Sullivan Barrera (17-0) and Andre Ward (28-0) are scheduled to fight each other this Saturday at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, Ward’s hometown. Barrera, an ex-Cuban amateur who turned pro in 2009, is the mandatory challenger for Sergey Kovalev’s IBF title but he will fight Ward instead who is rated fourth after one fight at light heavyweight. The Cuban is advertised as an amateur standout but the last time he stood out was back in the year 2000 when he won the World Junior Championship.
Andre Ward is no stranger to this weight class, he won his Olympic gold medal at light heavyweight. He spent his pro carrier at super middleweight and has held a constant spot in the P4P rankings, official and unofficial, for quite some time. He is undefeated but his defining fights are still ahead of him, hopefully. He has won against serious albeit unheralded opposition without creating truly memorable moments. Names like Kessler, Abraham and Froch might not be P4P material but they were the elite of their division at the time.
Ward’s last impressive win was back in 2012 against Chad Dawson who moved down from light-heavyweight to fight Andre for his super-middle titles. Coming off a win against Bernard Hopkins, Dawson was held in high esteem and when Ward stopped him, he silenced some of his critics.
It was also his last meaningful fight as he was afflicted by legal disputes with his management and he spent his best years waiting around. Ward fought once in 2013 and once in 2015 and last year he had trouble making 168 lbs so he fought at catch weight. As there was no lucrative fight in sight for him at his old weight, he became a light heavyweight by default. There was at least one name there that could help him build a much needed legacy – Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev, one of the most dominant and feared fighters today.
In a previous article I have praised Ward’s boxing mastery so I’ll avoid repetitions but like other stylists who lack personal charisma and flair for the dramatic, he has not caught fire with the masses. He draws the appreciation of insiders, the grudging respect of opponents and their coaches but he hardly draws a dime as a main-event entertainer. His three-fight deal with HBO was a nice surprise and a life-line but the network has shown little enthusiasm about it. The first fight scheduled for November 2015 was cancelled due to Ward’s knee injury and HBO wanted to count it as part of the deal while Ward’s team insisted it should not be considered and the count should start when he actually fights. This disagreement should not be allowed to grow into another legal matter; Ward can’t afford another lay over. His employer’s good will depends to a great extent on his next performance which is a prelude to a showdown with Sergey Kovalev.
Andre Ward only has marketing value as a viable challenger to the seemingly invincible light-heavy kingpin Kovalev. He has one hurdle to clear before that, a build-up fight with one Sullivan Barrera. This fight will validate the little-known Barrera or the well-known but under-appreciated Ward as the challenger. Apparently being number 1 in the rankings wasn’t enough, at least not for Sullivan Barrera from Miami, Fl. by way of Cuba.
Barrera is billed as a Cuban amateur standout and he did stand out once, he became the World Junior Champion at the turn of the millennium in 2000. He defeated Chad Dawson among others in this competition. After that he sort of dissolved into the abundance of boxing talent in his country where boxing is a ticket to the good life. He has not been heard of since 2003 when he managed to win a bronze medal for the second time at the Cuban national championships. It was still quite a feat. As the saying goes, it is harder to win a medal at the Cuban and Russian national championships than it is to win a medal at a world championship. It is unclear whether he was still active at the time of his arrival to Miami in 2009 and if not, for how long. Anyway, he seems to have adapted well at the pro ranks and has developed a boxer-puncher style that appeals to fans with the high punching volume and aggression over safety attitude.
Ward is an Olympic gold medalist so he has had more experience and success both as an amateur and a pro. The Cuban is two inches taller and has a two inch reach advantage but he boxed at middleweight as an amateur while Ward won the gold medal at the light heavyweight division. He is two years younger than Barrera who is 34 and has completed 194 rounds total as a pro while Barrera has 70.
On paper it looks like a tune up fight for Ward, Cuban or not, but there is one important factor (or the lack of it) – punch power. Ward was not exactly a striker at super-middle so he will hardly shock the bigger boys with single blows. He is not a KO puncher and neither is Barrera. Both of them get their stoppages after wearing down the opponent so they will be prepared to go distance. Ward appears more conservative as he rarely commits with shots and paces himself until he senses an opportunity. Sullivan Barrera is more open and aggressive and throws an overwhelming number of punches. He throws a lot of body shots and takes more chances than Ward, a point for him with the fans if not with the judges.
Barrera has the height and reach advantage and he appears to be quite athletic and coordinated. He should do well at long range and he also fights willingly and effectively on the inside – quite unusual for a tall Cuban boxer. He may have incurred less occupational wear and tear than the American who seems to have some recurrent injuries. Barrera and his team realize that the “script” for this fight is Ward to win in his hometown and set the stage for the showdown with Sergey Kovalev. That is the whole idea of the three fight deal, HBO want the American, be it otherwise unpopular and unmarketable, to dethrone the scary Russian.
Barrera is capable of causing the upset and he has little to lose. He did not have to take this fight and in fact he is doing Ward a huge favor. Andre was literally salvaged by the network and his career was recharged in a new division with the idea of precipitating a dream match-up and granting at least one popular demand. The Ward – Kovalev duel is eagerly anticipated and expected to do very well at the box-office.
As to the fight on hand, the motivation and urgency is there for both combatants as they are seasoned and crafty while still hungry on the last leg of their careers. They need to cash in on their boxing ability and they have little time left at this age. This could develop into a really exciting eliminator that will be settled in the late rounds