By Frank Lotierzo
This Saturday night on HBO former undisputed super-middleweight champ Andre Ward 28-0 (15) will fight for the first time officially as a light heavyweight. His opponent, Sullivan Barrera 17-0 (12) is another Cuban prospect residing in Miami Florida. For Ward, there's a lot riding on this bout, mainly his future as one of the top-5 pound for pound fighters in professional boxing. If Ward can defeat Barrera who is the IBF's number one contender, waiting for him most likely in his next bout is the man who most believe, myself included, is the baddest man in the light heavyweight division, WBA/IBF/WBO title holder Sergey Kovalev 29-0-1 (26).
On January 4th of this year I wrote an article stating that of all of the fights that could be made in 2016, the one I'd look forward to the most would be Sergey Kovalev vs. Andre Ward. And the reason for that is, as someone who believes they're pretty good at handicapping fights, Kovalev-Ward is the one fight that would tax my intellect the most and would be the most difficult to pick a winner.
In the January article I said “Neither Kovalev nor Ward has ever faced a fighter like the other, not surprisingly because there's not many of them around. It's a real tough fight to handicap and pick the winner. And the proof of that is, yes, it's Andre Ward, and yet I can't tell you that I would pick him to win, as great as he is. Kovalev's long game and power will give Ward much to address. Will he, can he? That’s what makes the match so compelling and anticipated.”
Well, if Ward beats Barrera, we'll no doubt see him and Kovalev touch gloves before the New Year's Eve ball drops in Times Square to usher in 2017. Isn't that great; two fighters of that caliber have so openly stated how much they are looking forward to meeting each other in the ring so they can decide ultimately who really is the baddest of the bad at 175.
Some observers believe that Barrera, 34, is too much of a risk with the Kovalev fight on the line for Ward, 32, to accept. Their main reason being the seven pound jump in weight from super-middleweight to light heavyweight that Ward will be confronting. However, they forget Ward won an Olympic Gold Medal at the 2004 summer games as a light heavyweight as a 20 year old. As recently as this week Andre said he's been smiling more because he can eat. He reiterated making the cut to 168 pounds wasn’t easy and it was “just a matter of when” he moved up a weight class. Well the time has arrived.
Others worry that because Ward hasn't fought in nine months, and has only fought three times in the past four years because of injuries and managerial problems, that he'll be sluggish and rusty. And if Ward was any other boxer I can see where that would be a concern, but Andre knows that he's in a new weight class and he'll be confronted by a top contender. I'm confident Barrera has his full attention and like Floyd Mayweather, when you've dominated at that level as a pro, as long as he's in great shape Ward should be fine.
In Barrera, Ward is facing perhaps the best opponent he's seen in years from a physical vantage point. But it'll take more than mere physicality to beat Ward because he's so smart and skilled. The problem for Barrera is that he's never seen anything like Ward in his entire amateur or pro career. Up to this point Barrera has been able to control the range and tempo against the opposition he's had in front of him. Against second-tier opponents he appears to be a very good technical boxer.
However, I see some other things when watching Barrera. I couldn't help but notice that he does the Cuban thing of using a ghost jab as a range finder and disrupting device, but he pushes his punches a little too much–no great power there. He's very methodical and predictable: jab, jab, right cross. He does throw an occasional right uppercut (which he delivers well). Basically, against Ward he'll look pretty vanilla. I'd be very surprised if he gave Ward any real trouble, but he might well take him the distance.
Andre Ward is an elite technician. He's very hard to hit and get an accurate read on. His offense isn't the type that overwhelms his opponents physically; it's more as if he's plucking the wings from a butterfly. At first they're not hurt but as the fight progresses it's as if he's grown another arm on his body and they are hit cleanly from an angle they had no idea even existed.
Ward is great at finding out what his opponents don't want and then forcing them a steady diet of it. And perhaps the thing that makes him most dangerous is his ability to see an opening and react to it so quickly. And the scary thing about that is, he repeatedly hits the open target due to his Bernard Hopkins like intellect more than his Roy Jones like speed. In other words, he didn't beat you simply because he could get there first; he beat you because he knew you'd be open before you actually were – for the split second the opening existed due to his observation and calculation.
Applaud Andre Ward for meeting the IBF's top contender in his maiden light heavyweight bout. Sullivan Barrera would probably be favored over all but maybe six or seven light heavyweights in the world. But it's hard to make a case suggesting that he can better Andre Ward in any facet of boxing. Unless Ward has really slipped and isn't half the fighter he once was, I don't see him being upset by a fighter who is green in experience and vanilla when it comes to imagination and creativeness in the ring.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com