(Jack Reiss separates Andre Ward, right, and Edwin Rodriguez; photo credit: Brittni Moten, Goossen Tutor Promotions)
Super middleweight champion Andre Ward is still better than anyone he's ever faced. He's still ruffling feathers in some quarters. Whatever variation there is in the opinion about his feather-ruffling qualities, his excellence is undeniable after a near-shutout win on HBO over top-10 contender Edwin Rodriguez Saturday.
Credit referee Jack Reiss with dialing down some of the ugliness Ward bouts are accused of featuring, because in the 4th, he deducted both fighters of two points for unsportsmanlike conduct and made a big show of wanting both fighters to be fined or disqualified for their roughhousing, which included Reiss getting socked himself. From the 5th until about the 10th, the bout became significantly cleaner. And let's be clear: Ward is pretty good at disguising when he initiates and maintains clinches, but Rodriguez was doing his share of both prior to the 4th. Meanwhile, the man landing the cleaner and more frequent shots was always Ward — in the 5th, for instance, Ward was counted as having landed 27 shots to Rodriguez's four. In the 9th, it was 25-5. In other words, Ward's reputation as a nullifying smotherer who disdains offense was at odds with his performance, because his offense was far more voluminous and of higher quality than Rodriguez's. And it wasn't all boooo-inducing jabs. It was power punches, too.
In the 10th, Ward had Rodriguez hurt with a left hook, even. Was this something to do with Rodriguez struggling and failing to make weight by two pounds? Possibly. Perhaps even probably. Sometimes, fighters simply can't make it down to the weight limit no matter how hard they try; their bodies won't let them. But the responsibility for making weight still falls on the fighter, and it's hard to be sympathetic toward Rodriguez for not doing his job and therefore suffering for it. After the 10th, the Ward-Rodriguez clinch count began to tick back up, but nothing changed the fundamental dynamic: Ward was better, faster, smarter, and Rodriguez was wider, more tentative. And let's not forget that Ward was coming off a 14-month layoff due to shoulder surgery, so it wasn't like Rodriguez was the only fighter coming in with a handicap. In the end, he won it 118-106, 117-107 and 116-108.
Attendance-wise, this was the lowest reported figure for a Ward bout in some time — 4,158 announced, reportedly. The other false narrative on Ward is that he's not a draw, when he does better figures in Oakland than most fighters do in other parts of the country. But this fight being out of Oakland, or perhaps the match-up, or perhaps the festering hostility toward Ward over his personality or fighting style, or perhaps all of it, took a toll on Ward as a gate draw. Maybe that's a good thing. A sense of entitlement appears to have settled in with Ward, where he expects big money disproportionate to risk. If he has less leverage — and he'll always have leverage as an HBO favorite with an Olympic gold medal and a rightful designation as the second-best fighter in the world, behind Floyd Mayweather — maybe he'll be less of a bear to deal with in negotiations, so that we stand a better chance of getting a Carl Froch rematch on Froch's native U.K. soil or an attractive meeting of HBO darlings, in Ward-Gennady Golovkin.
Ward didn't live down to the worst of the public's estimation of his entertainment value Saturday night, at least by my eye. He was offensive-minded and with a little help from Reiss, he was less rough and ugly than he sometimes is. But I think the worst of Ward's qualities become more tolerable to even his biggest detractors if he's doing it against Froch or Golovkin than if he's doing it against Rodriguez.