It’s Christmas of 2011 and as he sits down to pray before the Christmas turkey, Andre Ward is First in Line to The Throne. Manny Pacquiao has been dispatched by nemesis Juan Manuel Marquez and it is now Ward who is able to gaze at Floyd Mayweather’s star unfettered. No other pugilist stands between him and the undisputed #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He has a style that is reminiscent of Mayweather’s too, the sportsman’s parody of hit-and-don’t-be-hit; he was fast of hand, foot and mind, and he is armed with the nickname “Son of God”, the type of moniker that radiates the same arrogance as “Money” Mayweather.
Eight days earlier, Son of God had thrashed Carl Froch in Atlantic City to become the lineal champion at 168lbs. Froch, who has only recently been stripped from pound-for-pound lists himself for inactivity, was as world-class an opponent as could be found for Ward in his division and he beat the Englishman out of sight. I gave only one of the twelve rounds to Froch, who was as brave and game as always but who was stripped of his defence and robbed of his offence by a fighter who was a class removed from him.
It wasn’t that he just out-jabbed and out-boxed Froch – this, everyone had expected – he out-muscled him. He bullied him. He out-fought him up close where Froch’s superior strength and size were meant to buy him points. Instead, he was roughed up badly by the stronger, dirtier American who mixed his otherworldly left-hook, right uppercut, left hook type combinations with a healthy dose of forearm and head when challenged in a like manner. The fight was not close. The fight, a meeting between two of the ten best super-middleweights of all time, was embarrassingly one-sided. It may be the best performance of the decade.
He was twenty-seven years old and entering his physical prime; he was heir apparent; my opinion was that we were looking at an all-time great talent who would mop up the leftovers at 168lbs, probe for superfights at 160lbs before moving up to dominate at 175lbs. I thought we were seeing the man who would move Floyd Mayweather over.
Four years later:
Andre Ward has just boxed his first contest in little over nineteen months and has been almost universally stripped of any pound-for-pound recognition at all, because, as the man said, how can you be the best at something if you don’t do it? A short rest on the laurels seemed reasonable; after all, there wasn’t a lot left at the weight for him to do – but that short rest turned into a difficult dispute over promotional rights (now resolved). Since, opposition has emerged which is so good that not only would an unbeaten Ward have risen to the pound-for-pound #1 slot, still one of the most affluent position in all of sports, questions have arisen as to whether or not Ward could emerge triumphant. One down there is Gennady Golovkin, a pure stalker of lethal intent, as terrifying a spectre as can be seen in the ring currently. One up, there is Sergey Kovalev, perhaps not quite as special as Golovkin, but in real terms the harder assignment due to his size. Ward, who remains the legitimate king of the super-middles, even if he tarnishes the crown he wears with inactivity, has spent time flirting with light-heavyweight just recently.
His last fight at 168lbs was fought almost three years ago – a liftetime in boxing terms. It was against the reigning 175lbs champion Chad Dawson, who volunteered to dip down to super-middle where Ward happily obliged and then obliterated him. Next up was Edwin Rodriguez, in an over-the-weight super-middle contest, Ward a happy winner on points; finally, tonight, Ward weighed in as a light-heavyweight, coming in at just under the agreed 172lbs. His opponent, Paul Smith, out of Liverpool, England, didn’t make the 172lb limit; he didn’t even manage the 175lb limit; Paul Smith, now 35-6, weighed in at 176lbs. Worse still, when an additional weight limit of 181lbs was introduced for 11 am on the day of the fight, Smith decided not to bother with that one, either, weighing in at 184lbs. Mutters began to circulate that Smith, who was rumoured to have weighed around 180lbs just two days before, had turned up in the States out of shape, in attendance just to pick up his paycheck. For a limited but brave fighter like Smith, looking at Ward and trying to figure out a way to win must be the same as you or I trying to launch ourselves up Mount Everest without oxygen. Of course Smith took the fight, but once he and his team settled down to uncovering a strategy that might defeat Ward, it is possible none could be found. Whatever the truth of the mater it was clear: something had gone wrong in Smith’s camp.
Still, as a come-back opponent, Smith was probably just the right side of acceptable for any super-middleweight other than Ward. Although he must now be regarded as a professional loser at the absolute elite level, Smith, in his two fights with Arthur Abraham, looked like a real test for a world-class fighter. Their first fight, especially, was close and exciting for all that cries of robbery at the decision in favour of Abraham were a little hysterical. The Englishman fought a very good fight and was probably deserving of the rematch he was granted – a fight he clearly lost. Fellow Brit George Groves dusted him in just two back in 2011, a sharp right hand over the ear discombobulating him and another almost identical one ending proceedings. James Degale did the same job with the left in the ninth round a year before. The point is that there are many British super-middleweights that Ward could have called upon to welcome him back that are considerably better than Smith. The joke, at least on the British side of the Atlantic, is that Andre Ward has decided to take on the second best super-middleweight in Paul Smith’s family. On these shores, brother Callum is held to be the best of the four boxing Smith brothers.
So it can come as no surprise that what we saw tonight in Ward’s hometown of Oakland, California was Paul Smith defeated without resistance in a one-sided fight that qualifies, basically, as a workout for Ward; a chance for him to get the meat back on his gristle, so to speak.
He certainly found his jab quickly enough, crackling it out throug the first round as Smith moved around the ring getting hit, Ward’s golden gloves ablur. The Oakland man remained standing between the first and second rounds and padded back out to jab Smith to the ropes in the opening moments of the second; Smith didn’t seem to panic outwardly, but he also appeared hypnotised by the jabs snaking into and between his high guard. Bereft of a meaningful plan, he likely had won no ten second spell of the fight by the end of the third, although he had managed to take away Ward’s left-hook with his high guard. Still, Ward was finding him with the late punches in combinations and with that jab.
Ward flirted with a guard-splitting uppercut in the fourth and began to relax into the fluidity of his offence, spared the vague possibility of any rust gumming up the works by the fact that Smith wasn’t really bothering to fight. Ward went to the body in the fifth but was twice warned to keep them up by the referee, sending him back to the head, but hurtful jabs to the body were his preferred flavour at the opening of the sixth. Pegged to the canvas by his own limitations and Ward’s brilliance, Smith looked a well-worn punching bag and as the round wound down as Ward’s right handsbegan to creep in.
Finally Smith’s moment came – and went – in the seventh as he landed a stinging right hand over the top, winging a left behind it, catching Ward near flush. This punch, if nothing else, reminded us that Ward had a solid chin. Ward celebrated this news with surgical precision, opening Smith up with punches, cracking him with rights of his own at bell. That such a one-sided fight had been allowed to reach the eighth seemed both strange and explicable in the light of Smith’s safety-first strategy. He bled freely from the left-eye but seemed determined to take his beating like a man, walking in, dipping and jabbing for openings, generally finding a punch for his trouble, a left uppercut up the middle the pick of the bunch. Smith, his face now a mask of red, looked a little sorry for himself in his corner between the eighth and ninth.
The advice dished out to Ward in his corner, meanwhile, was chilling – Ward was to “stop fooling around” and “ice” Smith. Generally, Ward doesn’t take corner advice well. Like his friend and mentor Bernard Hopkins he has the look of a man who may be content to listen politely but knows his own mind. On this occasion, he seemed happy to oblige. Ward beat Smith to a standstill, chucking rights over the top and into Smith’s seemingly unprotected face; suddenly Smith’s guard was meaningless and Ward was free to do what he wanted. Smith never quit – he was front and centre throughout – but when the towel came fluttering from Smith’s corner I felt relief rather than disappointment. The glorified spar was at an end.
Smith, who embarrassed himself with his inability to make an agreed weight well above the 168lbs limit he favours, will return to the UK and have success at British and European level. He will deserve that success. He’s a heart-fuelled fighter, for all that he never really showed that in Oakland this evening. And Ward? What does this victory mean for him?
Something and nothing, I would suggest. I suspect that Ward will re-emerge on a handful of pound-for-pound lists over coming weeks but don’t believe the hype. Beating Smith does not make Ward one of the ten most accomplished fighters in the world and wouldn’t even if he had out-boxed Godzilla back in 2013. Ward has a long way to go to claim his likely birthright, that of the best fighter in the world and his destruction of Paul Smith brings him no closer than Odysseus blinding the Cyclops brought him closer to home. There is an ocean to cross and suitors to best before he ascends to that throne, if he ever does.
It must also be uncertain whether his future even lies at super-middleweight. Ward hasn’t made 168lbs since the end of 2013 and the 172lb figure was Ward’s idea. Smith, ironically, favoured 170lbs but Ward declined – what was it about making 170lbs that Ward disliked? If he can still make super-middleweight with ease, German Robert Stieglitz and Brit James DeGale will be keen opposition, but are far from being marquee names. Arthur Abraham is ranked #1 in the division currently but Ward beat him twelve rounds to zero four years ago; it is unlikely that there will be public appetite for a rematch. Despite the one-sided nature of their contest, a rematch with Froch would be valid given Froch’s form since their first match, but the Englishman speaks of meeting Ward again only on the condition that they box in his hometown of Nottingham. This will not happen.
So perhaps Ward’s future lies with the twin moons of Golovkin and Kovalev still. Certainly nobody will be complaining about the opposition on the night of those meetings.