Tonight in Oakland, a star could be born. Or, if things don't go the young man's way, well, a star could be born later.
Andre Ward has the pedigree. He won an Olympic gold medal in Athens back in 2004, and turned pro in December of that year with a second round stoppage of Chris Molina. Since then, the pacing of Ward's rise has been called deliberate and even slow, something he contends isn't the case. Worth taking into account is a knee injury that surfaced when he started stepping up from the bums to the gatekeepers.
The gatekeepers have really been his main targets. To hear Ward tell it, everyone's been a tough fight, and everyone has taken him lightly, then been surprised by his full package of skills. Ward (20-0, 13 KO) will take a massive step up in class tonight, and even with home field advantage, he might be biting off more than he can chew.
Then again, let's look at what Mikkel Kessler has done lately. Kessler (42-1, 32 KO) is the world's best super middleweight, at least in my opinion. When he fought Joe Calzaghe in November 2007, he was clearly beaten, but gave Calzaghe one of the tougher fights of the Welshman's career. He came into that fight considered the world's No. 2 at 168 pounds, and I felt he left without losing that standing. Yes, Calzaghe was better than him -- but only Calzaghe was better than him.
Since losing to Calzaghe, Kessler hasn't exactly been on a notable tear. Sure, he's wasted the competition, but the competition has been iffy. A promotional dispute with Mogens Palle led Kessler to signing with Sauerland Event of Germany earlier this year. Dimitri Sartison, Danilo Haussler and Gusmyr Perdomo may not be the best of the best, but like Ward has done with his middling opposition, he's done with them as he should have: Blown them out.
Kessler has been called "overrated" by a few people, but I don't see it. When you watch him fight, you can see where his record and his standing comes from. His jab is powerful, sharp and accurate, among the best in the sport. He isn't a tricky fighter by any means; in some ways he's like a superior Kelly Pavlik. Simple, basic, and extremely effective. He's tough to rattle, partially because to get at him, you're going to have to get past that nasty jab of his.
In terms of overall "skills," Ward probably is the better man. He's quick with his hands and on his feet. He's got solid power, not great power; certainly enough to keep opponents respecting him. Ward also has a wrinkle in his game, as he switches from his conventional stance over to southpaw frequently, and pulls that off with pretty much unrivaled success. The power he generates when using his left as his money hand probably trumps what he does fighting orthodox.
What most concerns me for Ward is simple: Mikkel Kessler is really, really good, and Andre Ward has not yet faced a really good professional fighter. The best scalp on his record is Edison Miranda's, and if any fighter has been living off of one trick for a while now, it's Miranda. (Miranda, coincidentally, is now a stablemate of Ward's with Goossen Tutor Promotions.) The rest of the names are what we were talking about before, pure gatekeepers. Guys like Shelby Pudwill, Esteban Camou, Jerson Ravelo, Rubin Williams and "Sugar Poo" Buchanan aren't bad fighters, necessarily, but they come nowhere near Kessler's class.
Bottom line on the potential outcomes of this fight is that if Ward pulls off the upset tonight, he shoots right up near the top of this division. Should he win, he will do so because his pure ability is simply too much for Kessler to overcome, which was in some ways the case for Kessler against Calzaghe. Kessler is by no means unbeatable. A superior athlete with tricks up his sleeve (like Calzaghe) can outpoint him. Should Ward do it, it will mean he's got skills that are more advanced than I'm thinking they are at this point.
These two may well meet again later on in the tournament. Even if Ward loses tonight as I expect, a second chance might not go so well for Kessler. Kessler, at 30, is as good as he's getting. Ward, 25, has the type of upside that could take him from good fighter to elite fighter in a flash if he finds that spark.
I don't see the spark coming tonight, though. I'm taking Kessler by decision.