By Frank Lotierzo
When pound-for-pound champ Floyd Mayweather retired last September, boxing lost perhaps the most elite boxer in the world. However, all is not lost because the fighter who most considered to be Mayweather's equal as a technician made his light heavyweight debut this past Saturday night. That's right, former super-middleweight champ Andre Ward 29-0 (15) fought as a light heavyweight for the first time in his hometown of Oakland, California against the IBF's number one contender Sullivan Barrera 17-1 (12).
There was a lot of interest in the fight because Barrera wasn't just an opponent showing up for a check. Barrera, a Cuban defector living in Miami, Florida, was looking to build his name and reputation by being the first fighter to beat Ward as a pro and then parlay that into a title bout with either WBA/IBF/WBO title holder Sergey Kovalev 29-0-1 (26) or WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson 27-1 (22). As for Ward, he's already tentatively scheduled to fight Kovalev sometime this year in what would be the most anticipated light heavyweight title bout since the Roy Jones vs. Antonio Tarver rematch back in 2004.
Prior to the fight Ward was in a tough spot. If he won too convincingly and took Barrera apart, it would be said after the fight that Sullivan hadn't fought anybody and his undefeated record was the result of careful management looking to land him a title shot. On the other hand, had Ward struggled and absorbed a lot of punches on his way to a one or two point decision win – most would be saying he's lost it as an upper-tier fighter and has no chance to beat Kovalev and capture the light heavyweight title.
As it turned out, it was an easy win for Ward. He jogged to a unanimous 12-round decision in which all three judges scored the fight overwhelmingly in his favor. For the entire bout Ward did whatever he wanted to and had an answer for everything Barrera tried in his attempt to swing the fight in his favor. Ward showed during patches of the bout that he was Barrera's master and could out-box, punch or out-think him on a moment's notice. When it was over, it was clear that Ward and Barrera were fighting on different levels.
After the bout Ward graded his performance a B-minus. I'm not much for giving fighters a letter grade after a bout but here is what I observed…….Ward is fighting more flatfooted now than he did before, but he's just as efficient as ever. He's starting to remind me of Mayweather–in that he only needs to do a few things to dominate his opponent. The fight was one-sided and dull, which served Andre's interests well. Andre jabs, feints, jabs, moves inside and controls the inside, and once in a while will throw a sneak left hook or right lead and he still throws in a little dirty fighting too. He dropped Barrera in the third round with a short left hook that didn't travel more than six inches–a real thing of beauty. Between that and the feints, he kept Sullivan honest. There was a second knockdown in the eighth round that the ref called a low blow (might have been), but even that served to make Barrera a little gun shy. Ward looked very natural and at ease at the weight and really wasn't challenged. I sensed that if Barrera tried to pick it up and really go after Ward, Andre had another gear and would've raised him one.
Perhaps the aspect of Ward that stood out the most was his ability to not give Barrera much of a target to hit. His ability to do that stymied Barrera's offense, and with less coming at him, it was much easier for Ward to take his liberties with Sullivan offensively. The mirage-like target which he presented forced Barrera to think his way through the rounds and once that happened Barrera was fighting uphill and it was over.
Now with Barrera out of the way, Kovalev-Ward is closer to becoming a reality. And based on what Ward showed this past weekend, it's really hard to make a case for either fighter being a predominant favorite over the other. Then again, maybe it's not so difficult after all. With the reason being, if Ward isn't too bothered or thrown off his game by Kovalev's aggression and power, Andre will win a decision by controlling the action simply because Sergey hasn't a prayer to out-box Ward. Kovalev's offense is reliant on his jab. Without the jab finding the designated mark, the right hands and short hooks will become less of a weapon.
The question as of this writing is, can Andre Ward neutralize Sergey Kovalev's jab when they finally touch gloves? Answer that and you have the winner!
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com