A risky tune-up fight for an overconfident superstar, or a mismatch? That’s the question. It sounds harsh on both men, but we’re likely to see one of those two scenarios play out when undefeated super middleweight king Andre Ward steps back into the ring for the first time in 14 months to take on Dominican slugger Edwin Rodriguez. Can the Son of God defuse La Bomba and thrust himself back into the pound-for-pound spotlight? We’ll find out this Saturday night, as HBO brings us the latest in their fine recent run of main events.
On paper, this is a simple sell. Ward is, in any reasonable person’s estimation, the second best fighter in the world. His resumé, skills, ring generalship and intelligence put him streets ahead of everybody bar Floyd Mayweather, Jr. However, despite this outstanding ability, the road to the contest could hardly have been more turbulent for the self-styled blessed one. Since demolishing Chad Dawson what seems like an age ago, Ward has sought money fights against Kelly Pavlik and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., only to see them slip away for a variety of reasons. He’s even attempted to convince HBO to sign off on fights with the likes of Dimitri Sartison and Caleb Truax, only for the network to emphatically, and quite rightly, shoot him down.
In other words, Rodriguez was not the fight Ward wanted — far from it. As it stands, he’s been somewhat backed into a corner by injury as well as HBO’s relentless championing of his cause. In usual circumstances, he would have every right to seek a softer comeback bout after so long on the sidelines, but it doesn’t sit well with either fans or executives when he looks to do so under the bright lights of a premium network, while still commanding a glitzy main event purse. He has become, to borrow a phrase from Spanish soccer, a prisoner within a gilded cage. An individual of considerable means and privilege, Ward now finds himself having effectively run out of options and with very few places to go. Lord knows (ahem) what would have happened if Rodriguez hadn’t stepped up.
Speaking of which, Rodriguez did just that when he demolished Dennis Grachev inside a round this past July. Fighting in the final of the inspirationally-named Million Dollar Super Four Tournament in Monte Carlo, Rodriguez blew away his more experienced opponent with a relentless barrage of overhand rights. If the performance was impressive, so too was his realism in the post-fight interview, when he made a point of avoiding Ward’s name as he singled out 168 pound titleholder Sakio Bika. If he’d demanded to meet the division’s best back then, most would have labeled it a mismatch. Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that, but make no mistake, that’s exactly what it is. A ring-rusty Andre Ward is still Andre Ward, and Rodriguez at this stage remains predominantly a fighter of potential, still some distance away from fulfilling his not insignificant promise.
La Bomba, to his credit, appears to genuinely want the fight. He comes across as unruffled, focused, and as prepared as he’ll ever be to take on the second best fighter on the planet. He’s even started to push back a little, bringing up the possibility of Voluntary Anti-Doping Association testing in recent weeks, only to be stiffly set in his place by an increasingly dogmatic and hierarchically-minded Ward. Rodriguez’s polite yet firm brand of irreverence is refreshing. He’s a genuinely likeable character, but one who is up against it here. Put simply, he’ll need to realise every ounce the nascent greatness seen in him over the years, as well as finding a good deal extra that’s remained hidden up to now, if he is to have a chance against Ward this weekend.
Rodriguez’s best weapon is the overhand right, the same punch Grachev had precisely zero answers to. It’s a devastating shot, as singularly damaging as any in the super middleweight division, but the problem lies in being able to land it. Ward, you see, is arguably the finest master of distance in the sport. Mayweather might have the edge in reflexes, but there’s no one quite like the Son of God when it comes to being either too close or too far away.
As such, it stands to reason that Ward’s fights are not always the most pleasing on the eye. Watching a guy remain perpetually outside the trajectory of his opponent’s punches does not lend itself to blockbuster spectacle. Ward holds when he has to, uses his elbows and head when needed, and generally does what it takes to nullify his opponent and grind out a lopsided points win. Expect more of the same on Saturday. If Rodriguez is able to land clean on Ward at any point, I’ll be surprised. Those tuning in for a super middleweight slugfest would be advised to get their hands on a recording of Mikkel Kessler and Carl Froch from earlier this year.
For the more mischievous members of the boxing public, the fight is probably worth watching as much for the volume of hyperbole in the commentary booth as for the level of competition in the ring. It’s only a side point, but you can be sure that throughout the broadcast Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman will be spewing mealy mouthed adoration for a man with neither the charisma nor the warmth to justify it. In fact, I’m starting to think Kellerman is contractually forbidden from mentioning Gennady Golovkin without adding the caveat that Ward would probably beat him. Likewise, I fully expect Lampley to receive short shrift from the network executives if the Olympics come up in conversation without Ward’s gold medal being referenced.
And that’s not to single out HBO. Showtime is guilty of much the same when it comes to Mayweather and their other superstars. Of course, the likes of Mauro Ranallo and Brian Kenny crow relentlessly about any fighter on the Golden Boy roster within touching distance of the most abecedarian of belts, but they’re part of a fledgling network less secure in its own skin. Lampley and Kellerman have been doing this long enough to avoid such loudmouth tactics. HBO, to put it simply, should know better.
In any case, I don’t see the fight being especially competitive. The more I think about it — something I haven’t done too often during the recent jam-packed HBO schedule — the more I struggle to see Rodriguez winning a round, let alone the entire contest. Ward is quite simply too good. He’s several levels above the best incarnation of Rodriguez, and we’ve seen the mediocre, tentative, not-quite-boxer-not-quite-puncher version of La Bomba too many times to blankly assume he’ll be at the peak of his powers come Saturday night. Rodriguez possesses arguably the finest Twitter persona of any fighter out there. But let’s be honest, he doesn’t have the ability to beat Andre Ward.
Prediction: Ward by unanimous decision (quite possibly a shutout).