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Chal­lengers line up for Andre Ward

Andre Ward was originally scheduled to defend his WBA, WBC and Ring Magazine super middleweight titles against Kelly Pavlik in Los Angeles on Jan. 26, but a shoulder injury suffered during a sparring session forced the Oakland native to postpone the bout.

Ward’s promoter, Dan Goossen, had his sights set on rescheduling the bout for either Feb. 23 or the first two weeks of March.

But the bout was ultimately cancelled after Ward (26-0, 14 KO) decided to undergo surgery to repair a small, but not severe tear in his right shoulder capsule. He will be sidelined for four to six months following surgery, but hopes to fight twice in 2013.

He said in a statement issued on Dec. 27 that when he had an MRI performed back in November, a lot of inflammation was discovered – but the first radiologist misread the MRI.

Pavlik’s manager, Cameron Dunkin, is now looking for a significant fight for the 30-year-old Pavlik, the former WBC, WBO and Ring Magazine middleweight champion.

Ward can still elect to fight Pavlik later this year, but should things not go as planned, he will want to keep his options open. He does not want to reduce himself to only one fight this year and allow other fighters to steal his thunder by racking up impressive wins.

With a few significant fights in the next few months, a few intriguing challenges exist for the 28-year-old Bay Area warrior. Here are four potential challenges that can further enhance Ward’s elite status as one of the sport’s best fighters:

The winner of Chad Dawson vs. Jean Pascal

If you’ve followed my recent coverage of Ward, you already know impressively he crushed universally recognized light heavyweight champion Dawson on Sept. 8. After the bout, Ward said a rematch with Dawson at his natural weight of 175 lbs. is a definite possibility. While boxing fans and observers may believe a rematch is unnecessary, both men have much to gain.

Dawson (31-2, 17 KO) is at a crossroads in his career. A loss to Pascal (27-2-1, 16 KO) on March 23 could ultimately spell the end. But by emphatically evening the score with Pascal — who broke Dawson’s undefeated record in August 2010 — Dawson would have enough incentive to avenge his loss to Ward.

If Ward duplicates his previous feat of impressively breaking Dawson down again – especially at light heavyweight – he will further cement what is rapidly becoming a hall-of-fame career.

Pascal, of course, has the most to gain from his rematch, because knocking off Dawson a second time could ultimately put him in the driver’s seat for a major showdown with Ward. Their respective fighting styles could produce an exciting scrap and, should Ward win, he will put many light heavyweights on notice.

Sergio Martínez

Martínez is the wildcard of this list because he would pose the greatest threat to Ward and his undefeated record. At age 37, Martínez (50-2-2, 28 KO) possesses a blistering combination of speed and power that Ward has yet to encounter.

Martínez’ left hand is a deadly punch that has put many fighters on the canvas, including Paul Williams in their November 2010 rematch that earned Martínez fighter of the year and knockout of the year honors.

The bout would be a rarity for boxing, bringing together two of the sport’s top pound-for-pound fighters, with Ward a spot or two ahead of Martínez.

The big question the bout poses is whether Martínez can hit – let alone, hurt – the 28-year-old Ward and possibly knock him down or even out. The other big question is whether Ward can disrupt Martínez’ rhythm and dominate him like he has his previous 26 opponents.

Weight may ultimately prevent this dream match from becoming reality since Martínez, who holds the WBC and Ring Magazine middleweight titles, is a natural junior middleweight. Ward, for his part, feels comfortable fighting at 168, though a jump to 175 is inevitable.

Weight issues aside, the bout would be a war of attrition and could result in the greatest victory of Ward’s career up to that point if he pulls off a massive upset.

Carl Froch

Ward established himself as the 168 lb. kingpin in December 2011 by defeating Froch (30-2, 22 KO) in dominant fashion in the finals of the Super Six World Boxing Classic. Froch has since rebounded with consecutive emphatic victories in 2012.

He returned home to Nottingham, England in May and produced a major upset by knocking out then-undefeated Lucian Bute in the fifth round to win the IBF super middleweight crown. He followed that up in dominant fashion in November by stopping Yusaf Mack in three rounds to cap off his first title defense. The Englishman and three-time world champion is even hungrier to avenge only his second professional loss.

Ward surprisingly ripped Froch and his promoter Eddie Hearn recently, stating that he believes both men are misleading the fans with how badly Froch wants a rematch. While Ward may still be heavily favored to emerge victorious, Froch’s back-to-back knockout wins could very well give him a strong chance to produce another upset.

Froch may be headed towards a title defense against Adonis Stevenson this spring, and turning in another impressive win will leave no doubt as to who deserves the next shot at Ward. Defeating Froch again would end Ward’s super middleweight campaign on a high note and open the door to bigger challenges at light heavyweight.

Mikkel Kessler

Ward made a splash at super middleweight by defeating the favored Kessler to win the WBA title in November 2009. Many were surprised at how easily Ward dominated Kessler, who prior to the fight was considered one of the best – if not, the best – super middleweight in the world.

Kessler (46-2, 35 KO) rebounded from the loss by defeating Froch in April 2010 to win the Englishman’s WBC title, but an eye injury suffered in the Ward bout forced him to withdraw from the tournament and relinquish his title.

Kessler has since stopped his three previous opponents in six rounds or less, including his brutal fourth-round knockout of former title contender Allan Green this past May.

Like Froch, Kessler’s recent string of wins give him a good chance to break Ward’s undefeated record. Aside from his eagerness to avenge his loss, what makes the rematch so compelling is the do or die situation Kessler would face.

Prior to his June 2011 bout with Mehdi Bouadla, Kessler said he would retire if he lost. Many in the sport questioned whether Kessler would return to the ring after his loss to Ward.

If Ward dominates him again – or even knocks him out – then there’s no doubt that Kessler’s time will be up for good.

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