Welcome back to the big show, Andre Ward.
The sublimely talented super middleweight king made a long-awaited return on Saturday night after 14 months on the shelf. He routed pretender Edwin Rodriguez via unanimous decision in defense of his status as both the world’s best 168-pound fighter and the most decorated of a ridiculous gaggle of champions recognized by the WBA.
The title belt wasn’t in peril after the previously unbeaten Rodriguez weighed in two pounds over the division limit on Friday night. Still, if the Massachusetts-based Dominican had defeated Ward or even pushed him close to the brink of a loss, it would have compromised the American’s slot at or near the top of most pound-for-pound lists.
Instead, with his win and improvement to 27-0 in nearly nine years as a pro, Ward stayed in the discussion for a handful of fights against foes who have either mentioned his name or heard theirs mentioned alongside his.
Read on for those who warrant top consideration as the next in line.
Record: 54-6-2, 32 KO
Credentials: World titles in two weight classes; reigning IBF champion at 175 lbs
If boxing were logical, this fight would make the most sense. Bernard Hopkins is the premier name at 175 pounds. Ward is the best fighter at 168. And while many agree the tactical styles would make for a duller fight than is the norm for both men, it would still be compelling to see how it played out.
Hopkins threw some initial cold water on the concept by saying he’d never fight the guy he labeled as a “protege,” but both Ward and promoter Dan Goossen indicated prior to the Rodriguez fight that the bout was possible if the old man was willing to make it happen.
Record: 47-1-1, 32 KO
Credentials: Former WBC middleweight champion; won lone career fight above 160 pounds
Ward hasn’t shown a tendency to call out opponents in the past, but he broke from character a bit when Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. emerged from a September fight against Brian Vera with a unanimous, albeit controversial, decision.
Ward went out of his way to praise the enigmatic son of a Hall of Fame father after the dubious triumph over Vera. The burly 27-year-old Mexican would come complete with the Top Rank promotional machinery, even though the ring challenge he’d present might not measure up.
Record: 22-0-1, 20 KO
Credentials: Reigning WBO champion at 175; 10 straight wins by stoppage
Russian slugger Sergey Kovalev went from unknown powerhouse to world-class commodity in an August trip to Wales. He dominated hometown hero Nathan Cleverly to capture a world title belt and edge his way into big-fight conversation.
Kovalev had made an interest in Ward known even before the Cleverly fight, indicating that Ward’s rise to 175 would make the division better. It’s doubtful, though, that his less-polished approach would create much more trouble than ex-175-pound kingpin Chad Dawson did.
Record: 28-0, 25 KO
Credentials: Reigning IBO/WBA champion at 160; 15 straight wins by stoppage
While Ward has a bountiful selection of potential foes at 168 and 175, two-belted middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin possesses the skill set and momentum to make a match with the bigger man a compelling option.
The Kazakh’s amateur background is evidence of all-around acumen, and his seemingly unquenchable appetite for violence as a pro has made him a darling of media and fans. It probably won’t happen immediately, but it’s hard to imagine this one not being on HBO’s long-range calendar—with the winner taking over as the network’s top post-Manny Pacquiao star.
Record: 31-2, 22 KO
Credentials: Reigning IBF champion at 168; three straight wins since 2011 loss to Ward
Fiery Englishman Carl Froch tried and failed in his first crack at Ward in a WBA/WBC unification match 23 months ago in Atlantic City. He lost a wide unanimous decision in a bout that was the subject of zero clamoring for an immediate rematch.
Froch has done his best to create interest since then, however. Impressive stoppages of Lucian Bute and Yusaf Mack—and an entertaining sequel with Mikkel Kessler—have proved fuel for a largely Nottingham-fanned flame. The prospect of a return bout was the topic of Ward chatter recently, with the former gold medalist claiming a KO would be a target result.
Record: 22-1, 19 KO
Credentials: Reigning WBC champion at 175; 12 straight wins by stoppage
No fighter has been more jolting in going from unknown to mainstream in 2013 than Haitian-turned-Canadian Adonis Stevenson. He jumped from super middle to wallop a pair of former 175-pound champs in Chad Dawson (TKO 1) and Tavoris Cloud (TKO 7) within 112 days.
Stevenson’s background at 168 makes Ward a natural target, and his promotional team has reportedly made Ward an offer for a unique two-fight package that would have them meet once in each weight class. If neither man takes the big-name route directly to Bernard Hopkins, a pit stop together would present career-altering possibilities for both.