Fans expecting Andre Ward to appear a bit rusty this Saturday night, especially early on in the bout when the super middleweight kingpin faces dynamic puncher Edwin Rodriguez in California, would have good reason for doing so.
Can Andre Ward return to form?
After all, Ward (26-0, 14 KOs) is coming into the bout after off a long layoff. Saturday’s HBO main event against an undefeated and dangerous contender, Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KOs), will mark 14 months since Ward’s last ring work, a 10-round demolition of former light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson on September 8, 2012.
Since destroying Dawson, Ward, the last American male boxer to capture an Olympic gold medal for the United States, has had a rough time outside the ring. He suffered a right shoulder injury in training camp, scrapping a planned fight against former world middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, who has since retired. Ward also feuded with his promoter, Dan Goossen, and his television partner, HBO, over the particulars of his career, including who he should be matched up against next and for what price.
But credit should given to Ward for taking on such tough competition his first time back in action. While the 28-year-old Rodriguez hasn’t yet competed against the type of high-level opposition Ward has faced, the hard puncher has looked impressive against some fairly notable contenders.
In fact, Rodriguez’s Round 1 destruction of Denis Grachev at a 171.5-pound catchweight is exactly the kind of performance that should make Ward and Co. wary.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for a fighter to prepare for after a long layoff is the speed of the action. Boxers rarely go full throttle when they spar against each other. Instead, sparring is a place to hone tactics against certain styles.
And even when they do go full speed, sparring mates for world champions are typically not world champions or contenders themselves. They usually fit into one of two categories. They’re either professional stable mates, men who earn their wages in boxing helping the sport’s elite prepare for their big TV bouts. Or they’re young fighters looking to pick up experience and training advice from someone who’s already made it to where they want to be.
Moreover, sparring is done with larger gloves and fighters wear headgear for protection. Punches lack the zip and sting of main event rumbles, and the men throwing them in the gym aren’t fighting for anything of consequence or in front of anyone who will report on the proceedings.
Ward has likely sparred numerous rounds since last year. But fight night will be different. In Rodriguez, he’ll have someone intent on cracking the super middleweight crown off of Ward’s head, and the last time he’ll have experienced such vigor from a high-level professional prizefighter will be 14 months prior—against Dawson.
Rodriguez would be wise to attack Ward early. If he can catch the 30-year-old Ward adjusting to the rigors of the ring during the first couple of rounds, he has the ability and the power to pull the upset. Rodriguez has real pop in his punches, and he’s trained by world-class tactician Ronnie Shields. Moreover, he’s never tasted defeat.
Still, Ward is considered especially gifted by most ring observers. He’s already fought and beaten a murderers’ row of competition, including Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch and Arthur Abraham. And according to Yahoo’s Kevin Iole, Ward hasn’t lost a fight since he was 12 years old.
So maybe the long layoff won’t matter at all, because while being away from the ring for a long period of time can wreak havoc for a fighter—disrupting his usually pristine timing, testing his typically strong stamina and blunting his otherwise sharp punches—some men are just born to be great fighters, and maybe Ward is one of them.
Perhaps the best example of this kind of man is the only fighter ranked above Ward on most pound-for-pound lists, Floyd Mayweather.
Every rule has an exception, and if one of the rules is that fighting high-level competition after a long layoff is a recipe for disaster, Mayweather has been that exception.
Mayweather has accomplished the feat multiple times during his career. He took over 21 months off between victories over Ricky Hatton and Juan Manuel Marquez, 16 more between wins against Shane Mosley and Victor Ortiz and a full year between defeating Miguel Cotto and Robert Guerrero.
Ward has frequently been compared to Mayweather during his career, and for good reason. Both are undefeated. Both would rather box their way to a win over gutting it out in a slugfest. Both were well-regarded amateur stars who have now proven themselves as professionals.
While it’s clear Mayweather, 36, is more accomplished at this point in his career and is by-and-large considered the better boxer, before Ward’s lengthy time away from the sport, there was legitimate discussion in boxing circles as to whether or not he should replace Mayweather as the world’s top pound-for-pound fighter.
Caution ultimately prevailed back then, but the die was cast, nonetheless. Most experts expect Ward to eventually replace Mayweather as boxing’s elite superstar, if not before he retires, then certainly after.
Ward’s performance against Rodriguez should help further determine whether or not it was silly to attribute such lofty expectations to him in the first place. If he’s of the Mayweather ilk, he should have no problem dispatching Rodriguez. But if he’s not, it will be a long night for Ward.
Supporting the former view, Ward’s longest layoff before the one he’s coming off now was almost 9 months. After outclassing Carl Froch on December 17, 2011, Ward faced lineal light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson and simply trounced him.
Rodriguez is a good fighter, but he’s probably not as good as either Froch or Dawson. Expect Ward to win big and look good doing so.
Kelsey McCarson is a boxing writer for Bleacher Report and TheSweetScience.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KelseyMcCarson.