Because of injuries and legal issues, Andre Ward's career has essentially been on hold since capturing the Super Six tournament in December 2011. Now armed with a three-fight agreement with HBO intended to culminate with a showdown with three-belt light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, Saturday's fight with IBF mandatory challenger Sullivan Barrera marks the beginning of the rest of Ward's career.
Rust? What Rust?: The Barrera fight marks only the fourth fight since beating Carl Froch in the Super Six final, which now seems like an eon ago. One would have thought that layoffs of 10 months, 14 months and 19 months would have wreaked havoc with Ward's timing but each time the man nicknamed "S.O.G." defied conventional wisdom by producing sharp performances against Chad Dawson (KO 10), Edwin Rodriguez (W 12) and Paul Smith (KO 9). In those bouts Ward landed a combined 40% overall, 33% jabs and 45% power to his opponents' 19%, 14% and 23% respectively. His jab was dominant (23.5 thrown/7.7 connects per round to his foes' 12 thrown/1.7 connects) and his ring generalship was such that he operated at a comfortable pace (49.4 punches per round) while forcing his adversaries to fight at a far-slower-than-normal 27.2 per round. This phenomenon was particularly notable against Rodriguez, a high-volume bomber that averaged 71.3 punches per round and 6.1 jab connects per round in the five bouts preceding the Ward match but logged just 32.4 punches per round and 1.6 landed jabs per round against Ward, who out-landed him 217-85 overall, 86-19 jabs and 131-68 power and proved the far more accurate hitter (41%-22% overall, 42%-16% jabs, 41%-24% power). In his last 8 fights, Ward has amassed a +14.1 CompuBox plus/minus rating, #4 among all active champ. caliber fighters (he landed 38.2% of his total punches). Ward landed 7.2 jabs per round- #7 and well above wgt. class avg., while opponents landed just 6.2 power shots per round- (wgt. class avg.: 11.4) and just 8.9 total punches per round (wgt. class avg.: 16.4). That past will prove helpful to Ward against Barrera, who cranks big numbers with the best of them.
Barrera's Terror: In six CompuBox-tracked fights, Barrera averaged 77.2 punches per round, out-landed his opponents by more than 20 per round (27.3 to 7.2), operated behind a productive jab (32.5 thrown/6.1 connects per round to his foes' 9.9/1.8) and created a massive 47%-25% gap in power accuracy. One can say Barrera has yet to be seriously challenged but one can also declare that his level of dominance might be a sign of future excellence. In his most recent bout against former title challenger Karo Murat, who, at 27-2, is probably his best opponent to date, Barrera showed previously unseen long-range wrinkles as he worked his jab up and down (43.5 thrown/8.7 connects per round) and impressive one-punch power as he floored Murat with a beautifully timed right uppercut just before the fourth round bell. A barrage early in the fifth ended matters and capped off a performance where he averaged 79.2 punches per round to Murat's 31.2 and led 112-38 overall, 36-13 jabs and 76-25 power as well as 34%-29% overall and 51%-28% power. Can he lift his game yet another level?
Prediction: It's hard to pick against a fighter who hasn't lost since age 12 but Barrera's volume, power and chief second (Abel Sanchez) present a genuine threat. That said, Ward, who looks past no one, will use his science to bog down Barrera's offense and his sharp counters to pound out a decisive decision.