There was a time when the Super Six seemed like the best thing to happen to Andre Ward. You remember the Super Six, right? That round-robin, interminably long Showtime-sponsored tournament that was intended to crown the best 168-pounder in the division?
And it did. Ward went from being a (relatively) unknown former Olympic gold medalist to the division's top dog in a little over three years. One by one, Ward dispatched tournament favorites Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch in decisive fashion. He rose into the top-five in virtually every credible pound-for-pound list, and in most he sits just behind Floyd Mayweather, at No. 2.
So what's the problem? It's simple: Ward (26-0) cleaned out the division in front of a television audience unbecoming of the accomplishment. The most viewers Ward drew during the Super Six was 580,000, for the final against Carl Froch, in a bout that was fought in front of a small crowd in a room tucked into Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. Fights that should have been huge events flew largely under the radar.
Think about it: How big would the buzz be for Ward-Froch right now? On one side there is Froch, brash, cocky, arguably U.K. boxing's biggest star. On the other Ward, steady, confident, a fighter who lets his brilliance in the ring do most of the talking. The result likely wouldn't be different -- Ward outclassed Froch in 2011, and would do the same today -- but the build up (and the audience) would be considerable.
Instead, Ward sits alone atop the 168-pound division, with a collection of vanquished foes at his feet. On Saturday, he will defend his WBA title against Edwin Rodriguez at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif. (HBO, 10 pm). Rodriguez (24-0) is a competent, capable challenger. He has solid power, a television-friendly style and is coming off his biggest win, a first-round knockout of Denis Grachev last July. Ward says he has been keeping an eye on Rodriguez over the last few years and is eager for the fight.
But barring an overwhelming case of ring rust -- Ward has not fought since September 2012 -- or a reinjuring of the shoulder he had surgically repaired last January, he should roll. Rodriguez is a good fighter. Ward is an elite one. Whatever Rodriguez brings to the ring, Ward has the talent to counter it.
"I've fought tall fighters, I've fought short fighters, I've fought aggressive fighters, I've fought wild fighters," Ward said. "I've fought, sparred, been around, been involved with, all sorts of different styles and fighters. I've watched Edwin. I know his strengths. I know his weaknesses."
Ward wants a super fight, and Rodriguez isn't it. And with the interest in Super Six rematches lukewarm, there are only two places Ward can go for his super fight: Gennady Golovkin, or the 175-pound division.
Let's start with Golovkin, the 160-pound wrecking ball who is coming off yet another decisive knockout win, this time over Curtis Stevens earlier this month. In the last year, Golovkin has gone from an unknown European-based fighter into one of the biggest stars in the U.S. His win over Stevens averaged 1.41 million viewers on HBO -- peaking at 1.57 million -- making it the third-highest-rated cable fight of the year, trailing only bouts featuring stalwarts Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Miguel Cotto.
At light heavyweight, there are even more options. The 175-pound division is fast becoming one of the deepest in the sport. Mainstay Bernard Hopkins still wears a title belt, while rising stars Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev have developed fan bases, quickly. Both Stevenson and Kovalev are HBO fighters, making a fight with Ward very doable.
One of those fights would be a no-brainer, right? Well...
"With all due respect, those guys got a lot of buzz right now," Ward said. "They are being pushed as the boogeymen in the division, Golovkin in the super middle weight division, Stevenson and [Kovalev] in the light heavyweight division. And that's fine. I don't see a win over either one of those guys, right now, catapulting me past Floyd Mayweather, or something like that."
That's partially true. Ward will never match Mayweather's popularity. Mayweather has carefully cultivated a villainous character that Ward has no desire to emulate. And because Ward doesn't actively pursue knockouts -- he has one in his last five fights -- there is a certain section of the boxing fan base that will always be closed off to him. Fighters often complain about the lack of respect shown to tacticians, but boxing has always been a bloodthirsty sport. Mike Tyson, Arturo Gatti, Manny Pacquiao, they all became rock stars behind a punishing, straightforward style.
But Ward can eclipse Mayweather in a different way. Consider this hypothetical. In 2014, Mayweather beats Amir Khan and Danny Garcia, convincingly. That same year Ward beats Golovkin and the winner of an expected fight between Stevenson and Kovalev. Would Ward catapult past Mayweather in most mythical pound-for-pound rankings? No. Would he close the gap considerably? Yes.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that 2014 will be a big year for Andre Ward. Injuries and a promotional dispute derailed this year, robbing him of the bounce he hoped to get from a knockout win over Chad Dawson last year. But two years after wiping out the pool of potential opponents in the Super Six, Ward suddenly has a new crop lining up to face him.