At the highest level, as well at various other points along the curve, there is an obvious line of demarcation separating the sports observer from the sports participant. Most everyone enjoys athletic endeavors in one way or other, but if big time sports – any or all of them – were particularly easy, most everyone would give them their very best effort, and such effort would often be sufficient to win through. Instead of watching the NCAA Elite Eight or World Championship Boxing on an action-packed Saturday night in late March, broadcast bandwidth would be choked with an endless procession of club teams and pug fighters in rote or at least never especially scintillating matchups, far removed from the presence of legitimate excellence, not to mention any effort to define it. A motivated and/or especially ignorant cynic could easily assert that that is what boxing has become anyway, or, perhaps, has always been. After all, there’s a spontaneous bar fight just before last call every weekend in practically every major city in America. Those guys are giving it their all too, right? Neanderthals fought without gloves or corner men. It’s a tempting, provocative, purposely insulting position to take. The primal nature of boxing – of combat in general – may be what draws us in, but what goes on in the margins – the strategy, the motivation, the ebbs and flows of momentum and performance, the ability to adjust to, outwork, and even outwit an opponent after taking his best shot – separates it from reductive stereotype. In the corner between rounds four and five of his wide but still strangely compelling blowout of fringe contender Sullivan Barrera, Andre Ward received a barrage of rapid fire instructions from his trainer, Virgil Hunter, that, in the moment, turned my brain to soft putty as I tried to process them. Ward absorbed them placidly, just another several dozen GB of random data uploaded onto a supercomputer, then calmly rose from his stool and executed.
For the record, it’s important to state at this point of the analogy that, despite a flood of imitators in the market, there are few enough Virgil Hunters – eloquent, loquacious trainers with the power of real insight behind their words instead of mere motivational bluster – in the boxing world. That being said, there are far fewer Andre Wards – only one, in fact. That knowledge is shared equally by avid fans of the sport and by Andre himself, an Olympic gold medalist – actually the last American man to win gold, in 2004 – and former undisputed lineal champion at Super Middleweight who famously hasn’t lost a fight in going on nineteen years. A cynic refined from the model above would interject that it’s not difficult to maintain such a gaudy calling card when you’ve spent a five-year stretch of your prime fighting less than once per annum.* The figure to whom Ward is most often compared, in both terms of talent and temperament, is longtime pound-for-pound and pay-per-view kingpin Floyd Mayweather. That tends to happen in an individual sport where personal excellence stands out in stark contrast to a vast field of contenders. Only the former point – that of Ward’s talent – is valid to begin with, and, even then, only to a degree. Floyd, of course, was a once-in-a-generation defensive wizard who took the fighter’s mantra of “hit without getting hit” to heart like few in the sport’s history. Ward has the analytical mind plus all the reflexes and more to similarly avoid punishment, as he would again prove against Barrera, but is also of a mind to consistently engage his opponents. Floyd crafted a pervasive and complicated villainous persona in an effort to grow his notoriety, whereas the low-key but oft officious Ward – a churchgoing family man with the self-applied nickname “Son of God” – has to a degree been saddled with one by fans put off by his mercurial in-ring efforts. Where Floyd liked to brag about how he never reviewed film of his opponents, Ward routinely shifts like a chameleon into whatever guise will best counter and defeat them. Such a modus operandi requires both rare talent and fearsome commitment – qualities Ward and Mayweather unquestionably share – and while some will point to Floyd’s immutability as a supreme virtue, I would argue he also rarely had to think his way past opponents (Maidana I, Cotto or Canelo possibly, Castillo I) that could legitimately hurt him.
*Ward has now fought four times since 2012, and, over that period, succumbed/stepped into a succession of weird out-of-ring maladies and entanglements – incredibly timely injuries and resulting fight postponements, an ill-advised and ultimately futile attempt to rescind his contract with the now late promoter Dan Goossen (he would sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation once the dust finally settled) – when he wasn’t alternately tantalizing and frustrating the masses with his all-consuming perfectionism in and around the ring.
Despite his slim notoriety as one of that rare species of power-punching former Cuban amateurs, and position, since abdicated in favor of this fight and its superior payday, as a mandatory opponent for some alphabet belt or other, Sullivan Barrera never figured as much of a credible opponent. Instead, he was a trial horse for Ward’s first plunge into Light Heavyweight (175 lbs.) after years spent first cleaning out then lifeguarding the pool at Super Middleweight (168 lbs.). A career Light Heavy whose every punch carries malicious intent, Barrera was an unimaginative and insufficient stand-in for Ward’s preferred eventual foe, unified Russian titlist and walking nightmare Sergey Kovalev. Before a rapt and raucous crowd at Oakland’s Oracle Arena that contained, among its 10,000+, not only a preening Kovalev plus British star Amir Khan – on his way to an odd, possibility-filled May PPV date with Canelo Alvarez, and, for once, ceding the limelight – but retired NFL star Marshawn Lynch and defending NBA champions Steph Curry and Draymond Green, the hometown darling Ward utterly dismantled the pretender, knocking him down in the third, bruising both his spirits and his Netherlands with an eighth-round low blow, and roughing him up in general en route to a wide decision victory. Ward, who has, in the past, often further defied overt tactical comparison to Mayweather with his demonstrable preference for inside fighting, instead surprised by owning the middle distance, firing his jab into Barrera’s chest all night and scoring with heatseeking straight and overhand lefts. Ward, the very picture of surgical shiftiness at 168, stood flat-footed in front of Barrera for much of his debut fight at 175, controlling the fight with his jab and head movement, landing with left after left, and putting additional mustard on his punches from either hand, one of which, a left hook landing high on the side of Barrera’s head, floored the Cuban sandwich cleanly in round three. After Ward deigned to hit Barrera a fraction after the round four bell, referee Raul Caiz, Sr. seemed to pay him vigorous, somewhat excess attention, even taking away a point without warning after Ward’s withering body attack wandered just below the beltline in round eight**. The additional flavor in both the crowd and the ring lent some juice to a fight that, from Michael Buffer’s introductions on, was never in a moment’s doubt. The symbiotic combination of Ward’s ruthlessly economical prowess with Barrera’s game futility was reflected in the final statistics, in which Ward outlanded Barrera by over fifty punches despite throwing well over two-hundred fewer.
**”Apologize to the man,” entreated Caiz to Ward, in what, in the annals of sentiments ever uttered at a prize-fight, was pretty much a first for me. Caiz’s arguably under-provoked penalty whipped the Oracle crowd into a good-natured raspberry froth, where it would stay for the remainder of the night. At one point soon after, Caiz pulled Ward close as he explained to the ringside judges that the ugly cut on Ward’s right eyelid had been caused by an accidental headbutt, and audience reaction was so immediately vociferous that it fooled HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley into thinking the ref was again lecturing the fighter, this time on leading with his head. Boxing is a sport of passions, however inelegantly displayed.
The fight with Sergey Kovalev, if and when it is ever realized, looms as one of the two or three best and, to me, most desirable – the two aren’t always synonymous – fights that can currently be made in boxing. HBO commentator Max Kellerman went so far as to call it the best unequivocally, and, while I think that a potential Middleweight summit meeting between Kazakh destroyer Gennady Golovkin and Mexican thumper Saul “Canelo” Alvarez – both of whom have been covered in these pages before – would provide more potential fireworks, on purely aesthetic terms I can’t disagree with him. On the strength of a string of utterly crushing knockouts of former stars like Jean Pascal (twice!) and the great Bernard Hopkins, plus a buffet of undistinguished fringe contenders of the Cedric Agnew vintage, Kovelev has moved into the top five pound-for-pound rankings of most credible authorities, or else lurks just outside. (You go tell him to move, while I wait here.) Ward, of course, was a pound-for-pound mainstay who thrived while “The Krusher” was off building his case, and also the consensus successor to Floyd at #1 overall before his position finally paid the price for his recent inactivity. As it stands now, a fight between the two would be a fascinating style matchup, in that Kovalev is a sentient wrecking ball in perpetual search of his next condemned property and Ward a living, breathing, excelling testament to the idea that strength isn’t everything. Whereas Golovkin/Canelo would be explosive as long as it lasts – the former hits exceptionally hard and the latter in excellent combination, and their soft skills are about equally underrated – Ward/Kovalev presents more as a potential war of attrition, in which Ward’s reflexes, technique, and supreme tactics and Kovalev’s one-punch KO power might well neutralize one another like opposing elements should, leaving each fighter’s surviving gifts to tell the ultimate tale.
Think of standing in a ring with a monster across from you. You have advantages, but they’re subtle ones. You need to be prepared to run a thirty-six-minute gauntlet of punishment, not merely content to survive but desperate to win. Any move you make could potentially backfire, and, with this monster, any punch that lands could conceivably turn out your lights. What do you do? How can you possibly manage the fear, the adrenaline, and the gameplan, without one component weakening or, over time, poisoning the others? I don’t have the first clue, and that is how I know that high level boxers – your Ward, Golovkin, Roman Gonzalez, Terence Crawford, and dozens more – are exceptional. When every time you look up from your corner, taxed and exhausted, and there’s Sergey Kovalev, glaring at you, advancing toward you, what do you do? What do you think on the fly? Ward, even among students of the game, is that rare fighter who is just as cerebral as he is physical. One aspect isn’t subjugated to the other, or subsumed by it, but, rather, they work in an exquisite sort of concert. That might not be obvious to the aforementioned cynic or the distracted layperson, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive in action. The more I think of the (still) potential matchup – Ward, as could be expected, wants another tune-up to adjust to both the weight and Kovalev’s singular matchup difficulties – the giddier with anticipation I get.
A word, then, in closing, about HBO Boxing, and the gulf separating its coverage of the sport from the several others currently at play in a wildly expanding environment. This weekend alone brought offerings from the three established leaders in televised boxing – HBO, Showtime, and Premier Boxing Champions. I looked greatly forward to one, skimmed another and rewound the knockouts, and, as of this writing, haven’t yet gotten to the third. No points for guessing which entities I’m talking about, or, rather, in what order. You did just finish reading this fight recap after all. HBO and Showtime have been locked in mortal combat for so long, each chafing against the other and pushing the other ever forward, that it’s been actively depressing to see how, now a year into its existence, Al Haymon’s PBC has, by virtue of its delicate shared connections and problematic broadcast philosophy, so degraded Showtime’s position within the fight game. All three organizations present professional-looking, broadly similar telecasts. With its limited fight schedule and smaller talent pool, each necessarily reduced so that business partner Haymon can present more events on broadcast television, Showtime is squandering its boxing assets – namely solid to great commentators like Al Bernstein and former Welterweight titlist Paulie Malignaggi – and providing inferior value for its subscribers. This would almost be worth it if the PBC presented a noticeably superior product for free, but what quality the viewer receives is frustratingly limited, and depends not merely on the matchmaking but on the network. The PBC is currently spread over four different, ostensibly competing broadcast platforms – CBS, NBC/NBCSN, Spike TV, and ESPN, where it usurped the venerable Friday Night Fights series for precious little return.
Each PBC network carries its own announcing team, slightly tweaked format, and inferiority complex. Given that Haymon is applying messy, incomplete, counterintuitive or even contradictory pseudo-collectivist thinking to a sport that thrives on individual excellence, it’s no surprise to find each broadcast lacking in one area or another, be it insight, professionalism, or simple identity. As long as two combatants engage one another with ill intentions, there will still be great fights to be found on PBC – I rather enjoy the Spike and ESPN broadcasts overall, not that there have been (m)any in 2016 – but there’s little use in denying that Haymon’s market saturation philosophy has seriously diluted the product. Moreover, because it comes from a standpoint of making boxing both available and accessible to the masses, I find that PBC announcing is often lazy to the point of distraction, though this only becomes noticeable when held in direct comparison with its pay cable competitors, particularly HBO. Home Box Office has been broadcasting professional boxing for longer than I’ve been alive, and remains the industry gold standard, not least because its expert commentators are actually, appreciably, experts. Blow-by-blow man par excellence Jim Lampley is a deserving member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, as will be expert analyst and former pound-for-pound king Roy Jones, Jr. when and if he ever decides to stop fighting no-hope opponents on obscure, Jim Ross-called hybrid pay-per-views. Commentator Max Kellerman displays with great facility what seems to me an impressive, near-encyclopedic knowledge of a sport that is now over 125 years in age. Though this wasn’t always the case, there is no weak link on HBO’s A-Team.
Indeed, HBO’s boxing coverage in general is a superb example of what sports commentary should, in my opinion, aspire to but rarely ever does. It is lively, it is engaged, and it probes. It rolls with the punches instead of just calling them. It both captures and evolves in the moment, and is made by people who demonstrably know more about the sport than we at home might, or, in many cases, do. Rather than reciting trunk colors and rehashing personal bios/anecdotal details, Lampley dives headfirst into the fray, calling more legitimate action in more different ways over the course of a single round than his peers might in the (same) entire match. He and Kellerman do a magnificent job of continually providing context, be it momentary or historic. Jones has been getting hit professionally for twenty-seven years and counting, so he occasionally stumbles over his words, but his insight is often truly insightful, and he has grown into an ace, increasingly fluid, largely egoless, analyst. The real difference is that I know any number of boxing fans, and some innocent bystanders, who are probably competent enough to snag a broadcast role on PBC. I’ll throw my own hat into the ring right now. I know I’m not getting hired at HBO any time soon, however, because I’m simply not strong or versed enough as either a commentator or a student of boxing. I’m at peace with the decision. These sorts of standards are fortunate for fans who care enough to expect (and demand) more than just a vaguely ineffectual soundtrack to a car crash. HBO has been guilty of histrionics in the past, but its craft, care, and commitment is almost single-handedly keeping my love of boxing alive right now. One of the three Saturday broadcasts I devoured, and rewound, and wrote about. The other two I’ve already largely forgotten, because HBO knows not merely that boxing still excites us, but why, and remembers that the devil is in the details. HBO Boxing and Andre Ward were made for each other.