NEW YORK -- Andre Ward was ringside at Madison Square Garden on Friday, and that alone was notable. It has been 14 months since Ward wiped out Edwin Rodriguez, his last fight before a protracted battle with former promoter Dan Goossen put him on the shelf. That squabble ended with a settlement last week, freeing Ward to ink a lucrative contract with Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s fledgling boxing outfit. Addressing reporters, there was a palpable relief in Ward’s voice.
Said Ward, “I’m just happy it’s over with.”
Ward and I have had disagreements over the years -- over his sense of entitlement to televised tune-ups; over his unwillingness to move up in weight -- but make no mistake: Boxing is better with Ward in it. He’s the No. 2 fighter in the world, pound-for-pound, a preternatural blend of size, skill and speed with enough power (see Ward’s 2012 knockout of Chad Dawson) to make any fight interesting. In a sport filled with fighters disinterested in challenges, Ward takes on all comers; there isn’t a top fighter at 168 pounds that Ward has not beaten, and beaten badly.
It’s a coup for Roc Nation, a company that has been driving a Brink’s truck through boxing, only to have fighters run away from it. A $1.4 million purse offered to Peter Quillin to fight Matt Korobov was rejected. Multi-million dollar offers to Deontay Wilder and Keith Thurman were turned down. No matter how much money Roc Nation was willing to put on the table, nobody seemed to want it.
Ward did, and now, at 30, he enters the prime of his career with a formidable presence behind him. Roc Nation is new to the boxing industry, but it’s not inexperienced. COO David Itskowitch, a former Golden Boy Promotions top executive, is widely respected. Last week the company merged with Gary Shaw Productions; Shaw, a boxing lifer, gives valuable credibility to the promotional side. It has no standing beefs with any promoter -- though Jay-Z’s wife, Beyonce, has a checkered history with Al Haymon that likely precludes the sides from working together -- and can move its fighters between HBO and Showtime.
“This is obviously something new with Roc Nation,” Ward said. "[But] they’re a powerhouse in everything they touch.”
Indeed, Roc Nation has clout, evidenced by the star power ringside on Saturday. Jay-Z, Rihanna and Jake Gyllenhaal were among the dozens of celebs on hand for Roc Nation’s first show. It was a unique event that featured a performance from Grammy nominated rapper Fabolous and thumping beats from DJ Mustard.
Ultimately, Roc Nation’s success will have little to do with its ability to draw names to events, but the quality of the events it puts on. It’s debut show was forgettable. Tureano Johnson -- a decent middleweight prospect in Shaw’s stable -- steamrolled Alex Theran, a fighter with no resume to speak of. Junior welterweight Dustin Fleischer beat Frank Jordan in his pro debut. The card was headlined by welterweight Dusty Harrison-Hernandez, a solid young fighter with no business fronting a televised show. He wiped out Tommy Rainone in 10 rounds.
Roc Nation can fill the stands with more celebrities than the Golden Globes; it won’t stop a television audience -- the only audience that really matters -- from tuning out.
They have a centerpiece in Ward, who is well positioned to re-establish himself as one of boxing’s brightest stars -- if he moves up. On Saturday, Ward reiterated his desire to remain at 168 pounds, citing his inability to grow naturally into another weight class. “There is no reason for me to go to light heavyweight until I’m a full-fledged light heavyweight,” Ward said. “I’m not that right now.”
That’s fine. Only Ward knows what his body is and isn’t ready for, and while seven pounds might not seem significant, the difference between a natural light heavyweight and one that eats himself up there is noticeable in the ring.
But who is left at 168 pounds for Ward to fight? Carl Froch is widely considered the No. 2 man in the division; Ward manhandled him in 2011. Anthony Dirrell is a titleholder, but Dirrell, 30, isn’t in Ward’s class. Arthur Abraham would fight Ward -- if he came to Germany. Gennady Golovkin would fight Ward, but that fight is at least a year away from being meaningful. The fight Ward really wants is Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the money-making former middleweight champion whose mere presence guarantees a strong pay per view. But Froch is already lined up to face him, and if I’m Chavez’s team I want nothing to do with a Ward fight.
The 175-pound division, however, is loaded. Sergey Kovalev is the unified champion, and Kovalev would jump in the ring with Ward tomorrow. Adonis Stevenson has a title and money behind him. There is Jean Pascal, Bernard Hopkins and Artur Beterbiev. Two years spent running through that gauntlet would establish Ward as arguably the biggest star to ever compete in the two divisions. The money will be there and his legacy will be untouchable.
Ward will get there and, selfishly, boxing fans hope he does quickly. A disastrous 2014 has pushed the sport further and further from the mainstream. It needs its stars active to start to claw its way back. It needs Ward to once again become one of them.