Photos: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
After three and a half years in which his in-ring appearances had been limited to two marking-time bouts, Andre Ward made what felt like a return to competition against Sullivan Barrera in Oakland’s Oracle Arena on Saturday night, moving up in weight to take on a strong and dangerous opponent. It was a legitimate challenge, and he passed it with flying colors, scoring a wide unanimous decision win that clears the path for a clash with light-heavyweight kingpin Sergey Kovalev at the end of the year.
The scores of 119-109, 117-109 and 117-108 accurately reflected the fight that unfolded. With the possible exception of one or maybe two rounds, Ward was faster, sharper, and just altogether better. But make no mistake: this was a real fight, and until Ward finally squeezed the last breaths of life out of the contest, Barrera’s challenge felt genuinely dangerous. Whereas many Ward opponents steadily acquiesce to his superior skills and strength, Barrera kept coming forward, kept throwing punches, kept looking for an opportunity. No shame reflects on him because that opportunity never came; although Barrera is a good prizefighter, Ward is an exceptional one, and the Cuban émigré is simply the latest in a long line of challengers to have fallen short.
That said, there were some signs of rust on Ward’s part, some uncharacteristic looseness in his early offense – which, combined with Barrera’s determined aggression, meant there was at least an element of tension and uncertainty in the early going.
The first round was predictably cagey, but a pattern was already being set: Ward feinting, seeking to lure Barrera into traps, Barrera stepping forward behind a jab and trying to back Ward up. Barrera, 17-1 (12 KOs), managed to find the target with some short right hands in the second, but Ward landed the single biggest punch of the night in the third. With his back against the ropes, and the two men working in close, the American uncorked a short left hook into Barrera’s temple, short-circuiting his equilibrium and depositing him on his rump.
Ward initially seemed more flat-footed than usual, more determined to land a big blow than is his custom, and perhaps as a consequence, the first several rounds treated the crowd of 8,532 to the atypical sight of Ward swinging and missing wildly. By the fifth, however, he had settled into a groove; he was timing Barrera’s offense now, slipping the incoming artillery just enough to ensure it exploded on his shoulder rather than his chin. He dialed down his own output, becoming more selective and accurate with his punches, dropping a point only when referee Raul Caiz took it from him after he cracked Barrera below the belt with enough force to drop him to his knees in the eighth.
The round after the infraction, Barrera began to fall apart, resorting more to holding and mauling than punching. Ward, 29-0 (15 KOs) was in full control now, but it didn’t prevent him coming out for the eleventh with an apparent determination to put his opponent away. He couldn’t, and settled for cruising down the stretch, although a three-punch combination in the final frame knocked back Barrera’s head.
“I give myself a B+,” he told HBO’s Max Kellerman afterward. “I said I wouldn’t use the layoff as an excuse, but there were some things I didn’t do that I wanted to.” As for his apparently more aggressive approach during portions of the bout, he said simply that, “I’ve started to evolve and be more efficient as a fighter.” That suggests a new level of challenge for Kovalev if and when the two men do meet; judging by the smiles with which the Russian, who was ringside, greeted the boos from Ward’s hometown fans it’s a challenge he relishes.
In the co-main event, featherweight Joseph ‘JoJo’ Diaz Jr made a very impressive HBO debut, battering a game Jayson Velez over ten rounds to win a unanimous decision and remain undefeated.
To be fair, it was hardly all one-way traffic. Velez, himself a solid prospect until losing to Ronny Rios on the Canelo Alvarez-Miguel Cotto undercard last November, never stopped throwing punches and withstood some powerful blows from his young opponent. But his offense at no stage carried the threat that Diaz’s did; his punches, though straighter, were often pushed rather than launched. Diaz, in contrast, carried a constant swarming menace, slipping under his foe’s punches and ripping southpaw hooks and left crosses to Velez’s skull. What was particularly impressive was the Diaz body attack, a perpetual battering assault to Velez’s flanks.
Diaz tired a little in the later rounds, and will perhaps, upon reflection, feel he could have done more to stop Velez. But the Puerto Rican, who dropped to 23-2-1 with 16 KOs, is clearly made of granite; and it says a lot for the young Diaz (20-0, 11 KOs), that he could even think about such a possibility, as Velez was a big step up in quality and experience.
Diaz also sought to close the show, launching heavy left hands in the concluding tenth round; and although the fight went to the scorecards, the tallies of 100-91, 99-91 and 98-92 did not flatter him. He is a prospect to watch.