Andre Ward finally gets himself back into a significant fight on Saturday night, when he returns to HBO for the first time since 2013 against light heavyweight contender Sullivan Barrera, in a fight that is must-win for Ward if he wants to keep that late 2016 date with Sergey Kovalev.
How good is this matchup? Why should you watch? And what of the co-feature? Let's talk about it.
It's been a long, not very strange trip for Andre Ward the last few years. Let's go back to 2009, when the Super Six began, and break Andre Ward's career down into two stages.
Stage One, The Super Six:
- def. Mikkel Kessler, 2009-11-21
- def. Allan Green, 2010-06-19
- def. Sakio Bika, 2010-11-27
- def. Arthur Abraham, 2011-05-14
- def. Carl Froch, 2011-12-17
Stage Two, Post-Super Six:
- def. Chad Dawson, 2012-09-08
- def. Edwin Rodriguez, 2013-11-16
- def. Paul Smith, 2015-06-20
The reasons for Ward's inactivity have been gone over a million times now. Ward and his former promoter, the late Dan Goossen, wound up embroiled in a legal dispute, which eventually led to Ward being free of his deal with Goossen, and signing with the fledgling Roc Nation Sports in January 2015. So far, that's brought him one fight, the tune-up against a clearly disinterested Paul Smith last June in Oakland.
Ward (28-0, 15 KO) was scheduled to fight another tune-up type bout on November 21 last year, but pulled out with a minor injury. So more time was spent on the sidelines yet again.
The good news, though, is we're now where we are. Ward, 32, has a deal in place to face Sergey Kovalev in November of this year on HBO pay-per-view. Kovalev is considered by the vast majority to be the real top fighter at 175 pounds and one of the pound-for-pound best in the sport. As for Ward, he took over the 168-pound division with great performances from 2009-13, and the only question mark about his pound-for-pound credentials right now comes from the fact that he has been so inactive. Otherwise, as great as Chocolatito Gonzalez is, you can still make a good case that Ward may be the overall best fighter in the sport today.
That said, the inactivity does matter in that conversation, and it may matter in the ring on Saturday. Ward looked fine against Paul Smith last June, but Smith was in no condition to make a fight of it, anyway, and even the best Paul Smith would never have been a serious challenge for a good Andre Ward. So it's hard to say that that fight -- Ward's only fight since 2013 -- showed us what kind of fighter he might still be.
32 is not old, but when you combine it with inactivity, potential rust, and any number of things that can "go wrong" for a fighter as time wears on, there is the potential that Andre Ward may have lost a step, because it's not hard to lose a step when you are as good as Ward was from 2009-13. The good thing for Ward is that he says he's stayed in shape, and there's no reason to not believe that, he seems truly dedicated to his craft. And he also has a style that really should age well. He's not Roy Jones Jr or anything, he's a technician and a craftsman; I've always seen his style as kind of a cross between the welterweight period of Floyd Mayweather's career and Bernard Hopkins.
Ward also has a nasty edge to him inside the ring, knowing when and how to rough opponents up, and he dictates the pace of a fight as well as anyone in the modern era. Fights are always fought on Andre Ward's terms, no matter what the opponent has planned. He makes you beat him at his game, and nobody's been good enough to even get very close to doing so thus far.
Sullivan Barrera (17-0, 12 KO) is a great opponent for Andre Ward at this stage of Ward's career. Considering Ward hasn't fought a serious challenger since at least 2012, when a drained Chad Dawson had nothing to offer as a super middleweight, this is a gutsy move, and one that shows what kind of fighter Ward wants to be.
Barrera, 34, is a Cuban fighter with skills and power, plus slight height and reach advantages. But if he's going to win this fight, height and reach probably aren't going to be the tools to get there. He's going to have to overpower Ward at some point, and get Ward out of his comfort zone. Far easier said than done.
Still, the fact that Ward is jumping up into the light heavyweight division officially against a fighter who is unbeaten and a legitimate top 10 guy is plenty admirable. Ward frankly could have taken an easier fight right now, and saved something like this for the summer, perhaps, since he does want to fight one more time after this before engaging Kovalev this fall. Maybe the summer fight, if it happens, will be something more akin to a true tune-up.
Barrera's record is a little thin, to be entirely fair here. His best win came in December over Karo Murat, a longtime fringe contender. He torched the German with a fifth round knockout, but while Murat is a competent fighter and a decent win, he's no Andre Ward. This is an entirely new level for Barrera, a major leap in class for him. And if Ward is as good as he was in what we perceive as his prime, then it's hard to imagine Barrera coming away with a win, or even being a particularly tough challenge for the hometown favorite.
This may seem like it contradicts the idea that this is a "great opponent" for Ward at this stage -- to say that if he's as good as he was, he'll win easily. How can that be a great matchup? Boxing isn't like other sports, for better or worse (largely, it's worse). This is a logical and mildly bold move for Andre Ward, but even so, he deserves to be the clear favorite, and should win if he hasn't lost anything. Barrera looks like a good fighter, but few are on the level of Andre Ward when he's at his best. If Mikkel Kessler and Carl Froch couldn't deal with Ward's skill, why would Barrera be able to? The weight jump for Ward probably isn't going to matter; it may, of course, but it probably will not.
Prediction: Ward by clear decision.
Joseph Diaz Jr vs Jayson Velez
The HBO co-feature is an interesting matchup, pitting a 2012 Olympian against a step-up opponent who not too long ago was in the world title mix at 126 pounds.
Joseph "JoJo" Diaz Jr makes his HBO debut in the 20th fight of his pro career. A member of the U.S. team that failed to win any medals on the men's side of the sport at London 2012, Diaz was one of several fighters on that squad who nonetheless appeared to be a legitimate pro prospect, and has indeed turned out to be one. Now 19-0 (11 KO), the 23-year-old Diaz ranked as our No. 2 featherweight prospect in the 2015 year in review series, after going 5-0 in 2015.
The question then was really more how long it would be before he started throwing himself into the deeper waters of the division, and we aren't waiting long. I speculated those few months ago that Diaz could find himself in a world title fight by the end of 2016 if all went really well, and that may be the course, and 2017 is probably the latest target date for that type of move. He's beaten capable veterans and gatekeeper types handily already, and 106 rounds into his pro career, it's a challenge to find more than a few that he's actually lost.
So in steps Jayson Velez (23-1-1, 16 KO), a 28-year-old Puerto Rican fighter who has challenged for a world title, and while he is coming off of a loss, he is still plenty dangerous in this fight. Velez drew with Evgeny Gradovich in 2014, with Gradovich defending the IBF featherweight belt, and lost this past November to a recharged Ronny Rios on the Cotto-Canelo pay-per-view card.
As Diaz recently told our colleague Marcos Villegas of FightHub, he will have a size disadvantage in this fight. Diaz is listed at 5'6" with a 64-inch reach, while Velez is 5'8½" with a 70-inch reach. This is not insignificant, and no matter how used to fighting taller, longer opposition Diaz has been not just in the promos but the amateurs, as well, it's something he absolutely has to be prepared to combat if Velez looks to establish range and keep the more aggressive Diaz at bay.
Diaz, for his part, says the plan is indeed to negate that reach advantage, to get inside and land hard shots, to bully Velez once he's in there. And he also says that the dream of fighting on HBO becoming a reality has him ready to put on a show.
"I really wanna make a statement this fight, I wanna make sure everyone in the 126-pound division knows who I am in this fight. I'm gonna put on a great show," he said this week.
"I know Jayson Velez is 110% ready as well. There's a lot at stake for both of us. He's a contender, but he lost his last fight, so he has to bounce back to get into a world title spot again, you know? With me, I'm an up and coming prospect, so I gotta show everybody who I am. I feel like there's a lot at stake for both of us, there's gonna be a lot of fireworks in this fight, there's gonna be a war."
Velez is an interesting case in that he's proven a bit but also not proven much at all. His best actual win was against Dat Nguyen in 2013, and his second best is, what, Jose Angel Beranza in 2012?
There's no questioning that Velez is a solid fighter, has some skills, has a little power, and knows what he's doing out there. But if Diaz is really as good a prospect as we think he is, or as good as he's been hyped to be, then honestly, the thought here is for Diaz to really show he's the clearly better fighter.
Velez's two biggest fights are a loss and a draw. The draw was a fine performance, but to focus on the fact that it was a world title fight also overlooks Evgeny Gradovich's relatively thin record, too, where the best wins of his career came against Billy Dib, who also has a paper record. So it's sort of a chain reaction of paper records meeting other paper records. That's not to say that none of them can fight, or that they all suck and they're FRAUDS!!! PHONIES!!! Velez can fight. He's a decent second-tier featherweight. Diaz, however, is supposed to wind up a top-tier featherweight. That's his goal. That's Golden Boy's goal for him.
On Velez's side, the chances for success probably rely mainly on his physical advantages. He's not a more skilled boxer than Diaz, really, but if he can establish a jab early on and frustrate Diaz, be patient and take his time -- even if that means letting the fight stink a little bit -- he may be able to bait Diaz into being overaggressive, and then making critical mistakes. Velez has enough power that if he's able to force Diaz into bad positioning and something where he reaches too much, he can certainly do some damage with counter shots.
In Velez's loss to Ronny Rios, he was in against another featherweight with a longer reach. Rios is a little shorter than Velez, but actually has an inch more reach than the Puerto Rican, plus Rios frankly looked like a renewed guy in that fight after some iffy performances that seemed to derail his own hype train in 2013-14. Rios had a lot to prove in that fight, and a big stage on which to prove it. The same is true for Diaz in this one, but will the styles dictate the fight here? Can Velez neutralize Diaz enough to either force those big mistakes from Jojo, or to just shut down his offense? That's the key on his side.
Prediction: Diaz by decision.