Video by Ryan Burton

OAKLAND, California: Andre Ward unanimously outpointed Sullivan Barrera in his light heavyweight debut Saturday night, setting the stage for a potential title fight against unified champion Sergey Kovalev.

Ending a nine-month layoff while fighting for just the fourth time in four years, Ward (29-0) knocked down Barrera in the second round with a sharp left. The 34-year-old Cuban bounced up quickly before Ward landed another pair of stinging lefts to the head.

About the only thing to go wrong for the Oakland fighter came late in the eighth when referee Raul Caiz deducted a point from Ward for a low blow that sent Barrera (17-1) down to one knee. Ward also drew a warning in the 10th for an accidental head butt.

All three judges had Ward winning easily. The scores were 117-109, 119-109 and 117-108.

The win paves the way for Ward to fight Kovalev, the Russian slugger who has defended his title three times since beating Bernard Hopkins in a unification match in 2014. While talks between both camps have been ongoing, things are expected to heat up now.

Fighting in front of his hometown crowd, Ward was the quicker fighter most of the night and used his jab to score often, mixing it with a powerful left hook that landed to the head frequently. He also ducked away from most of Barrera’s punches and at one point in the sixth smiled after Barrera swung and missed twice.

Ward continued to score with his big left hand throughout the bout and drew loud cheers from an intimate but raucous crowd at Oracle Arena.

Barrera, the IBF’s No. 1 contender going into the night, landed his own jab with some success but couldn’t put much together and lost for the first time in his career.