By Cliff Rold
After the first round of the tournament, this was probably the odds-on favorite to be the final. Former IBF 160 lb. beltholder Arthur Abraham looked as advertised with a 12th round, one-punch atomizing of former World Middleweight Champion Jermain Taylor. 2004 U.S. Olympic Light Heavyweight Gold Medalist Andre Ward was masterful in outboxing, and outbrawling, former unified Super Middleweight titlist Mikkel Kessler.
That was back in the Fall of 2009. Remember? Back when the “Super Six” Super Middleweight tournament still had just six fighters?
Things have changed a wee bit since. Taylor left the field after the first round. Kessler and 2004 U.S. Olympic Middleweight Bronze Medalist Andre Dirrell were out before the third and final preliminary round commenced. Allan Green and Glen Johnson ultimately entered the field officially. Sakio Bika was the unofficial ninth. Now, finally, four remain.
After the first round, Abraham was still undefeated.
Ward was too.
Ward still is. Four “0’s” were brought to the field. Ward remains the only picture of perfection and the odds are now on the pride of Northern California to win the whole thing. Juan Manuel Lopez, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr., Andre Berto, and Devon Alexander, among others, have found out in 2011, being undefeated is not the same a staying undefeated. Abraham has learned the lesson twice over since the “Super Six” began.
Is it Ward’s turn to experience the “1?”
Let’s go to the report card.
Title: WBA Super Middleweight (2009-Present, 2 Defenses)
Weight: 168 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 168.2 lbs.
Hails from: Oakland, California
Record: 23-0, 13 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #1 at Super Middleweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 3-0
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 1 (Mikkel Kessler)
Current Title: None
Previous Titles: IBF Middleweight (2005-09, 10 Defenses)
Weight: 167 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 166.5 lbs.
Hails from: Berlin, Germany (Born in Armenia)
Record: 32-2, 26 KO
BoxingScene Rank: #8 at Super Middleweight
Record in Major Title Fights: 11-1, 7 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 2 (Raul Marquez, Jermain Taylor)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced in Defeat: 1 (Carl Froch)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Ward A; Abraham B
Pre-Fight: Power – Ward B; Abraham A+
Pre-Fight: Defense – Ward A; Abraham B
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Ward A; Abraham C+
It’s being slept on. That’s the first thought that comes to mind in breaking the fight down. One of the intrigues of the tournament when announced was that it was certain to test the mentality of the boxing viewer in ways not normal to this era. It wasn’t going to punish losses, testing the idea of styles making fights and how that can affect fighters over a string of challenges.
There is a reason three undefeated members of the field are not anymore. They were all asked to fight real fighters without a mass of patsies in between. Ward in some sense has benefited from the chaos of the field, drawing weaker second and third round tests than Abraham or Froch did as the only other members of the original field to finish the round robin portion. That Green and Bika were both viable top ten contenders at 168 lbs. shows that weaker wasn’t weak so he won’t suffer from lesser comp.
He’ll be fresher than Abraham because he was so good throughout the tournament so far. Abraham was downright impotent in his third round loss to Carl Froch, controlled by the jab and beat up in spots by a taller, heavy-handed man wiling to box at range. That loss, and Abraham’s loss to Dirrell in the second round, make Ward a lock pick for many.
An analytical problem arises there because the Dirrell fight was more competitive than given credit for. Sure, Abraham was dropped and well behind, but was catching up quick before foolishly striking Dirrell on the ground when Dirrell slipped to the floor in the 11th. Abraham’s pressure, and desperation, had him back in the fight and he scored what should have been called a knockdown in the 10th.
Another analytical problem is in the styles Saturday. Ward, so far, has fought nothing like Dirrell or Froch. Ward has won by jabbing, bodying (and butting) inside, and outworking his men at close range while using superior footwork and intelligent clinches to prevent leveraged incoming power. Dirrell and Froch won on the outside. No one has dared to fight Abraham inside, in range of his short right or explosive left hand.
Ward might. The evidence suggests he will. That makes this fight dangerous from bell to bell…
…but only if Abraham stays patient, disciplined, and resolved. The first two he couldn’t pull off against Dirrell. All three fell apart with Froch. Abraham fought Froch with too much patience early and, unlike in the Dirrell fight, never showed any late fire or resolve. He appeared to play for the final bell instead of the win. Now, his back is to the wall.
Abraham’s defense has been a liability in spots. Against lesser lights at Middleweight, blocking out of a high guard until his man got too close worked. Against the elite talent faced at Super Middleweight, it’s just been a way to be out of position and open to get tagged when he did open up. If he handcuffs himself, plays predictably for single bombs, versus Ward, he’s in trouble. Ward will rip him to the body and ignore the head until it’s there.
Ward so far has been all about the mental strength Abraham lacked in rounds two and three. He’s had to be. He doesn’t have a power eraser, so he relies on a ring IQ is off the charts. He hasn’t lost since he was an amateur adolescent for a reason. However, he has been hittable in spots. Kessler found him with some left hooks in their first round fight. Ward never let him land twice in a row so it didn’t matter.
Abraham doesn’t need to land twice.
Unlike many peers, this scribe gives Abraham a powerful chance at a win. Ward is going to find Abraham physically stronger than anyone he’s faced so far and when he goes inside, he’s taking his chances. The problem will be for Abraham to get off before Ward locks him up. The evidence suggests the speed of Ward can prevent that and then the shadows of defeat will collect over Abraham. He can’t believe himself invulnerable anymore, can’t believe he’s just one shot away, the way he could before the “Super Six.”
The scent of upsets in the air so far in 2011 is strong but the air of inevitability is stronger in this fight. The safe pick (one that it’s tempting not to make) is Ward by decision in a fight where he encounters more trouble than he has so far.
Just don’t blink because Abraham can still turn any pick on its head in a single second of thirty-six scheduled minutes.
Report Card Picks 2011: 13-4
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org