Mikkel Kessler emerged right out of the gate as the consensus favorite to win the Showtime Super Six tournament. That still could be the case, one supposes, but the Dane looked like a man of 30 going on 50 in the main event which unfolded at the Oracle Arena, in Oakland, California on Saturday. Andre Ward was the faster, sharper, hungrier boxer, and sent word to fans that he's unafraid to get into a fight, with all the attendant mauling, and brawling, and butting and bleeding, if that's what it takes to prove his point, that he is the one to beat in the 168 pound scramble.
Team Kessler could squawk that clashes of heads opened up cuts on the Dane, but that seemed almost immaterial, as Ward's diet of mixed-speed jabs, and right follows, along with a super-veteran's eye for breaking Kessler's rhythm by clinching, were all the American needed to score a unanimous decision win after 10-plus rounds. The ringside doctor recommended a haltage at 1:42 into the 11th, and because the wound he deemed too severe, on Kessler's right eye, was from a head butt, the fight went to the scorecards.
The arbiters saw it 97-93, 98-92, 98-92, for Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist who has drawn some flak from critics for taking the slow boat to this point in his career. Kessler's WBA 168 pound title was up for grabs.
After, Ward was his typical spiritual, gracious self. "He's a super champion and I know why he's been a champion for so long," Ward said, who thanked God right away in his chat with Jim Gray. Kessler didn't have the time or an inclination for niceties. He right away cited Ward's holding and headbutting, and blamed the ref. "It was unfair with the head butt and the holding, and a home-judge referee, obviously," he said.
Sour grapes or legit gripe? Maybe it depends on who you root for. "He's coming in with the head, on purpose," Kessler alleged. TSS U, what's your take? Kessler have a point, or is he just spewing sour grape juice?
Now, Ward could say "I told ya so" if he were that kind of guy, as it it looks like he and promoter Dan Goossen took the right route to get to the title shot. No, he hadn't met anyone of the caliber that Kessler had, but oh yeah, Kessler LOST to the best man he'd faced, Joe Calzaghe, Ward could've said, were he an edgier or less classy sort.
The hometowner Ward (age 25; 20-0 with 13 KOs entering) weighed 166 1/2 pounds on Friday while the Dane Kessler (42-1 entering; lone loss came vs. Joe Calzaghe in Nov. 2007) was 167 pounds at the weigh in.
In the first, Ward's fast hands were on display from the start. He started righty, then went lefty halfway through the round, and then switched back again. Kessler moved forward, and looked for openings patiently.
In the second, Kessler came out already warmed up. He pressed harder, but that didn't cause Ward to crumble. His left hook, sometimes thrown as a lead, was more than an annoyance. His right hand landed at the end of two, and the crowd roared. That's our guy, their cheer said.
In the third, Ward kept on working at what was working. His movement, in and out and laterally, was bothering the Dane, who looked a bit befuddled and a step slow. Ward caught Kessler coming in, with a right hand, and by this point, if I'm his corner, I'm a little bit worried.
In the fourth, we saw a blemish under Kessler's right eye. Ward's feints had Kessler cringing by now, and by this juncture, the clinches were more frequent. Both men were complicit in this. A right hand hurt Kessler at the one minute mark. He backed up the Dane with 20 seconds to go. Some blood dripped from under the right. The ref said an accidental butt caused the cut.
In the fifth, the crowd's buzz was up. They sensed something big was in the making. Ward slipped real well, but caught a left hook as he rushed in with 1:35 to go. His right was thereafter stationed next to his ear, and he dialed back on the aggression some.
In the sixth, Ward came out and was first right after the bell rang. He was sending notice that he wasn't in deflation mode. But neither was Kessler. He clanged rights to the body, and sought to catch a too-confident Ward lunging in.
In the seventh, Ward kept being aggressive. One wondered if he'd get too cocky and get caught, but so far, so good. After the round, Kessler told his corner, "I can't see." The cornerman didn't really respond.
In the eighth, Ward's jab set up sharp rights. Blood trickled from Kessler's nose, and his form looked almost as bad as his face. He swung wildly, and missed by a wide margin too often. A gash on Kessler's left eye, right under the brow, threatened a stoppage, and his trainer asked him if he wanted to keep going after the round. "Should we stop it?" "No," said the Dane. He was told by trainer Richard Olsen that he could only win by a knockout.
In the ninth, Ward, who was unmarked and had plenty left in his lungs, smothered the Dane after cracking one-twos. Much of the round was ugly, as both guys clinched and grabbed. Again, post-round, the corner quizzed Kessler hard, if he wanted to continue. He didn't overwhelm with his enthusiasm, but he came out for the tenth.
In the tenth, the two bashed heads again. Another gash appeared, this one on Kessler's right lid. But he didn't fold; the Dane kept hurling, but so did Ward, more sharply and more often. Kessler's trainer again asked him if he wanted to continue. Yes, Kessler said, and then complained about being held.
In the 11th, Ward's lead right stung Kessler. The ref brought Kessler to the doctor, who recommended that the fight be stopped. It was the cut on the right eye which had the doc saying no mas. Referee Jack Reiss called for the fight to go to the cards. Nobody in Oakland figured that Kessler would keep his title. Check that...anyone who'd been a fight fan for any length of time knows that in the theater of the unexpected, the judges are usually the wildest of the wildcards.
SPEEDBAG Ward is set to meet Jermain Taylor, who was kayoed in his first-round Super Six scrap, against Arthur Abraham, and has lost four of his last five matches, three by stoppage. Ward said Taylor Tweeted his fans that he was training for his second round bout, so it looks like JT is staying in the game.
---Hey, who is caring about the points system in this thing? I confess I'm not all about the points. But for the record, Abraham is No. 1, with three points, followed by Ward and Froch, with two, and Kessler, Dirrell and Taylor all have goose eggs.
---Some folks have tried to make the "Will an American win?" storyline a big deal, but I feel like TSS fans really care mostly about fights, not flags. Hey, maybe being an American with fewer ace pugilists to root for in the last decade has made this so, but I'm really not caring much about who's from where, I guess.
---Abraham will take on Dirrell in stage two.