Andre Ward is not ranked first on any pound-for-pound lists at the moment. But that doesn't mean he isn't the best fighter in the world. It just means he doesn't have the track record, visibility, or activity this year of Floyd Mayweather. But to watch both undefeated boxers' last couple of fights, you'd be hard pressed to separate them, to point to one as clearly superior to the other. Ward is that good.
Edwin Rodriguez, a bigger, harder punching, undefeated contender, discovered that first-hand on Saturday at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, where the lineal super middleweight champ Ward had the crowd ooh-ing and aah-ing with every flush punch, of which there were plenty. In his return to the ring after surgery on his right shoulder and a 14-month layoff, Ward was as masterful as ever, shutting down Rodriguez's theoretically dangerous offense and, if not for some aggressive refereeing and dubious judging, shutting him out as well. The official final tallies were 118-106, 117-107, and 116-108.
As mesmerizing as Ward's performance was, the spotlight did not belong solely to him for all 12 rounds. There was a period in the fourth round during which referee Jack Reiss stole it. Ward fights tend to involve holding and infighting, and when a frustrated Reiss couldn't get Ward or Rodriguez to break clean and ended up on the receiving end of a punch himself, he took two points from each combatant for "unsportsmanlike conduct," recommended fines for both, and threatened disqualifications. Reiss was officious -- but effective. Both fighters were afraid to punch in clinches most of the rest of the way, and it certainly became a cleaner bout. Whether it became a better contest without the chippy exchanges and with diminished infighting is up for debate.
"Jack set us straight right away," Ward (27-0, 14 KOs) said of the third man in the ring. "Boxing is already a tough enough business to not have to put up with illegal blows ... No disrespect to Edwin, but he didn't really come to win, he came to, I think, get lucky. He wants to hold, make it ugly, and catch me with something big."
Reiss did his best to limit the holding and the ugliness from both men, and Ward managed the issue of who got to catch whom with anything big. The 29-year-old champion's greatest struggles came in the first 30 seconds of the fight, when Rodriguez (24-1, 16 KOs) ran out of his corner aggressively, leading Ward to clinch repeatedly. But it wasn't long before Ward was fighting his fight, and by round two, frustration and resignation were setting in for Rodriguez. For "La Bomba," the weekend had already featured both of those emotions. He failed to make the 168-pound limit, getting only as close as 170, claiming that he couldn't sweat off the last two pounds on the day of the weigh-in as he always had in the past. That meant he sacrificed 20 percent of his $1 million purse and was ineligible to win the super middleweight title. Not that eligibility would have made it any less of an impossible task.
Ward's jab was extraordinary, landing a virtually unheard 42 percent of the time (86 of 207) according to CompuBox. It was so quick and unpredictable that Rodriguez rarely even began to flinch before it landed, and as Rodriguez's bobbling head indicated, it wasn't just a range-finding stick. Ward's left hook, always his money punch, was every bit as spectacular. The right hand made its presence felt as well, though it didn't look appreciably different than in Ward's pre-surgery fights. As usual, Ward's shoulder and foot feints played a major role in making his opponent such an open target for all of the various punches.
And then there was Ward's defense. Rodriguez's wide, slow punches were blocked, ducked, or smothered throughout the fight, a mere 85 of the 389 he threw landing according to CompuBox. That's an average of seven landed punches per round. He seemed to identify late in the fifth round that his best chance to score was by going to the body, but he didn't stick with it, returning to unsuccessful head hunting by the next round.
In the ninth, HBO blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley observed of Ward, "This is after a 14-month layoff. We were supposed to see some ring rust. We've seen none." Moments later, Ward had one of his finest moments, taking three partial steps backward, waiting for Rodriguez to go flat-footed, then stepping and drilling him with a jab. In the next round, La Bomba landed perhaps his best punch of the fight, a strong left hook, but when he opened up to follow up, he ate perhaps Ward's best punch of the fight, a hook that twisted his neck halfway to an Exorcist remake. Ten seconds before the final bell in round 12, with Rodriguez's task made more difficult by a freshly opened cut outside his left eye, Ward punctuated his performance with a precision jab that knocked Rodriguez off-balance and nearly produced a knockdown.
But neither the knockdown nor the knockout would come, in part because Ward isn't a heavy-handed puncher, and in part because it's not his m.o. to go all out for the early ending.
"You gotta be smart," Ward said after the fight. "He's a guy that's trying to hit the lottery and get lucky. He wants to close his eyes and throw a big shot. Even when he's hurt, he's looking to land a big shot."
Ward, like his pound-for-pound rival Mayweather, is not a high-risk guy once the bell rings. He just dominates good opponents every time out. Until he finds a challenger capable of giving him a sweat, hopefully he can stay healthy enough to give Mayweather one.