ONTARIO, CA -- Andre Ward draws closer to assuming the aging Floyd Mayweather’s throne as the pound-for-pound king of boxing with each passing moment.
As a result of Ward’s recent dominant displays, HBO’s matchmakers have had as tough a job finding a viable opponent for the pride of Oakland as Darren McFadden’s agent currently has in negotiating a contract extension for his client.
It’s arguable that heavy-handed Edwin Rodriguez represents the super middleweight division’s last line of defense when he guns for Ward’s twin world championship belts Saturday at Ontario’s Citizens Business Bank Arena (HBO East, 7 p.m. PT; HBO West, 10 p.m.).
“I’ve prepared my mind and my body for battle,” the 29-year-old Ward said. “I got a hungry challenger; I’m a hungry champion, and those are ingredients for a tremendous fight.”
After impressively slamming Chad Dawson into submission over 10 rounds at Oracle Arena last year, Ward (26-0, 14 KOs) was on the fast track to another million-dollar payday against former middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik. But Ward, known as the “Son of God” for his devout Christian faith, found himself fighting his share of battles outside the ring in 2013.
“One thing I accepted a long time ago is that this is my story. This is part of my journey,” Ward said. “Floyd (Mayweather), Bernard (Hopkins), they’ve all had moments in their career where things happened, and they had to overcome … Not just injuries, but life. Stuff happens.”
In January, the bout with Pavlik was canceled when Ward underwent surgery to repair a small tear in his right shoulder.
[RELATED: Ward’s shoulder surgery a success]
“This was an old injury. I partially tore my rotator cuff 16, 17 years ago, and we just dealt with it,” Ward said. “I just had to build the muscles up around the rotator (cuff), and as the Pavlik fight was approaching, it got to the point where the doctor said, ‘OK, we need to go in there and fix it.’”
The summer brought more controversy as Ward tried to get out of his contract with Dan Goossen, but the fighter and longtime promoter reconciled after the California commission upheld the agreement.
[RELATED: Goossen wins arbitration dispute over Ward]
Even negotiations with Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KOs) stalled numerous times before the bout was finalized. In August, HBO offered $3.15 million for the broadcast rights, with the split of that pie to be determined by the fighters’ camps. Rodriguez balked at Ward’s initial offer of $800,000, but sources have informed CSNBayArea.com that the challenger will now receive a figure closer to the $1 million he was seeking.
To top it off, Ward will enter the arena this weekend without the presence of his WBC title because the sanctioning body stripped him for inactivity. Nonetheless, the East Bay star still remains the WBA, Ring Magazine, and lineal super middleweight world titles based on his quality of opposition defeated. Furthermore, he discovered a silver lining in his unsuccessful attempt to wade through the alphabet soup that has plagued the sweet science the past few decades.
[RELATED: WBC wrong to strip Ward of title]
“I thought I was hungry before this happened, but when something’s taken away from you against your will, and you’re reading things, and you’re around the sport, you can’t participate,” Ward said. “That’s either going to make you stronger or you’re going to fall by the wayside.”
Squashing the injury bug is nothing new to Ward, who once outdueled Carl Froch in 2011 with a broken left hand. Over his past nine years as a pro, “S.O.G” has also dealt with a surgically repaired right knee and a cut so deep over his right eyebrow that you could slide a quarter through it and pull out two dimes and a nickel.
This last layoff, however, has spanned 14 months -- the longest of Ward’s career. In response to skepticism that he would be 100 percent against Rodriguez, the champion revealed that the surgery and subsequent rest actually has rejuvenated his body.
“I’m able to do things with this right hand and I have power in this right hand that I never had before,” Ward said of his training camp in Hayward with longtime chief second Virgil Hunter.
If that assertion is true, Rodriguez will have another weapon to worry about. The 28-year-old hails from Worcester, Mass., but also has Bay Area ties; he spent the first portion of camp with nutritionist Victor Conte in San Carlos before concluding his preparation for the clash in Houston with trainer Ronnie Shields.
Saturday marks Rodriguez’s second fight with Conte following an explosive first-round knockout of the solid Denis Grachev in July. But Rodriguez, nicknamed “La Bomba” for his constant firepower, is untested against elite competition -- a fact that the sizable underdog readily admits.
“I understand that Andre Ward is at a whole different level, but I’ve shown that I’m ready for him with the way I beat the opponents that I have faced,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez possesses a five-inch reach advantage (76’’ to 71’’), but likely will need to excel on the inside where powerful punchers like Froch, Arthur Abraham, and Allan Green failed -- by sneaking the right cross and left hook through Ward’s wall of defense. A geometric genius, Ward is one of the best in the business at measuring distance, both to evade strikes as well as land his own.
Perhaps the gap in experience can be best explained via this statistic: Rodriguez has never seen the 12th round in his five years as a pro, while Ward has accomplished the feat six times.
“I understand that Andre Ward is undefeated, but so am I,” Rodriguez added. “He has to figure me out just as much as I got to figure him out. I’m not worried about all the hype. I’m ready, and it’s a week away. It’s on.”
The buildup to Saturday has been relatively civil, save that of Rodriguez’s allegation that Ward skirted a proposal for both fighters to submit to random drug testing under the supervision of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association.
“I’m not saying that Andre Ward is not a clean fighter,” Rodriguez said. “Not at all. I was just bringing it up because I had the chance to get it paid for (by Conte), and it wasn’t going to come out of his pocket.
“He’s a clean athlete. He’s always shown that. Then why not take (VADA testing)? Why would you say that you’re going to do it for other fights, but you’re not going to do it for this fight?”
Ward dismissed Rodriguez’s words and felt that his rival was grandstanding for the press.
“In negotiations, it’s simple,” Ward said. “Just like you negotiate for your money, if it’s something that you got a concern about or something you want to do, you don’t wait until you get in front of the media and try to pull some publicity stunt and try to look like, ‘I’m going to save boxing,’ and be the clean guy here.”
Based on the money and extensive coverage he’s received his past two fights, HBO is banking on Ward and his squeaky-clean image to be the sport’s next superstar. His skills are undeniable, but can he make the leap to crossover status and pay-per-view?
Manny Pacquiao did it by destroying legends with nonstop aggression and a smile. Mayweather reached that echelon with a finesse fighting style combined with a polarizing personality. Where does Ward think he fits in?
“I know boxing is in an era right now where if there's not blood and guts, it's not exciting -- quote on quote, exciting,” he said. “But this is a sport where I've been prepared and trained to be a master, and to take away my opponent's strengths and exploit their weaknesses, then getting home to my wife and kids.”
As Ward continues his pursuit of the pound-for-pound crown, what ultimately matters to him is winning.
“I don't know what type of fight you guys are looking for, and I can't even tell you how this fight is going to look,” Ward said. “But I can tell you that I've paid my dues in preparation for this fight to get my hand raised, and that's what's important.”
GONZALES, HIRSCH ON UNDERCARD
Before Ward and Rodriguez meet in the main event Saturday, a pair of local fighters will see action in separate bouts.
Sacramento’s Brandon Gonzales (17-0-1, 10 KOs), who has risen to No. 6 in the latest IBF super middleweight rankings, will face fellow unbeaten Jonathan Nelson (18-0, 8 KOs) of Little Rock, Ark. Gonzales is coming off a draw with Thomas Oosthuizen in June that most observers thought the NorCal fighter deserved to win.
[RELATED: Gonzales handed dubious draw with Oosthuizen]
In a scheduled six-round junior middleweight tilt, Oakland’s Tony Hirsch (14-6-2, 6 KOs) faces Palmdale’s DonYil Livingston (8-3-1, 4 KOs). Hirsch gave rising prospect John Jackson a spirited run in August before dropping a unanimous decision. Livingston is the cousin of Andre Ward.