When Andre Ward defeated Chad Dawson in September of last year, the sky appeared to be the limit for the super middleweight champion of the world.
He had just defeated the recognized light heavyweight champion, in dominant fashion, and did so on the heels of cleaning out his own neighborhood by winning the super six tournament to establish his supremacy at 168 pounds.
But that's where things began to go wrong for Ward, a 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist. He had jumped as high as No. 2 on the pound-for-pound lists of many respected media outlets—including ESPN, Yahoo Sports and The Ring Magazine.
With no high-profile opponents available at 168 pounds—he had already defeated most if not all of them—Ward was forced to settle on former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik for his next defense.
The fight was criticized in some circles, largely due to Pavlik's struggles with substance abuse and lack of commitment to the sport in recent years. But the fight never came off as Ward tore his right shoulder capsule, which required surgery to repair.
He hopes to return to the ring by the end of the summer, with the winner of the May 25 rematch between Carl Froch and Mikkel Kessler having been mentioned as the most likely opponent.
The question then turns to how the long injury layoff will affect Ward when he does return to the ring.
Who should Andre Ward face next?
Ward won't know exactly what he's dealing with—or how the surgically repaired shoulder will respond—until he begins training. Will it stand up to the rigors of a hard camp, and if so will there be ring rust?
By the time he returns he'll have been out of the ring for nearly a full year, and that's potentially problematic for a fighter.
It would probably be wise for Ward and his team to seek out something of a softer fighter for his return. Froch and Kessler are world-class opponents, and highly dangerous despite the fact that both were defeated by Ward during the tournament.
Ward might be better off pursuing a fight against the likes of Marco Antonio Rubio or even WBO super middleweight champion Robert Stieglitz.
Both would provide a lower level of challenge, and provide Ward with the opportunity to test out his shoulder against an opponent less likely to push him. They won't provide either the financial or accomplishment rewards, but will gauge where Andre Ward is as a fighter.
The desire to get right back into the fire is understandable. Boxing is a business, and Ward is seeking to cash in on his recent successes and build his star power.
With Floyd Mayweather firmly entrenched in the top spot, and a jumble of fighters all lumped anywhere from spots two to five, Ward has a chance to separate himself from the pack.
And that, of course, could potentially mean big money.
He has the talent, and the opponents. A move to light heavyweight could be in the offing not too far down the road, but he needs to be careful.
On his best day, he can beat anyone in the world between 160-175 pounds. He showed that against Froch, Kessler and Dawson. But we won't know he's at his best until he can show it again in the ring.
And the best way to do that may be to take it slowly, rather than biting off too much, too quick.