Friday May 15th, 2009

Andre Ward's young career has been a series of firsts. There was his first Olympic gold medal in 2004, an accomplishment that put him in elite company with Cassius Clay, Leon Spinks and Evander Holyfield as the only U.S. gold medalists in the light heavyweight class.

There was his first professional paycheck, which he received after knocking out Chris Molina in '04.

There was his first significant injury, a torn ligament in his left thumb that cost Ward seven months in 2006.

Recently, Ward experienced a first that few athletes or stars will ever get: he had a day named in his honor. Praising Ward's "unwavering desire and compassion for the prize fighting profession, as well as his strength as an ambassador to the sport, serving as a role model to millions of young men and women in Oakland and beyond," Mayor Ron Dellums declared May 11 "Andre Ward Day" in the city.

And, on Saturday, Ward (18-0) will face another first. For the first time in his career he will face a high-profile opponent when he takes on power punching Columbian Edison Miranda (Showtime, 9 p.m.) in a super middleweight showdown in Oakland. A win over Miranda (32-3), a former title contender who has been in the ring with Kelly Pavlik and Arthur Abraham, would set Ward up for another first: a shot at one of the recognized 168-pound champions.

"Big fight," said Ward. "Biggest fight of my career."

So what about Ward's career? With a gold medal and, as many in the game believe, enormous amounts of potential, the young brawler has yet to meet expectations as a pro. His resume is wholly unimpressive, filled with opponents like Francisco Diaz, Rubin Williams and Henry Buchanan. His wins have, at times, been spectacular (he has knocked out 66 percent of his opponents), but with most of his fights taking place in obscure California venues, no one has been around to see it.

Ward understands the criticism. He knows fans want him to be like Oscar De La Hoya or Floyd Mayweather -- fighters who used the Olympics as a springboard to early success. But Ward points to Jermain Taylor and Jeff Lacy, former Olympians who needed a few years of seasoning before finding their footing in the professional ranks.

And Ward says he has made significant strides, ones the public can't necessarily see. He says that, at 25, he is much stronger than when he first turned pro, and that he is no longer prone to "mental lapses" in the ring. He says that in his last few fights he learned when he has the opportunity to put an opponent away, he must take advantage because he may not get another chance.

"I think my career is going well," said Ward. "People make too big a deal out of my 'timetable.' It's blown out of proportion. No one wants to be a world champion more than I do."

To be a champion, however, Ward needs to act like one. And that includes having a flair for the dramatic like, say, an emphatic knockout over a recognizable fighter. For that, Miranda would seem to be the perfect opponent. Though heavy handed (he has an 80-percent knockout ratio), Miranda is also susceptible to the power punch. In 2007, Pavlik, then a rising middleweight, used a dramatic, seventh-round knockout of Miranda to elevate him to top-contender status -- a status Pavlik capitalized on with a stunning knockout of Taylor.

Ward has that same opportunity. The trash-talking Miranda has been filling reporters' notebooks for weeks with stinging criticisms of Ward's abilities. Miranda claims he has "no respect" for the ex-Olympian and is predicting a brutal knockout. He claims that God himself has told him that he will win. That hype, however, could end up working in Ward's favor. Miranda's fighting style won't change; he will undoubtedly come towards Ward winging right hands and leaving his chin exposed. If Ward can take advantage, he could secure the kind of career-defining, made-for-TV knockout that could lead to bigger things. Like a fight with WBC super middleweight champion Carl Froch, who scored a dramatic knockout of his own when he flattened Taylor in the 12th round last month.

"Miranda is the boogeyman of the division," said Ward. "He's a big strong guy and he talks a lot. But we have 12 rounds to get to know each other, and I've shocked a lot of guys who think that I have never been tested."

The cluster of people who question Ward's ability to ever be a star has never been larger, though, and Ward knows he needs more than a methodical, technically sound decision victory to propel him to the next level. And he intends to provide it.

"This fight is everything," he said. "I know what's at stake. This is my title shot."

His first, to be clear.

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