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Has Andre Ward earned the right to get a big payday for a tuneup fight?

Andre Ward hasn't fought since his September 2012 win over Chad Dawson. (Naoki Fukuda/AFLO/Icon SMI)

Andre Ward hasn't fought since his September 2012 win over Chad Dawson. (Naoki Fukuda/AFLO/Icon SMI)

It’s been a tough year for Andre Ward. From the shoulder injury that sidelined him for several months -- and cost him a lucrative, and very winnable, fight against Kelly Pavlik -- to his (failed) court battle to separate from longtime promoter Dan Goossen to the current dispute with HBO over his next opponent, Ward has been unable to capitalize on last year’s 10th-round destruction of then-light heavyweight kingpin Chad Dawson. That was his biggest, most impressive and, perhaps most important, his most watched win to date.

The newest (and ongoing) issue for Ward is the aforementioned next opponent. Here’s what we know: Ward (26-0) prefers that his next fight be a tuneup. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ward has been off since last September and isn’t all that interested in his next bout being a big matchup. That’s why Ward’s team -- Goossen and manager James Prince -- have floated such rust-shaking candidates as Dimitry Sartison, Caleb Truax and Stanyslav Kashtanov.

But here’s the problem: Ward still wants to collect a fat seven-figure check for stepping in with an inferior opponent. He believes that he has earned the right to be treated like Miguel Cotto and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., two fighters who will make good paydays from HBO in the next few months to fight the likes of Delvin Rodriguez (Cotto) and Brian Vera (Chavez).

“All I am asking is that [HBO] respects the injury,” Ward said in a telephone interview. “I’m looking to make a solid fight, similar to what they are doing with Cotto and Chavez. From there, we can talk about who is next. Look at what is going on with Cotto and Chavez, the direction that they are taking with them? I have earned that.”

HBO, as you might imagine, disagrees. Say what you want about the Ken Hershman-led HBO Sports management team -- and the loss of Floyd Mayweather coupled with the decision not to do business with Golden Boy has made it a tough year for the network as well -- but they are determined not to revert back to the Andre Berto business model of throwing big dollars at bad fights. They are investing in good fights featuring rising, talented stars (Ward, Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev, to name a few) with the hopes that they will be monster stars in years to come.

That’s been one of the hallmarks of HBO over the years: The network creates stars.

Cotto and Chavez, however, are exceptions for one reason: They do big ratings against any opponent. Outside of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, Cotto and Chavez (along with Saul Alvarez) are the biggest draws in boxing. Last year, Cotto-Mayweather did 1.5 million pay per view buys; later that year Cotto’s loss to Austin Trout peaked at 1.4 million viewers on Showtime, according to Nielsen Media Research figures, a boxing record for the network.

Chavez is magnetic. His fight against journeyman Marco Antonio Rubio in 2012 registered 1.9 million viewers on HBO, which was the most watched fight on the network that year. That same year, Chavez’s fight against Andy Lee drew 1.6 million viewers.

Chavez and Cotto are a premium network’s security blankets. Put them on the air against Butterbean and more than a million sets of eyeballs will tune in to watch.

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Ward? He  has nowhere near that popularity yet. Ward’s win over Dawson drew 1.3 million viewers, a very good number. But was Ward the draw? His previous fight, a dismantling of Carl Froch in the finals of Showtime’s Super Six tournament, peaked at 580,000 viewers. Dawson’s previous fight, a win over Bernard Hopkins (a big ratings draw himself), attracted 1.6 million viewers.

Is Ward better than Cotto or Chavez? Absolutely. Is he a comparable attraction? Not even close.

Now, there is one fighter upon whom both the network and Ward agree: Edwin Rodriguez, the free-swinging super middleweight who is coming off a pair of solid wins -- the latter of which earned him $600,000 -- in the Monaco Million Dollar Super Four. HBO was willing to pony up good money for Ward-Rodriguez. Only Ward didn’t want to share much of it. According to multiple industry sources, HBO offered a license fee of $3.15 million. Ward’s team, in turn, offered Rodriguez $800,000 of it. Ward also refused to share revenue from the gate, the foreign rights or the sponsors.

When asked, Ward didn’t dispute the numbers. His argument was that Rodriguez has not done anything to warrant more than the $800,000 he was offered.

“Taking nothing away from Rodriguez, but I am the No. 2-ranked fighter in the world,” Ward said. “With all due respect to Rodriguez, who is he to start demanding revenue from the gate or foreign rights? What has he done to demand these types of things? Yes, he just won that tournament. But he wasn’t getting that money from a network. We offered him more than he got in the tournament and he turned us down. That is ridiculous. Look at his résumé. As far as HBO money, I have earned that. I’m not fighting for my minimum anymore. My team knows that. It’s not like we lowballed Rodriguez.”

Look, Ward is right about the tournament. If Rodriguez and his team think a couple of wins, over Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna and Denis Grachev, have made him a star, they're crazy. But Rodriguez is a marketable guy who has appeared regularly on HBO, Showtime and ESPN in the last few years. And at this point, who needs who more? Rodriguez, who is promoted by Lou DiBella, recently signed with Al Haymon, who controls super middleweight titleholder Sakio Bika. And fighters like Froch, Arthur Abraham and Robert Stieglitz are conceivable options as well.

Ward? His return date has been pushed back to November and the cupboard of opponents is bare. Ward’s three-year run through the 168-pound division has eliminated most of the viable options and he has said he is not ready to move up to 175. And with every passing month, and with every new set of stories depicting Ward as wanting more than he has earned, the public perception of Ward gets worse.

“I don’t get frustrated about what certain websites or what certain media members say about me,” Ward said. “Boxing is like the wild west. Anyone can start a website. People who wouldn’t normally have a voice have one. I don’t read a lot of that stuff. It’s a lot of opinions, not a lot of facts. I understand people are going to have their opinions. There are going to be some guys who say nothing good about you. But since I have been off, they have kept my name out there. So I embrace the good and the bad.”

Ultimately, to continue their relationship, Ward and HBO may have to compromise. If Ward took a significant pay cut, the network might be more receptive to a lesser opponent. That would give Ward the tuneup fight he is looking for and save HBO some money. Then, the two could move forward towards a bigger fight -- maybe against Rodriguez, maybe against Froch, maybe against Chavez -- in 2014.

Ward made one thing very clear: He does not want to leave HBO. He has carved a nice niche for himself with the network as a broadcaster and the money and exposure HBO has provided will give him the platform to become an even bigger star in the next few years. And while Ward doesn’t have the popularity of Chavez or Cotto now, an eventual move to 175 pounds -- where HBO controls some of the biggest names -- could push him closer to it.

“Absolutely, [this year] has been a setback,” Ward said. “It wasn’t part of the plan but this is part of my story. Dealing with the business side of things is just part of the process. Bernard [Hopkins], Floyd [Mayweather], they have gone through it at one point or another. It can get frustrating. But I’m eager to get back. I’m ready, I have been ready, and I have been telling [my team] to get this done for November. Need to get [a fight] signed, sealed and delivered.”

--Chris Mannix