“No one really believes I can win this fight,” said Andre Ward before his fight Saturday against WBA champion Mikkel Kessler – the man widely regarded to be the best super middleweight in the world. “Some people are picking me, but really most people think he’s going to win. I expect a very, very tough fight and I expect to see the very best Mikkel Kessler.”
After his performance Saturday night before 10,277 partisan fans at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, it’s a good bet nobody will be doubting Ward (21-1, 13 KOs) again, as the 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist dominated Kessler (42-2, 31 KOs) in a stunningly one-sided affair to capture the WBA super middleweight title and position himself as the favorite for the SHOWTIME Super Six World Boxing Classic. Ward won by technical decision after the contest was stopped in the eleventh round due to a cuts over Kessler’s eyes which were caused by accidental head butts, by scores of 97-93, 98-92 and 98-92.
Kessler, a longtime champion whose only loss was a competitive decision in 2007 against pound-for-pound entrant Joe Calzaghe, was expected by many to be too experienced and too skilled for the still-developing Ward, but the youngster from Oakland was in control from the opening bell. Ward sprung out of his corner in round one, announcing his intentions with a lead left hook that narrowly missed the mark. Ward quickly settled in to a pattern of jabbing Kessler then darting out of the way when Kessler tried to counter. In round two, Ward began to time Kessler coming in, catching the Dane with left hooks and straight right hands while keeping Kessler from settling into a rhythm with good lateral movement and effective feints.
Ward continued his pattern of starting aggressively in the third round, opening with an effective right hook, left uppercut, right hook, combination that broke through Kessler’s guard. Ward also caught Kessler early in the round with his head, a harbinger of things to come for the besieged champion. Kessler looked slow and confused in response, appearing to want to set his feet before firing but unable to do so due to Ward’s moves and feints. Ward also changed stances at various stages of the fight, further befuddling the champion.
The fourth round found Kessler landing his best punch of the fight at that point, a left hook that caught Ward off-balance, but the young Olympian quickly countered with a thunderous straight right hand that sent a roar through the crowd. Kessler also suffered a small abrasion under his right eye during the assault, the first of several that would leave the Dane’s face a bloody mess.
The pattern continued in the middle rounds, with Ward simply able to get off faster than the champion, who was still fighting aggressively, but overmatched this night. Midway through the seventh, Kessler whiffed with a sweeping left hook over the head of Ward, and appeared to pause for a moment as if in resignation. Adding insult to injury, Ward’s accidental head butts in the eighth and tenth rounds opened cuts over Kessler’s left and right eye, respectively, further punctuating the Ward blowout.
In the eleventh, a lead right snapped Kessler’s head back and prompted referee Jack Reiss to consult with the ringside physician, who told the referee that Kessler was unable to continue due to the cuts.. Because the cuts that produced the stoppage at 1:42 of the round were due to an accidental head butt, the fight went to the scorecards.
“I just felt like it was my time, and I wasn’t intimidated by Kessler’s record because I knew that God was with me,” Ward said immediately after the fight. “We fought the best in the world tonight. We fought the guy a lot of people thought would win the tournament. People thought I got a bad draw and we told everybody that no, this was the right draw.”
Ward also commented about the one-sided nature of the bout. “I was surprised he didn’t make any adjustments, he was kind of doing the same thing over and over.”
For his part, Kessler believed, perhaps naively considering how well Ward fought, that his flat performance was largely due to a dirty performance by Ward.
“I’m not used to the referee allowing so much holding, every time I got in close he head-butted me,” said Kessler, who told his corner in the middle rounds that he couldn’t see because of the butts and cuts. “I think it was unfair with the head butts and the holding and the home referee.”
Even Kessler acknowledged, though, that there was more to Ward’s performance than just a hometown referee. “He was very fast. I cannot go straight forward, I have to go to the sides more,” admitted Kessler. “I have to look at how the fight went on and see what I can do better and see if I still got it.”
With the victory, Ward earns two points to join Arthur Abraham (three points) and Carl Froch (two points) in the winners table at the end of Group Stage One of the Super Six Tournament. Ward is scheduled to face Jermain Taylor next spring in Group Stage Two, possibly again in Oakland according to Ward’s promoter Dan Goossen, while Kessler must quickly regroup to face WBC super middleweight champion Carl Froch, also sometime next spring. — By David Robinett