The Thinking Man's Champ Makes His Final Tune-up

Photo: Will Hart

By Hamilton Nolan

Customarily, the title of Best Pound for Pound Boxer in the World is a flashy affair. Not so at this moment in time. Floyd Mayweather, who was somehow able to rake in nine-figure purses while conducting himself as a defensive specialist, is retired; Manny Pacquiao, the flashy all-action "good guy" so beloved he could one day end up President of the Philippines, is at the tail end of his career – a recently announced return from retirement notwithstanding. The true and honest pick for their successor as the very best pure boxer on earth could very well be Andre Ward. But nobody is making too much noise about it, and everyone harbors a tiny suspicion that the man who has not lost since he was 12 years old may have already seen his best years. We’ll find out very, very soon.

Andre Ward has signed a deal to fight Sergey Kovalev in November. If he wins that fight--going up a weight class to defeat the scariest light heavyweight knockout artist in the world--the world will be comfortable crowning him pound-for-pound king and successor to Mayweather, allowing him to pursue the remainder of his career in the lucrative role of Prince of Boxing. There are just a few reasons why that may prove to be challenging to even the great Andre Ward. One is Kovalev himself. Another is the size leap. Another is the fact that Andre Ward is 32 years old with a relatively modest 29-0 record and recently went 20 full months, including the entire year of 2014, without fighting anyone, due to management and injury issues. This is not to say that Andre Ward is definitively rusty, or that his peak boxing years are definitively behind him. It’s just to say that those things might be the case. Add to that the fact that in the past year he has only fought Paul Smith, who is not a world class fighter, and Sullivan Barrera, who is not a world class fighter, and now, in what will be his final tune-up fight before Kovalev, he is fighting Alexander Brand, who is not a world class fighter. The last real world class fighter that Andre Ward beat (masterfully, it should be said) was Chad Dawson, in 2012, at 168 pounds. In less than four months he will fight Sergey Kovalev, a world class fighter, at 175 pounds. You can see how this may, possibly, prove to be a challenge.

Both Pacquiao and Mayweather, welterweights, had blinding speed and clear physical gifts to go with their skills; Pacquiao’s gifts were mostly offensive and Mayweather’s were mostly defensive, but the greatness of each could be perceived after watching them for just a moment. Ward’s gifts are far more subtle. Watching him for a round or two does not always reveal the depth of his talent. His speed is not blinding and his power is not overwhelming. His greatest gift is decision-making. At any given moment, he is always making the right choice. This starts as almost imperceptible and, over the course of a fight, adds up to domination. Every tiny mistake an opponent makes pulls Ward closer to victory. To an even greater degree than Mayweather, Ward is the thinking man’s champ.

Which is wonderful, unless you are the sort of fighter who takes a 20 month layoff. That can tend to dull the very sort of sharpness necessary for proper decision-making superiority. The only way that an intelligence-driven fighter like Andre Ward can ensure that his fast mind has not gotten rusty is to test it against the highest level of opposition. Last March, against Sullivan Barrera, who is a good but certainly not great fighter, Ward won in a fashion that was solid but far from exquisite. On August 6, against Alexander Brand, he will need to be utterly dominant in order to reassure the world that he is ready for the many dangers that Sergey Kovalev brings.

Brand boasts a 25-1 record that is less impressive than it looks. Twenty four of his fights and wins were in his native Colombia, against opposition I guarantee you have not heard of; his lone loss came in 2012 to Badou Jack, who is coincidentally the only decent fighter he has ever faced. The step up to a man like Andre Ward is akin to being given a place in the Super Bowl after eking out a win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. It’s a leap. Brand is a good enough puncher who can knock you out if you let him, which is unlikely in his next fight. His balance is awkward; he tends to flail at times; and he often allows himself to adopt a shoulder roll defensive posture without the requisite shoulder roll defensive skills. He should be, in other words, completely dismantled by Andre Ward. It is not necessary for Ward to win by knockout. But it is necessary for him to so thoroughly exploit every weakness in Alexander Brand’s game as to demonstrate to him that he has no business being in the same ring with Andre Ward, unless he retires and becomes a referee.

Anything less will do nothing but whet Sergey Kovalev’s appetite for blood.