by Cliff Rold
They are two of the sport’s rare, real world champions. Both are in their prime. Both are considered among the very best in the world regardless of weight class.
On Saturday night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, they each present the other with the toughest test of their professional careers on paper. Each has taken their own unique route to get here.
Andre Ward is the last American, the only American this century, to win a Gold Medal at the Olympics. In 2003, for the good of the team, Ward leapt all the way to the amateur 178 lb. Light Heavyweight division, winning the national tournament and setting the stage for a successful run in Athens. He bested two-time World Champion Evgeny Makarenko in the round of 16 and cruised from there.
Tournaments have been good to Ward.
Entering the pro ranks as a Middleweight, Ward showed some early holes in his game and made the sound decision to take a step back. Fighting often off T.V. while building a local base in Northern California, Ward professionalized his style before making the gradual move back to television and into contention.
Entered in the “Super Six,” he mastered the favored Mikkel Kessler in the opening round to win his first title. Ward never looked back. Wins over Allan Green, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch in the finals all showed off a fighter who had come into his own. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective. It was winning. Ward hasn’t lost a fight since the age of fourteen.
He faces a man who can reverse his course.
Dawson exited the amateur scene after a Bronze Medal at the 2000 World Junior Championships. In another era, he and Ward might well have been teammates in 2004. In this one, Dawson elected to start paying bills. Building deliberately as a Middleweight and Super Middleweight, Dawson emerged as a serious Light Heavyweight contender in 2006.
On the deck in the first round, Dawson got up and laid a thrashing on Eric Harding over twelve rounds. In his very next fight, Dawson won his first pro title with a decision over Tomasz Adamek. Dawson dominated for most of the night, an eleventh round knockdown the lone moment of nail biting. Adamek would go on to win the Cruiserweight crown before becoming one of the leading Heavyweight contenders.
Since then, Dawson has shown a willingness to abandon and pick up various belts in favor of tough fights, all while toppling the best of the division’s old guard. He squeaked by Glen Johnson in a classic war, later cementing superiority in a rematch; bested Antonio Tarver twice; and, after a foul-marred first bout, got past long time rival Bernard Hopkins earlier this year to finally mark himself the definitive man in his class. Jean Pascal represents the lone blemish on his mark, Dawson suffering a bad cut as he began to post a late rally.
This is a fight that has sparked, fairly, a varied level of passion among boxing fans. Styles make fights and there is reasonable concern the clash of styles this here could be ugly. There can be no doubt about the quality of the fighters in the ring. They’ve each traveled different road but toppled real challenges along the way, picking up the seasoning and experience to define their talents.
Now they seek further definition against each other, Dawson moving down the scale to challenge Ward for supremacy at Super Middleweight.
Let’s go to the report cards.
Title: Lineal/WBC World Super Middleweight (2011-Present, 1st Attempted Defense); WBA Super Middleweight (2009-Present, 3 Defenses)
Weight: 168 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 167.65 lbs.
Hails from: Oakland, California
Record: 25-0, 13 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 5-0
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 3 (Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Carl Froch)
Title: Lineal/WBC World Light Heavyweight (2012-Present, 0 Defenses)
Previous Titles: WBC Light Heavyweight (2007-08, 3 Defenses; Vacated); IBF Light Heavyweight (2008-09, 1 Defense; Vacated)
Weight: 168 lbs.
Average Weight – Last Five Fights: 174.2 lbs.
Hails from: New Haven, Connecticut
Record: 31-1, 17 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 7-1, 2 KO, 1 No Contest (8-1, 2 KO including interim title fights)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Defeated: 6 (Carl Daniels, Tomasz Adamek, Glen Johnson, Antonio Tarver, Adrian Diaconu, Bernard Hopkins)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced in Defeat: 1 (Jean Pascal)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Ward A; Dawson A
Pre-Fight: Power – Ward B; Dawson B
Pre-Fight: Defense – Ward A; Dawson B+
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Ward A; Dawson B+
Both men have exceptional hand speed for any class. While they might not be the fastest men in the game, it’s more than enough to overcome most challenges and they supplement their speed with tremendous skill.
Dawson, who will have a slight edge in height, works behind a long and accurate jab and can let his hands go in smooth combinations. That he can doesn’t always mean he does. Since the scares with Adamek and Johnson, Dawson has at times been hesitant, if not gun shy. Confronted with the raw speed and athleticism of Pascal, he sometimes froze and too often waited to start his offense.
That sort of start and stop offense could play right into Ward’s hands. Ward, while not a big puncher, is strong and able to work both outside and in. His ability to make fighters guess wrong on what approach he’s going to take wreaks havoc on timing. Ward hits guys between the guesses and often ties up before they can respond.
For Dawson, timing Ward will be key. He has to get the jab on him and control Ward’s moves inside. If Ward pushes Dawson back consistently, Dawson is in trouble. Dawson has to find a way to catch Ward with short hooks and use his feet to widen the space Ward must cross.
Defensively, it will be easier said than done. Of the two, Dawson has been the easier to catch clean though both are tough targets. Ward can be caught once, but he rarely is caught in combination. Dawson, in rhythm, is just as tough to catch. His problem is he relaxes in fights, and he’s open when he does.
Mentally, that relaxation, those moments of lost focus, give a big edge to Ward. Ward shows up knowing he is probably going twelve rounds and he fights to win each of them. Dawson can’t get behind and he can’t get frustrated.
Ward saw the first Hopkins fight. He knows Dawson can be edgy about an opponent perceived ready to foul. Being frank, Ward is very good at subtle, quick fouls. Shots that land in conjunction with the forehead, elbows hard to call advertent in the flow of the action…Ward has developed an old-school bag of tricks. Dawson, for all the science in his game, fights with a lively chip on his shoulder. Ward does too, but his is masked in good manners and a smile. If Ward gets in Dawson’s head in the ring, he’ll exit with his title still in tow.
It’s hard to imagine Ward not trying to get in Dawson’s head and Ward has, perhaps, another competitive edge to draw on. In this fight, because Dawson opted not to also put his title on the line, Ward has more to lose. Dawson can lose and still be the Light Heavyweight Champion. Ward loses and he is back to being a challenger with a style many will avoid. Dawson keeping his title, win or lose, is a lure to ensure future T.V. dates.
In a fight that could be tough on the eyes, and patience, of the audience, Ward can’t afford to lose his crown. The pick is tough and there is a feeling here that Dawson is being wildly underestimated in some corners but Ward is the favorite for a reason.
Ward-Dawson could get bogged down early with grappling inside and, while Dawson is probably the better athlete, Ward is the smarter fighter. If Dawson can handle the weight loss and let his hands go without thinking, he has the tools to pull it off. But, in a thinking man's fight, the stronger man mentally has the advantage. Ward has the mind and maturity to stand ahead of almost anyone in the crowd. The pick here is Ward by a very narrow, perhaps debated, decision.
Report Card Picks 2012: 40-14
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 [email protected]