Four years ago an unbeaten boxer and Olympic Gold medalist who was largely untested as a pro stepped into the ring with one of the world's best super middleweights. When he left that ring, having stunned Mikkel Kessler, Andre Ward was on his way to becoming one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
Now, three months away from his 30th birthday, Ward (26-0, 14 KOs) will find himself in the ring on Nov. 16 with Edwin Rodriguez for a fight with more than a little déjà vu attached to it. In Rodriguez, Ward will be looking acrosfs the ring at a mirror image of himself at 25: an unbeaten young boxer who is untested at the elite level.
"I was in the same position as he is in 2009 when I fought Kessler," Ward says. "I fought a seasoned veteran. But the difference between Kessler and me is that Kessler took me lightly. He felt like, 'Oh, this young guy, he's talented, but...' I'm looking at Edwin like he's my toughest challenger up to this point. I know a lot of guys say that, but I really am."
Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KOs) also sees the parallel, but with a caveat.
"Yes, it's a very similar thing," the 25-year-old boxer says. "But I've fought better people than he has before he fought Kessler."
That's true to a degree. While he was being carefully moved up the ladder by his promoter, Dan Goossen, Ward's only opponent who might have caught the eye of boxing fans was the hard-hitting Edison Miranda, and even he was already starting down the slippery slope. Rodriguez's opponents, including Donovan George, Will Rosinsky, Aaron Pryer Jr., and James McGirt have been somewhat better, but none would be mistaken for an elite challenge. Will any of this matter on November 16? Probably not.
There are other factors far more important to this fight, beginning with the fact that Ward, because of injuries, will enter the ring after a 14-month layoff, having boxed only 10 rounds in a span of 23 months. Ring rust could reduce the substantial edge in experience that Ward enjoys, but he isn't the least bit concerned about it.
"I think Rodriguez and his team feel like they're going to catch me slipping coming off of [shoulder] surgery and the layoff," Ward says. "But I try to live like a champion. I stay in the gym, eat well, and don't abuse my body. And this rest that I got was needed."
Rodriguez's promoter, Lou DiBella, is actually inclined to agree. "The layoff doesn't mean a damn thing," DiBella says. "The elite fighters stay in the gym and keep working. The layoff won't affect him at all."
If Ward is at his best for this fight, he will be very difficult for Rodriguez to beat. The champion out of Oakland has a phenomenal array of skills, beginning with extraordinarily fast hands, an ability to move very well and use the whole ring, plus an A-list defense that renders him hard to hit squarely.
Ward's attack mode is simple in premise: he'll move around the ring, and then suddenly lunge in, firing off fast, powerful combos. Then, he'll either get back out quickly without being hit or clinch his opponent. What makes this attack difficult to stop is the speed with which he executes the maneuver, as well as the fact that it's impossible to predict when he will lunge.
Rodriguez is well aware of the challenges Ward poses, but feels he has the tools to deal with them.
"The way to stop that is for me to maintain pressure on him, both inside and outside," Rodriguez says. "Although he is very good at moving in, I will try to catch him when he does."
For some, that could be read as wishful thinking. But Rodriguez has hand speed almost as quick as Ward's. In that regard, Ward will be facing a boxer very different than the elite super middleweights he has beaten, a list including Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Carl Froch, and Chad Dawson. Against that crew, Ward was able to beat each fighter to the punch consistently and move around the ring in such an elusive manner that it must have felt to them like they were chasing a shadow.
Rodriguez's hand speed could help him neutralize Ward's ability to get in and out cleanly. The young boxer also has a strong multiple-skill set that includes power in both fists and a 76-inch reach. That reach is five inches longer than Ward's, and longer even than many heavyweights. Rodriguez utilizes this reach advantage to fuel a jab that is so crisp and hard, it's almost a power punch.
"My jab will be the key to my fight," Rodriguez says with confidence.
Working behind that jab, Rodriguez has a full arsenal of punches, including a short, crisp uppercut and a variety of ferocious hooks to the body and head. Although he fights somewhat flat-footed, he seems to be able to cut off the ring quickly, possessing the ability to attack from different angles. Once called "an offensive monster" by DiBella when he was climbing the ladder, Rodriguez has worked hard with elite trainer Ronnie Shields to improve what was once a very porous defense.
"Before he went to Ronnie [in 2011]," DiBella says, "Edwin was one of the great offensive machines in boxing. But his defense wasn't nearly as good. Now, with Ronnie, his defense has made him a more complete fighter."
Rodriguez gives all the credit to Shields, the Houston-based trainer of many champions.
"With Ronnie, it's the whole mentality he brings to his fighters," Rodriguez says. "Before I trained with him, my other trainer's whole emphasis was on offense. The first thing Ronnie told me is when you punch you have to be aware that the other guy is going to be punching back at you. It's not just a matter of keeping your hands up. There's so much more to defense than that."
DiBella understands the odds are stacked against his young fighter winning, but he knows what Rodriguez needs to do to pull off the upset.
"His best chance to win is to make the fight," the promoter says. "Edwin has to show Ward no respect. He has to keep pushing forward and force Ward to fight. If Edwin hurts Ward, he can take him out. But it won't be easy by any means. Ward is a legitimate, top-three pound-for-pound fighter. He's extremely hard to hit, and fights with great poise and a tremendous amount of self-discipline."
Rodriguez, too, understands the difficulty he is facing.
"The pressure is all on me to make him fight," he says. "He prefers to box and move around. I have to push him to fight. But I don't mind the pressure at all. Vince Lombardi once said, 'Life's battles don't always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins is the man who thinks he can.' On November 16, I know I will win."