By Jake Donovan
Prior to the start of Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic, most boxing experts weren’t quite sure what to make of Andre Ward’s career. The 2004 Olympic Gold medalist was always chock full of talent and confidence, but the results didn’t quite line up with the suggested greatness.
Ward changed that in a big way in Stage One of the tournament, scoring a lopsided points win over heavily favored Mikkel Kessler in Nov. ’09 to win his first major championship.
Two years and four wins later, Ward is now regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. The pair of wins he racked up in 2011 led to a number of honors earned, including near unanimous recognition as the Fighter of the Year.
Heading into 2011, Ward emerged as the favorite to win the Super Six tournament, but pre-fight predictions have proven to mean next to nothing in the round-robin series. Ward wasn’t supposed to advance as far as he did, with most experts believing that it would be Kessler and Arthur Abraham as the last men standing when all was said and done.
What those experts didn’t realize is that Ward’s self-confidence exists for several reasons: his strong belief in the Lord he serves, and the solid foundation built by longtime trainer and father figure Virgil Hunter through their 18 years spent together.
It’s that very confidence that has enabled Ward to have avoided the taste of defeat for more than 14 years. As Floyd Mayweather often points out, how can you create a blueprint for defeat for a man who doesn’t know what it’s like to lose?
To date, nobody has the answers as it pertains to Ward, who managed to run the tables in the tournament, the only fighter to not lose a bout, as evidenced his still unblemished record which now stands at 25-0 (13KO).
The road to Super Six – and super middleweight – supremacy for Ward was criticized for being rigged in his favor. The Bay Area fighter saw his first four bouts of the tournament take place in his home state of California, including three straight in his Oakland backyard.
Still, home field advantage only goes so far. You still have to know how to fight.
Andre Ward can fight.
He reminded everyone of this when he faced former middleweight titlist Arthur Abraham in their Super Six semifinal bout in May. The bout was staged in Carson, California, still in Ward’s home state but close enough to where event handlers hoped to tap into the heavily Armenian-populated community in Glendale in support of Abraham.
Once the bell rang, it didn’t matter where the fight took place. All that mattered was that Ward was at home inside the ropes, putting on a boxing clinic against a declining but still serviceable Abraham. There were times where Ward fought and those where he chose to coast and solely rely on boxing. The moment Abraham threatened to rally, Ward surprise many by electing to sit down and actually fight, if only to show that he’s capable of taking a shot or two on the chin.
The lopsided scoring in the end proved academic, as Ward’s performance justified the pre-fight belief that he was all but assured a spot in the finals.
Meeting him in the winner’s circle was what was regarded as his toughest test to date, as Carl Froch scrapped and clawed his way to the finals with wins over Andre Dirrell, Abraham and a strong showing in his June semifinal with Glen Johnson. A close points loss to Mikkel Kessler in March ’10 served as the lone hiccup in his career, but a fight in which he offered a strong enough showing to not dismiss his chances in the finals.
Ward managed to dismiss his chances all on his own.
The destiny with greatness was delayed (a common theme throughout the extended tournament) when a cut suffered during training pushed back their showdown by seven weeks from its original October 29 date. By his trainer’s own admission, the overall experience in camp wasn’t one for the time capsule. But as silver-tongued Hunter would put it, camp is where you want to make all of the mistakes you hope to avoid on fight night.
Proof of that came on December 17, when after months of talking and hype and buildup, Ward turned in a virtuoso performance. What was thought to be the most difficult task of his career threatened to become a rout when Ward put on a clinic for the first nine or so rounds. Boxing beautifully and tying up when necessary, Ward made it look near effortless as Froch struggled to find answers.
The long awaited gut check came late in the fight, when fatigue began to set in for Ward. Froch danced as hard as he could to take advantage and while Ward didn’t offer enough to add any more to his lead, he proved to be resourceful enough to disallow Froch from providing any dramatic moments.
Only the strange scoring turned in by judges John Stewart and Craig Metcalfe stood in the way of what was otherwise the crowning achievement in Ward’s career. The unanimous decision win brought about long awaited closure to the tournament, crowning Ward as Super Six champion along with claiming recognition as lineal super middleweight king.
The only current American boxer to have won a Gold medal also earned something else from that wintry night in Atlantic City – well-deserved recognition as 2011’s Fighter of the Year.
RUNNER UP – BRIAN VILORIA
The soap opera continued for the Hawaiian flyweight. A year after being knocked out and hospitalized by Carlos Tamara in one of the biggest upsets of 2010, Viloria once again rewrote the script on a career that has gone up and down more often than a yo-yo.
Most of the first half of the year was spent recovering from the lingering effects of a 2010 campaign that saw Viloria suffer the lone knockout loss of his career and struggle in two subsequent comeback fights. For this reason, he went into his July fight with Julio Cesar Miranda as a slight betting underdog despite the bout taking place in his native Hawaii.
The odds shifted to even and then slightly in his favor after Miranda struggled at the scales, which Viloria went out of his way to exploit on fight night. An opening round knockdown paved the way for a narrow points win and his return to the title picture, capturing a belt in his second weight class after having served as a two-time junior flyweight titlist.
Winning the belt gave him the necessary bargaining chip in enticing lineal junior flyweight king Giovani Segura to move up in weight for their December flyweight title fight. The last remaining member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic boxing squad to currently reign as a champ, Viloria turned in the performance of his career, dominating Segura from the outset.
The durable Mexican was forced to fight with compromised vision from a right eye that began swelling early and was closed shut by the time the fight was stopped early in the eighth round.
Far be it from anyone to dare predict what 2012 has in store for the Hawaii native of Filipino descent. No matter what happens, he can turn to 2011 as the year in which it finally came together in his wildly erratic career.
HONORABLE MENTION (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Jorge Arce – The 32-year old picked up two titles in the span of less than seven months and also avenged an earlier defeat in between. His year began with a dramatic upset 12th round knockout win of previously unbeaten Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. this past May, then avenging his own loss as well as that of his brother Francisco Arce in scoring a 4th round stoppage of Simphiwe Nongqayi. The year ended with a repeat win over Angky Angkota, moving back down in weight to bantamweight and picking up a vacant (albeit paper) title in the process.
Nonito Donaire – The Filipino Flash had this category all to himself in the wake of his jaw-dropping second round knockout of Fernando Montiel in February, thus becoming a two-belt bantamweight champ in the process. Promotional disputes put the Fil-Am on ice for most of 2011, proving the difference between a Fighter of the Year run and honorable mention. A shutout of then-unbeaten Omar Narvaez looks great on paper, but stunk in reality due to the visiting Argentinean’s reluctance to fight back and Donaire failing to cut off the ring and do more to change the course of of the bout.
Kazuto Ioka – The precocious 22-year Japanese strawweight came out of nowhere to make his presence felt in 2011. Less than two years into his pro career, Ioka began the year with an upset fifth round knockout win over top strawweight Oleydong Sithsamerchai and has since twice defended the title. His most recent defense came on the final day of 2011, sending Yoengdong Tor Chalermchai out on a stretcher after knocking him out cold in just 98 seconds.
Abner Mares – Golden Boy Promotions put to rest any claims of not being able to raise a fighter from debut to championship when the 2004 Mexican Olympic boxer topped Joseph Agbek to win a bantamweight belt as well as the Showtime Bantamweight Tournament. The achievement was not without controversy, due to his landing several low blows without receiving punishment. An immediate rematch was ordered, but Mares made it look even easier the second time around, soundly outpointing the South African to mark his stamp as a true force in the bantamweight division.
Hernan “Tyson” Marquez – What a year it was for the Mexican fly guy. Marquez was on the winning end of the first true Fight of the Year contender, overcoming an opening round knockdown to score three of his own to stop Luis Concepcion in the 11th round of their April war, claiming a flyweight belt in the process. Two defenses followed, including an entry for Knockout of the Year in freezing Concepcion in the first round of their October rematch. Wedged in between was a summer stay busy defense against Filipino fringe contender Edrin Dapudong.
Lamont Peterson – The year began with questions asked to why he would turn down a six-figure payday for an overseas title fight with Amir Khan. But it was Peterson and his team who had the last laugh, first scoring a 12th round knockout of Victor Cayo to ensure the mandatory 140 lb title shot - which meant they couldn’t be dictated to in terms of future options. Peterson managed to secure the fight in his Washington D.C. hometown and upset the odds in rising from an opening round knockdown to take a close – if disputed – decision over the pound-for-pound entrant to claim two belts and a career-best win.
Brandon Rios – A lost battle at the scale in his December 3 bout with John Murray was the lone blemish in an otherwise sensational breakout campaign for the all-action Mexican-American lightweight. Rios scored knockouts in each of his three appearances in 2011, which began with a come-from-behind 10th round stoppage of Miguel Acosta in their February war to win a lightweight belt. His lone defense came in a condensed three round slugfest against Urbano Antillon before conceding the belt at the scales prior to stopping Murray in the 11th round.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]