Andre Ward is supposed to be one of the new cornerstones of the HBO boxing brand, but having not fought this year and also only stepping into the ring once in 2012 to dominate Chad Dawson, his career has stalled even as he remains near the top of every pound-for-pound list in the world.
Closing in on a year of activity, Steve Kim reports that Ward's team has tried to convince HBO to approve a fight with Dimitri Sartison, a competent fringe contender whose biggest fight came in 2008, when he was dominated and then knocked out by Mikkel Kessler. In 2009, Sartison (30-2, 18 KO) won a fairly bogus version of the WBA super middleweight title, defended it once in 2010 against Khoren Gevor, and then dropped it to Karoly Balzsay in 2012. That title is so insignificant (it's the WBA "regular" title, while Ward has held the WBA super title) that few even noticed its existence when it changed hands last year.
With Sartison not a WBA mandatory or anything of the sort, it's a tough spot for HBO to be in, and Kim says that they predictably aren't that warm to the idea. It's not even as if Ward is suggesting he fight Balzsay (25-2, 18 KO), who still holds that "regular" title -- at least there would be some argument then that the fight makes sense, however dumb the logic. And Balzsay, like Sartison, is an unknown fighter in the States.
Part of the issue for both sides here is that Ward has probably been given too much weight by HBO. He's a terrific boxer and one of the best in the world -- maybe even the best, if you think his prime has eclipsed a declining (however slowly) Floyd Mayweather at this very moment -- but he's not a star yet, and there aren't any name fighters at 168 that he hasn't beaten convincingly already. He's expressed no interest in fighting at 175 pounds, which is a perfectly fine choice, but it comes with consequences. With no attractive opponents at 168, the remaining hope is that someone from 160 would come up to fight him. It's unlikely anyone at 175 would come down to face him, as Dawson did last year to lousy results.
Part of this is really not Ward's fault, and it's not even unreasonable that Sartison is the type of decent but definitely overmatched opponent they'd like to face first after a year off and shoulder surgery. Ward is a fine-tuned machine of an athlete and fighter, and throwing him right back into the fire may be seen as an unnecessary or even unfair risk to impose upon him. It's certainly understandable, I think, that he'd want to face someone like Sartison, and then look for a big opponent. Furthermore, the other guys he might possibly face -- Carl Froch, Gennady Golovkin, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr -- are busy at the moment. Froch will face George Groves late this year, and Ward has already beaten Froch anyway. Golovkin is set for a November HBO return, and there's been no serious talk about a Ward-Golovkin fight, even though it's a great one on paper. That could wait until next year, at least. Chavez returns September 7 against Brian Vera in his own comeback tune-up.
So it's an unusual situation for both parties. Ward's team, I believe, is doing the right thing by them and looking out for the fighter's best interests, plus they're handicapped by a lack of noteworthy, available foes.
Who's available? Here's my totally internet-tastic TOP FIVE!! list of potential Andre Ward foes who are available and hopefully willing:
This would be my number one draft pick. If I'm HBO, this is the fight I'm trying to make right now. I don't think anyone doubts that Ward is a lot better than Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KO), but "La Bomba" is coming off of a thunderous first round TKO win over the tough Denis Grachev, and also beat previously undefeated Ezequiel Maderna earlier this year, both of those fights in Monte Carlo. Rodriguez, 28, is probably about as ready as he's going to get. He was a naturally powerful guy who had promise, and veteran trainer Ronnie Shields has polished him up a bit the last few years and made him a better overall fighter. I like this one given the options; Rodriguez is probably the best available fighter, if he and Lou DiBella are interested, anyway.
Actually that's about it. That's my entire list of guys who seem to be available, might be willing, and that I would actively like to see fight Andre Ward right now. That's it. So this was just a TOP ONE!!! list. Any more bright ideas, geniuses?