For 12 monotonous rounds, light heavyweight contender Andre Ward toyed with the painfully slow and overmatched Alexander Brand en route to a shutout decision on Saturday night in a fight every bit the overwhelming mismatch most expected — but at least it set up one of the most significant and fascinating fights in boxing.
Ward, fighting before a hometown crowd of 8,653 at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, won every second of fight in a 120-108 rout on all three scorecards.
It was the final step to a long-awaited showdown with unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev, whom he will meet Nov. 19 on HBO PPV, probably at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, in a fight that has been signed for months. However, Kovalev (30-0-1, 26 KOs) and Ward (30-0, 15 KO) had to successfully navigate interim bouts to seal the deal.
In a Russian homecoming defense on July 11, Kovalev, 33, did his part as he retained his 175-pound world title for the eighth time. He scored a seventh-round knockdown and rolled to a one-sided unanimous decision against top-10 contender Isaac Chilemba.
And then Ward, 32, the former super middleweight world champion in his second fight since making the move to 175 pounds, took apart Brand, who was as big of an underdog as has ever been seen. According to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, Ward was a -10,000 favorite, meaning somebody would have to bet $10,000 on Ward to win just $100.
The fighters' purses also made it clear who was supposed to win. Ward made $850,000, and Brand made a measly $30,000, probably the lowest for an HBO-televised main event ever.
Ward made Brand, who got the fight only after at least three others turned it down, look like as big of an underdog as advertised. Ward poked him with hard jabs throughout the fight, confused him when he switched to southpaw in the fifth round and hurt him with right hands to the body.
Brand (25-2, 19 KOs), in the meantime, did virtually nothing other than back up, grab, hold and look for a way to survive for 12 rounds.
One of Ward's stinging jabs opened a cut on Brand's left eyelid in the seventh round. But before and after the cut Brand never showed any urgency. Ward, 32, at least appeared to be going for a knockout in the later rounds, but Brand, 39, a former amateur standout from Colombia, has a reputation for having an excellent chin.
"We knew this guy was going to be really, really hard to knock out. He's a veteran," said Ward, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist who was boxing on the day that the 2012 Olympic tournament began in Rio de Janeiro. "People got to realize that when a guy with experience doesn't want to get knocked out it's hard and he's throwing punches from crazy angles and has got nothing to lose. So I tried to press it. Didn't get it. But it's good to get the rounds."
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Ward landed 190 of 490 blows (39 percent), and Brand landed only 45 of 285 (16 percent). Brand never had a round in which he landed double-digit punches and he landed only two in the second and fourth rounds and just one of 20 punches in the 11th round.
When the fight was over, Ward and Kovalev, who had watched at ringside, shook hands in the ring to formally announce their fight in an HBO interview with Max Kellerman.
"I'm excited. I'm looking forward to it," Ward said. "I want to be the light heavyweight champion of the world. I had to get past this step. He had to get past his step. I'll see you in November."
Said Kovalev when asked about the fight: "Of course, I'm ready. He's ready. I'm ready, too. I want to say let's do this Nov. 19."
Ward, who was reluctant to speak about the Kovalev fight despite being asked about it constantly going into his tune-up match with Brand, showed immense respect for his next opponent.
"You got to respect Sergey for the way he's gotten to where he's got," Ward said. "He hasn't had soft touches. He wasn't protected. And he wasn't really pushed by the media. He's a guy who should get more credit than he has. The winner of the fight could possibly be pound-for-pound [No. 1]."
With Kovalev and Ward already top-five stalwarts on virtually every pound-for-pound list, many believe the winner of their toss-up showdown will earn recognition as the best fighter in the world, which is one of the reasons so many have been looking forward to it. The same could not be said for Ward-Brand.