With Floyd Mayweather Jr. retired, Andre Ward assumed the mantle of boxing's consummate boxer-puncher, a man who makes opponents miss and makes them pay with laser-guided missiles. Even after a career-long 19-month layoff Ward showed against Paul Smith that his technical prowess remains state of the art. On Saturday, 39-year-old Colombian Alexander Brand, who is making the first big leap up in class since losing a split decision to future WBC super middleweight titlist Badou Jack four years ago, will serve as the latest canvas upon which Ward will display his art. If the wild-swinging Brand has his way, he'll produce a piece that will reflect the volatility and chaos of Jackson Pollock. If Ward wins, a showdown with Sergey Kovalev awaits.
Maintaining the Beat: Ward defied conventional wisdom in June 2015 when he dissected, then decimated former two-time title challenger Smith in scoring a ninth-round TKO. As usual, Ward was the model of efficiency as he landed 39% of his total punches, 29% of his jabs and 59% of his power shots while absorbing 18% overall, 14% jabs and 29% in return. His jab was superb (44.7 thrown/12.9 connects per round) and he kept Smith in single-digit connects in every round (his best was eight in rounds six and eight) while Ward dipped below 20 connects just once (18 in the seventh). The raw numbers were illustrative of Ward's dominance (231-47 overall, 111-27 jabs, 120-20 power) and proved beyond doubt he still merited his spot near the top of the pound-for-pound parade. Nine months later he made his light heavyweight debut against Sullivan Barrera and his comprehensive decision win established his spot as a top contender. His numbers weren't as dominant (166-111 overall, 66-46 jabs, 100-65 power) but that's only because Ward threw nearly 22 fewer punches every round (38.6 vs. 60.2). The accuracy gaps better illustrate Ward's command (36%-15% overall, 28%-12% jabs, 44%-19% power). A look at Ward's stats from his last 9 fights: Ward's +15.3 plus/minus rating #3 among CompuBox Cat. Leaders. If you believe Money's retired, then Ward's #2, trailing only Santa Cruz (+15.8) and Ward has faced the better overall opposition than Santa Cruz. Ward lands 7 jabs per round (LH Avg.: 4.9). Opponents landed just 9 punches per round (LH Avg.: 16.3) and just 6.1 power shots per round (LH Avg.: 11.4). Opponents landed 22.7% of their total punches (LH Avg.: 30.9%) & just 27.6% of their power shots LH Avg.: 38%). Brand opponents (Bektemirov & Jack) landed 42.3% of their power punches.
Step-Up Stumble: When most U.S.-based fans last saw Brand, he won a split decision over the 16-0 Medzhid Bektemirov that should have been unanimous given his ring generalship. Brand overcame a first-round knockdown by out-speeding the plodding Bektemirov and playing the numbers game well (69.2 punches per round to 32.2). The connect gaps were narrow (Brand led 95-85 overall and 28-18 jabs while tying at 67 power connects) but only because Bektemirov led 26%-14% overall, 14%-7% jabs and 35%-22% power. Before that, Brand's last high-level opponent was against future 168-pound titlist Badou Jack. Brand's Mayorga-like swarming caught Jack off guard in the first three rounds (he out-landed Jack in rounds two and three) but after that Jack found enough of his game to register connect advantages of 132-110 overall and 50-21 jabs to off-set Brand's 89-82 power connect lead. Jack's accuracy gaps (35%-22% overall, 23%-13% jabs, 52%-27% power) and his excellent jab (27 thrown/6.3 connects per round) trumped Brand's volume (62.5 per round to Jack's 46.8). Against the 17-9-1 Wilmer Gonzalez (KO 2) Brand could do little wrong as he led 40-5 overall, 13-2 jabs and 27-3 power. In the second and final round Brand was 22 of 89 overall and Gonzalez's 1 of 34 and for the fight Brand was hit by 6% overall, 4% jabs and 12% power while landing 24%, 17% and 31% respectively. No one should expect a repeat of that against Ward.
Prediction: Ward and Brand were slated to meet on the Alvarez-Cotto undercard but a knee injury canceled that fight. There is a reason why Ward specifically asked for Brand for his final tune-up before facing the "Krusher": Brand's style dovetails perfectly into Ward's strengths. Ward will end the fight at the moment of his choosing, but after this third straight lay-up he will be forced to confront his first genuine day of reckoning since the Super Six final nearly five years ago.