By Jake Donovan
Andre Ward is officially ready to make his light heavyweight run. Standing in his way is fellow unbeaten Sullivan Barrera, as both made weight for their HBO-televised headliner Saturday evening from Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.
Moving on from a lengthy stay as the World super middleweight king, Ward came in at a healthy 174.8 lbs. for his first bout as a full-fledged light heavyweight. Barrera - already an established contender in the division - was lighter at 174.4 lbs., boasting a top-heavy sculpted physique.
Despite long serving as among the very best in the sport. Ward (28-0. 15KOs) strangely finds himself in a must-win scenario. The last American male boxer to win an Olympic Gold medal - way back in 2004 - the Bay Area-born and bred boxer has emerged as the class of the super middleweight division, complete with his clean sweep during the Super Six tournament capped with a 12-round win over Carl Froch in 2011.
Just three fights have followed in the four-plus years that have passed - a one-sided 10th round stoppage of Chad Dawson, who came down from light heavyweight for the fight at this very arena in Sept. '12; a 12-round decision win over Edwin Rodriguez in what essentially became a non-title fight when Rodriguez missed weight for their Nov. '13 clash; and a 9th round stoppage of Paul Smith in their 172-pound catchweight fight at home last June.
A long-standing legal dispute with former promoter, the late Dan Goossen served as the cause of lengthy gaps of inactivity in an otherwise brilliant career. Free of lawsuits and injury - the latter which killed plans for a ring appearance last November - Ward is now ready to leave the super middleweight division and the past well in the rearview mirror.
The move up in weight was motivated by the opportunity to face reigning unbeaten, unified titlist Sergey Kovalev, widely regarded as the best light heavyweight on the planet and who will be ringside for the event. Their bout is tentatively slated to take place later this year (November 19 the oft-mentioned suggested date), with both boxers agreeing to interim fights to further arouse interest.
Kovalev took the first step, tearing through former lineal champ Jean Pascal in their rematch this past January. A summer ring return is on tap, likely in his native Russia coming versus an opponent to be determined.
With a win on Saturday, Ward will eye one more bout before moving to the aforementioned superfight with Kovalev.
An interesting roadblock comes in Barrera (17-0, 12KOs), who emerged as Kovalev's mandatory challenger following a 5th round knockout Karo Murat in their title eliminator last December. The Cuban defector - now based in Miami - was relentless in his pursuit of a showdown with Ward, with members of his team taking to social media in a series of hilarious illustrations mockingly recapping the negotiation period.
The 34-year old boxer - who turned pro in 2009 - finally received his wish. A win by Barrera would disrupt one of the most anticipated fights currently either on the schedule or reasonably expected to take place in 2016. Furthermore, it would enhance his own title shot, which he puts at risk in this fight.
Opening the telecast, unbeaten featherweight prospect Joseph "JoJo" Diaz looks to make the transition to contender as he faces one-time title challenger Jayson Velez in a scheduled 10-round regional featherweight title fight.
Diaz (19-0, 11KOs) - a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Boxing team - weighed in at 125.8 lbs. for his HBO-televised debut. Velez came in at 125.6 lbs. for his second network appearance, having previously fought to a 12-round draw with then-unbeaten Evgeny Gradovich in their Nov. '14 featherweight title fight.
Velez (23-1-1) - who hails from the same Caguas, Puerto Rico hometown as does his co-promoter and former four-division champ Miguel Cotto - is coming off of a 10-round loss to Ronny Rios last November. The bout took place on the Pay-Per-View undercard of Cotto's middleweight championship losing effort to Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez.
Diaz enjoyed a five-win campaign in 2015, ending the year with a 2nd round knockout of Hugo Partida last December,
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox