Thanks to the generosity of friends (Christopher, Ra and Koreen), I got to attend my first professional boxing match last night at Oracle Arena — Andre Ward’s tuneup against Alexander Brand. Ward is a superb tactician and Brand was a huge underdog, a glorified sparring partner.
— Dan Rafael (@danrafaelespn) August 6, 2016
Ward won every all 12 rounds on each judge’s scorecard, landing more than four times as many punches as Brand (190 to 45). The problem for boxing fans who want to get behind Ward leading into his championship bout on Nov. 19 against Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (30-0 with 26 knockouts, and in 2011 one of his victims died three days after getting sent to the canvas), isn’t that Ward’s record moved to 29-0-1 last night. It’s that his knockout total stayed at 15.
He had chances to get No. 16 last night, especially in the 10th when he sent his opponent into the ropes, but never quite let it fly despite an ability to rain left hooks to Brand’s head pretty much whenever he damn well pleased. (Oops, I probably shouldn’t use the d-word in a story about a fighter they call “Son of God.”) Ward avoided Brand’s haymakers in ways that seemed effortless, and the entire fight had a tone of chess vs. checkers.
Not all fight fans are satisfied with fantastic defense, unorthodox footwork and ever-changing strategy designed to keep lesser fighters off balance, however. One of the key roots of prizefighting is violence, and Ward was never going to traffic in gratuitous pain if it meant risking a round or a fight that could derail his chance to match up against another pound-for-pound great in Kovalev.
But while the HBO viewing audience may not have been overly impressed with what they saw, there was nothing other than pride flowing inside the arena where Ward has fought eight times, as “SOG” chants were often heard whenever Ward landed a clean punch. Marshawn Lynch was the biggest celebrity who attended (other than Kovalev, who heard boos every time his face was shown on the scoreboard), which was a departure from Ward’s previous fight when Steph Curry and Draymond Green were among those cheering for the greatest fighter in Bay Area history.
And what’s not to cheer? Ward is America’s last boxing gold medalist, his brain is still very much intact, and by all accounts his default personality is “nice.” In an era when Oakland pride is aligned more closely with new restaurants and coffee houses than its sports teams, which all have shown a desire to flee in recent years, Ward proudly represents the Town. His press conference was open to the public, in Oakland. His weigh-in was open to the public, in Oakland. His fight was right there in Oakland, hours after the A’s lost 4-0 to the Cubs.
If nasty knockouts are what you wanted, you would’ve gotten your fill by checking out the undercard. Each of the two fights that took place immediately before Ward’s ended in the first round. Before Maurice Hooker defended his NABO junior welterweight title by pelting Tyrone Barnett with blow after blow before the referee stopped the fight, Junior Younan (10-0, 8 KOs) knocked Jinner Guerrero (9-7, with the look of someone who had taken several shots to the face during his lifetime) unconscious, and Guerrero was on the canvas for several minutes before wobbling his way out of the ring. The most unsettling part was watching Guerrero on the scoreboard immediately after the knockout, eyes closed, head rocking back and forth rhythmically. Compared to Ward’s precision, the two fights that preceded his showed just how savage boxing can be.
One has to think Ward will never reach the same cruel fate as Guerrero, as he has been cautious throughout his career. Guerrero started his fight by rushing Younan into the corner and throwing several punches before getting knocked down, and then out, by a murderous left hand. Hopefully Guerrero recovers … and never fights again.
Afterward, Brand (who didn’t do much to push the action and clinched quite often) showed no respect to the local legend. Maybe he was bitter due to the paltry purse, but Dan Ambrose of Boxing News 24 seemed unimpressed as well.
“He has no power. No power. You’re going to knock him out,” said Brand to Kovalev when the two of them were interviewed by Fighthype after the fight last night.
If Ward can’t come up with more power and a higher work rate than what we saw last night against Brand, then I think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Kovalev will be too much for him. Kovalev is bigger, stronger, taller, and has a much higher work rate. If Ward is going to try and beat Kovalev by throwing pot shots all night long, it’s not going to work. Kovalev will out-land Ward by a wide margin. With Kovalev’s superior punching power, I don’t see how Ward can win. If Kovalev is out-landing Ward by a 4 to 1 margin all night long, it’s going to be an easy win for Kovalev.
There it is again — even among those closest to the sport, boxing writers and the actual boxers themselves, Ward’s style is often mocked. In a visceral sport, being a stand-up person with excellent technical skills isn’t enough for everyone if you don’t hand out and absorb physical punishment. That’s what makes the fight against Kovalev so fascinating: In his first pay-per-view bout, 550 miles away from home, Ward won’t be able to stay above the fray. Meaning we’ll either see Ward’s best or his worst.
Ward is a slight favorite over Kovalev, and it was pretty clear that the former used his fight over Brand as a tuneup. And with Kovalev watching, why unload every one of his tricks? The home crowd was excited enough just to watch their favorite boxer outclass another opponent, and wished him well before the biggest test of his career in Vegas.