Photo: Will Hart
By Hamilton Nolan
Watching the career of a master of the craft of fighting is an anxious experience. Such masters, true masters, are rare. Their artistry is sublime. Yet every moment that we spend appreciating their work is matched with the creeping knowledge that they cannot last. Their field is too rough. It will eventually eat them up, just as they have eaten up those less great than themselves.
Every fight of one of boxing's true masters is an event to be taken seriously. Such fights aren't infinite. Fighters spend years learning as amateurs, and more years building their record against lesser opponents as pros, in order to reach the point where they can challenge the best competition. The world's very best boxers get how many fights when they are at the peak of their own powers, before nature's inevitable decline sets in? Ten fights? Twenty fights, perhaps? Every one, no matter the outcome, is a treasure of sorts, because it represents the art of boxing occurring in its most refined form. If you appreciate boxing, this is where you will find it being practiced better than anywhere else on earth. Drink it in when you get the chance. The time will come when that master is no longer capable of putting on such performances.
With Floyd Mayweather ensconced in uneasy retirement, Andre Ward (28-0, 15 KOs) is the best pound for pound boxer in the world. Or was. His run defeating a string of the best super middleweights in the world from 2009-2012, which culminated in his total domination of the fearsome, long-armed puncher Chad Dawson, established his mastery. But then the troubles began. A contract dispute. A shoulder injury. The upshot was that since his fight against Dawson in September of 2012, Ward has only fought twice, against Edwin Rodriguez in 2013 and against Paul Smith in the summer of 2015. Both were easy wins for Ward. Both, in fact, were tune-up fights, the sort of fights that great fighters take only to keep busy or knock off the rust after a long layoff. Which means that in more than three years since Andre Ward proved that he was at the very height of his powers, he has not once been seriously challenged. This is the equivalent of Pablo Picasso taking several years off from painting as soon as he invented cubism. It is a loss to the art.
Now, we are told, this uncertain time in Andre Ward's career is over. He is back. He has moved up to 175 pounds, a weight at which his speed and defensive mastery should be even more effective against bigger, slower men. On March 26, to usher him into his new weight class, he will face Sullivan Barrera (17-0, 12 KOs), whose Cuban upbringing accounts for both his technical proficiency and for the fact that he has only had 17 fights at the age of 34. Barrera has solid boxing skills, particularly for a light heavyweight, above average power in both hands, and an uppercut that can take the head off anyone who wants to come inside on him. His best wins, though, are knockouts of the accomplished but over-the-hill Jeff Lacy, and the competent but mediocre Karo Murat, both last year. Andre Ward is more than accomplished and competent; he is superlative. Barrera is a sparring partner of Gennady Golovkin, so he knows what it is like to face superlative talent, at least in the gym. But he is here to serve as challenging gatekeeper for what everyone hopes is a looming superfight between Ward and Sergey Kovalev later this year.
Andre Ward is a great fighter, but not a flashy fighter. He has famously not lost a fight at any level since he was 13 years old. He has done this not with blinding speed or deadly power, but with peerless decision-making. At every moment of a fight, Andre Ward seems capable of making the best decision. He knows when to fight on inside, and when to fight on the outside, and when to attack, and when to lay back. He fights like a man who has had this fight before, then come back in time from the future with full knowledge of what will happen. He has shown no holes in his game. His brilliance is more subtle than that of most pound-for-pound titans, but that only makes it more impressive. It also makes it more susceptible to the destructive effects of rust. Not fighting regularly may leave a boxer fine physically, but erode his timing and judgment. These are the very things that Andre Ward relies on to make him a champion. If all goes well, the next few years should represent the very pinnacle of Andre Ward's career. Let's hope that he didn't spend too much time on the sidelines.
On the undercard, featherweight Jayson Velez (23-1-1) takes on Joseph Diaz (19-0). Velez is tall, tough, and aggressive, with a lanky style that slips into awkwardness and a willingness to trade punches. Diaz, a 2012 US Olympian, is much slicker, with good speed and a tendency towards combination punching and in-and-out footwork. Velez has the stronger resume, but 23-year-old Diaz seeks to prove that he belongs at the top of the division in his first HBO bout. If he can avoid being backed into a corner, Diaz's boxing skills should win out.