below him at middleweight, and another just above him at light heavyweight. There has been chatter about a possible fight between Ward and middleweight knockout king Gennady Golovkin. We haven’t heard as much about Ward vs. light heavyweight beast Sergey Kovalev, but both match-ups are fascinating.
But first Ward has to take care of Smith. For a man of Ward’s considerable talents, this shouldn’t be that difficult. But there might be some considerable ring rust for the 31-year-old to shake off. Probably not enough for Smith to actually pull off an upset, but possibly enough that Ward doesn’t look quite as good as he should.
And second to winning, looking the part is crucial for the Oakland, California native. Critics point to his far-from-breathtaking style of using his superior footwork and technical skills to outbox opponents. He doesn’t have massive power — in fact his KO ratio hovers at the 50 percent mark — though the Dawson fight is a noted exception. But all of the momentum he gathered from that fight faded away long ago.
If the Dawson fight was Ward’s highest high, this is the low point. He’s fighting on a music channel against a guy who has no business being in the same ring with him. However, with a great performance, he’ll be back in the ranks of the elite. The problem will still be one of marketing. He seems to have a ridiculously inflated sense of his own arena-packing potential. Yes, he’s a great fighter, but Guillermo Rigondeaux is too, and he’s usually sandwiched on undercards between Extreme Midget Wrestling and cock fights. Greatness doesn’t equal value, unfortunately.
The one thing Ward has going for him is that he’s undeniably skilled. The ease with which he dispatches opponents invites comparisons to guys like Floyd Mayweather or Bernard Hopkins. Who knows, this first bout back might just be a springboard to major events against guys like Kovalev and Triple G. On talent alone, he’s nearly peerless. When Mayweather hangs it up, he’s in a prime position to dominate the pound-for-pound list for years to come.
Hopefully, somebody will be there to watch.
Image: Andre Ward (L) and Jay-Z attend a Roc Nation “Throne Boxing” card in January. Credit: Getty Images.