LAS VEGAS – Andre Ward wants to be called the best fighter in the world. Adonis Stevenson wants recognition as the king of the 175-pound division.
There’s an easy way for both to earn it.
No sport spins forward faster than boxing. A fighter can’t make it five minutes after having his hand raised before he is asked when he will be in the ring again. So there was Ward, minutes after a decisive win over Sergey Kovalev, still basking in the biggest win of his professional career, being asked about his future.
“Maybe cruiserweight,” Ward said. “I don’t know. I always wanted to fight heavyweight, but it has to be the right guy.”
Cruiserweight? Quick, name the top-five guys in that division. Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Heavyweight? Ward’s trainer, Virgil Hunter, suggested Ward-Anthony Joshua could be in the cards.
“A lot of people would say that’s suicide,” Hunter said.
That’s right, Virgil: It is.
Ward is a light heavyweight, a well-constructed 175-pounder. He now has two wins over the once-unquestioned kingpin of the division, and while there was controversy in both — the first a highly disputed decision, the second amid complaints of a handful of well-placed low blows — Ward’s record remains spotless and three belts are wrapped around his waist.
What Ward needs now: Momentum. Activity has been Ward’s biggest enemy. When he’s in the ring, he’s brilliant. He outclassed a star-studded field in the Super Six. He dominated then-light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson. But a battle with his former promoter robbed him of a couple of prime years, opening the door for others — Kovalev, Gennady Golovkin — to take his place as an HBO mainstay.
The situation now is familiar. Ward is fresh off a career-defining win. He needs an opponent. Fortunately, a high-profile one is there for him.
Ward needs Stevenson. Stevenson needs Ward more. Four years ago, Stevenson was a star. He had a banner 2013, posting four wins, including impressive knockouts of Dawson and Tony Bellew. Since then, he has gone into hiding. He has become irrelevant. He has defended his title against a collection of nobodies. Ring Magazine — the unofficial overseer of boxing’s linear title — stripped Stevenson of his claim.
This should be easy. Of course, nothing in boxing is. Ward was asked about Stevenson during fight week. He didn’t sound enthusiastic.
“I don’t know if he’s serious [about fighting me] or not,” Ward said “I don’t know. I think, honestly, he’s got a lot of pressure on him to make some moves. I think you guys have, rightfully so, put pressure on him. So I think now he’s kind of feeling like, ‘Alright, I’ve gotta make a move.’ He’s not a spring chicken, either. He’s kind of up there in age, so he’s got to make some moves.”
It’s true: Stevenson is 39 — 40 in September. He has not fought a well-known opponent since beating Dawson. He needs this. But Stevenson is affiliated with — though not contractually tied to — Showtime; Ward fights on HBO. Ward is promoted by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, which has a checkered history with Stevenson’s manager, Al Haymon.
So there are problems. But if both sides are smart, they can be resolved — and quickly. There is upside for both. If Ward wins, he’s the Fighter of the Year, in line for all the accolades he craves. If Stevenson wins, he’s relevant again, in line for a rematch or a long-discussed showdown with Kovalev.
Equally important: There is nothing else for either. The light heavyweight division is top-heavy. Nathan Cleverly has already been flattened by Kovalev. Badou Jack is untested at 175. Artur Beterbiev and Eleider Alvarez are largely unknown. Ward-Stevenson is probably an HBO fight — please, God, let it be an HBO fight — but it would produce the type of purse neither could get elsewhere.
Ward left a press conference at Mandalay Bay on Saturday amid a swarm of cameras. He earned it. He’s the best fighter in boxing, a distinction impossible to argue with. He said he plans to take a vacation, though hopefully not a long one. Ward-Stevenson looms as the next big fight in the light heavyweight division. And for both fighters, it’s the only one that makes any sense.