By Lyle Fitzsimmons, photo by Chris Farina
On consecutive Saturdays, a main-event stage on HBO will show us where two of the sport’s best fighters from a year ago stand in comparison to their contemporaries 12 months later.
One of the high-end pair, super middleweight Andre Ward, did his part this past weekend and looked about as good as anyone could upon returning from a prolonged injury-prompted hiatus.
The humble Californian made a highly-ranked and unbeaten Edwin Rodriguez look barely professional over 12 clinical rounds in the Los Angeles suburb of Ontario, and firmly reestablished himself as a high-stakes player in a suddenly lucrative corridor between 160 and 175 pounds.
Promotional cold wars and chronic TV rivalries aside, Ward’s got no shortage of potential foils when it comes to getting back onto a regular appearance schedule on the “network of champions.”
His best option within the ranks at 168 pounds is actually a foe he’s already handled once, Carl Froch, while finishing off a question for a trophy in the Showtime Super Six tournament. But the Englishman’s subsequent win streak – including defeats of champions Lucian Bute and Mikkel Kessler – has elevated a return bout beyond the level of a garden-variety rematch.
It’s true that battering an untested Bute and out-gutting a Kessler whom Ward already defeated doesn’t mean a new result if they get together again, but a second union does provide the dually tantalizing promise of a more prepared Froch in the ring… and a stylishly outfitted Rachael Cordingley outside of it.
Forget revenue shares and fan loyalties. The latter reason alone is good enough for me. But it’s beyond the super middle backyard that the pipeline of prospective opponents truly opens up for Ward and Co.
A glance up the ladder to 175 offers not only the sport’s grand old man, Bernard Hopkins, in an event that would pit the tough-guy master against his 20-something doppelganger; but it also includes a light heavyweight trial by fire against a pair of no-nonsense sluggers, Haitian-turned-Canadian Adonis “Superman” Stevenson and Russian-turned-Floridian Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev.
He may lose to all three in a cool nickname contest, but Ward handles them all in the ring.
Still, it’s a downward leer to 160 that elicits the gasp that HBO is counting on down the road.
Matching Ward with streaking middleweight destroyer Gennady Golovkin, the IBO and WBA champion in the weight class, is the pinnacle play of what will be a series of behind-the-scenes machinations for the network in creating its next superstar once this week’s performer, Manny Pacquiao, retires.
You could hear the schoolboy anticipation in Max Kellerman’s voice as he floated the idea following the Rodriguez wipeout on Saturday night, and it’s a safe bet the sport’s general public felt the same tingle when pondering a union of the unbeaten collectors of both Olympic and professional hardware.
It’s one of those fights for which it’s easy to build a case for either guy to win, whether you favor Ward’s tactical precision and patience or Golovkin’s irresistible force and desperate thirst for concussion.
And if the network is really lucky, perhaps it’s the sort that begs an encore or two as well.
Mean time, speaking of encores and Pacquiao, don’t count on one for his Saturday endeavor.
While Brandon Rios is an accomplished commodity in his own right and has already had a career that 99.9 percent of pros would salivate over, he’s got no business in the ring with an anything-resembling-primetime Pacquiao when they get together in front of 15,000 in China.
Unless Manny has gotten old overnight or is still carrying haunting baggage from last year’s one-punch disintegration, he’s still too athletic, too fast and too sharp for a guy who’s not exactly long on significant victories to begin with – and who’s had precisely zero of those wins beyond 140 pounds.
It may not be the frenzied destruction of Hatton more than four years ago, but by the time it’s over it’ll feel sort of familiar, and the boys at HBO will be smiling because they’ve got their favorite toy back.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF featherweight title – Macao, China
Evgeny Gradovich (champion) vs. Billy Dib (No. 12 contender)
Gradovich (17-0, 8 KO): Second title defense; Defeated Dib to win title (SD 12) in March
Dib (36-2, 21 KO): Seventh title fight (4-2); Held IBO title at 130 in 2008 (zero defenses)
Fitzbitz says: “Dib was a surprise loser when these two got together on ESPN earlier this year, and he should be skillful enough to regain his status with his career’s back to the wall.” Dib by decision
IBF super middleweight title – Manchester, United Kingdom
Carl Froch (champion) vs. George Groves (No. 4 contender)
Froch (31-2, 22 KO): Third title defense; Unbeaten in United Kingdom (27-0, 20 KO)
Groves (19-0, 15 KO): First title fight; Stoppage wins in all 2013 fights (3-0, 10 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: “Groves comes in as the younger and bigger man in possession of plenty of momentum, but Froch has elevated to another level since the Ward loss and won’t fall here.” Froch by decision
IBF cruiserweight title – Bamberg, Germany
Yoan Pablo Hernandez (champion) vs. Alexander Alekseev (No. 1 contender)
Hernandez (27-1, 13 KO): Third title defense; First fight since September 2012 (hand surgery)
Alekseev (24-2-1, 20 KO): First title fight; Six-fight unbeaten streak since last loss (5-0-1)
Fitzbitz says: “Cuban-born champion has been off for a while and could take a while to regain rhythm against German-based Uzbek, but he should be fine once he shakes the rust.” Hernandez by decision
Last week's picks: 2-0
2013 picks record: 69-33 (67.6 percent)
Overall picks record: 532-185 (74.2 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.