On Saturday night, for the 29th time in his professional career, Andre Ward took home a victory. Boxing fans got their first look at Ward as a light heavyweight, and while they saw him pitch a near shutout against a hungry undefeated Sullivan Barrera, the luster that usually follows Ward just wasn't there.
Even though Ward was facing a heavy underdog, boxing fans were excited to see Ward's return after a long layoff because they hoped to get answers to two key questions; 1) does he deserve the #1 pound-for-pound ranking that he's been chasing for years, and 2) how will he fair against the boogeyman of the division, Sergey Kovalev?
Ward clearly out boxed his older opponent on his way to a unanimous decision, but he didn't completely outclass him the way some expected. Ward didn't use the fleet-footed style fans saw in the early phase of his career. Instead, he stayed within range and beat Barrera to the punch, using pivots and well-placed punches to control the exchanges. Ward's counter left hook was especially on point in the early half of the fight and led to the only knock down.
Yet, Ward was far from unhittable. Ringside observers were surprised by how much red showed on Ward's face (and how quickly it came). This is in part due to the fact that Barrera is a solid fighter. As a two-time winner of the Cuban national title, he's faced countless slick defensive fighters, and thus Ward's elusiveness wasn't something foreign to him. Add to that the ring rust that was clearly apparent in Ward's performance, and the result was one of Ward's least awe-inspiring outings in years.
So where does that put Ward on the pound-for-pound list? Certainly below the consensus king Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez and in my book, below Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev. When these fighters step into the ring, against tested elites or hungry challengers, they inspire awe. To get to the top of the pound-for-pound list a fighter has to do that time and again. It's an unreasonably high bar, but that's why the list is hallowed ground. And right now, Ward's inactivity is preventing him from earning a stop at the top.
Had it been Kovalev standing across the ring from him on Saturday night, Ward would have been in serious trouble. A stationary target is a dead target if Kovalev is the one pulling the trigger. After the fight, Kovalev was not overly critical of Ward, instead saying that Ward fought well, but just could have done "more."
Against, Kovalev, Ward will certainly have to do much more to withstand the Russian's constant and intelligent pressure that is usually spearheaded by a thunderous quick jab. And unlike Barrera, Kovalev will throw combinations all night.
Ward was smart to take a tune up fight (and maybe he should take another) before facing Kovalev. Fans (myself included) would like to see that matchup as soon as possible, but what we really want, is to see the best version of Ward against the best version of Kovalev. For that, Ward needs more to adjust to the weight class, and shake off his inactivity. The time should also help Ward's trainer, Virgil Hunter, continue to refine the game plan for taking down light heavyweight king.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.