As “performance by any boxer in the world” goes, Andre Ward was brilliant Saturday night on HBO in his official move up to light heavyweight against Sullivan Barrera. As a performance by Ward — and in particular, a performance by Ward that convinced anyone of his chances against Sergey Kovalev in a fight that sounded perfect on paper — it wasn’t up to snuff.
Ward won almost every round and scored a knockdown against a naturally bigger, unbeaten, difficult Cuban opponent, so it says a lot about both Ward as a fighter and Kovalev as a fearsome foe that this was somehow underwhelming.
It’s hard to say exactly why Ward came up as short as he did. Was it because he’s not really a light heavyweight? There were signs of that. Barrera never looked intimidated in exactly the same way other Ward opponents did — certainly, he was pacified into inaction by how hard Ward is to hit, how much he makes you pay with counters. But Ward at 168 pounds also hurt people, even if he rarely knocked them out. Barrera was never quite hurt. Plus, Ward wasn’t looking particularly physically cut up, as if he was carrying blow-up weight. And lastly, there were times where Ward was missing by a mile, something that rarely if ever happens. Maybe he just is adjusting to the size, and range, normally an area where he is the master, wasn’t as easy to calculate because of it.
Or maybe ring rust and injuries finally played a role? Ward has been prone to long layoffs, which is the biggest detriment to his career momentum from a marketing standpoint (aside from a segment of the fan base that just doesn’t like him personally and/or aesthetically). But upon each return, no matter how long or no matter the injury he was recovering from, Ward has looked just as terrific as always or better. Saturday, he just wasn’t as sharp as he often is. Perhaps Ward knew that would be the case, too — he’s always said he needs one more fight after Barrera before facing Kovalev.
Or, perhaps — finally in this theory-crafting exercise — Barrera’s style gave him some hiccups? Hardly anyone looks terrific against well-schooled, oft-defensive Cuban fighters. Trainer Virgil Hunter said during a mid-fight interview that Barrera became more defensive after the 3rd round knockdown. It’s possible his style started hard and got harder. And he landed more shots than we’re accustomed to seeing Ward take.
Naturally, it could be all of the above, too. Ward isn’t old enough for us to think he’s dropped off permanently, and his performance Saturday showed plenty. After a tentative start that might’ve seen the 1st go to Barrera, Ward scored a knockdown in the 3rd off a left hook. That left hook was dialed in as hell, whether as a counter or a lead — beautiful, fast, flush. He forced Barrera to be significantly more inaccurate and busy than usual. He did suffer a point deduction for a low blow (which was legitimately low, but the point deduction seemed premature) and did suffer a cut from an accidental head butt late. He even lost the 11th on my card, with the cut seeming to bother him. But he ultimately won by scores of 117-109, 119-109 and 117-108.
Off this showing, would he beat Kovalev, a better-schooled, harder-hitting, bigger light heavyweight than Barrera? No. This writer had previously favored Ward in that match-up. But after Saturday, he needs to show us things he didn’t — more power, or better defense and movement, or the perfectly honed craft he’s exhibited before — to turn around that perception.
(Andre Ward, left, fights against Sullivan Barrera in their bout at ORACLE Arena on March 26 in Oakland, California; Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)