Andre Ward cruises past Barrera in light heavyweight debut

Former super middleweight champion Andre Ward returned home Saturday night and added another hard-fought victory under his belt.

Making his light heavyweight debut, Ward – the former unified WBC and WBA 168-lb. champ – defeated Sullivan Barrera of Cuba in the main event of HBO’s World Championship Boxing telecast in front of 8,532 fans, including Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, at Oracle Arena in Ward’s hometown of Oakland.

The official ringside judges scored the bout 117-109, 119-109 and 117-108 – all in favor of Ward.

SFBay also scored the bout 117-109 in Ward’s favor.

Ward (29-0, 15 KOs) landed clean, effective punches throughout the entertaining 12-round scrap, tagging Barrera with sharp two-punch combinations and blistering left hooks.

He also knocked Barrera off balance with a counter left hook and seconds later, dropped Barrera with another pinpoint counter left – much to the delight of the Oakland faithful in attendance.

Ward told SFBay that he felt simply blessed to perform once again in front of his hometown:

“Man, I was blessed to see the people come out tonight and that came out for the weigh-in. It’s interesting, they keep saying we ain’t got a fan base, but I don’t know about that.”

The pro-Ward crowd was in full effect Saturday night, constantly rallying behind their fighter by breaking out into loud chants of “S.O.G.!” – referring to Ward’s nickname, “Son of God.”

Ward said that as exciting it is to hear the roar of the hometown crowd, fighting at home is not an easy task:

“I’m walking to the ring, I’m seeing cousins and uncles and friends. But I have to actually stay in the moment and I can’t get caught up. I have to go perform because I’m trying to send everyone home happy. Even when they’re chanting your name, part of you wants to step on the gas, but it may not be time to step on the gas. It’s tricky, it’s a fine line when you’re fighting at home. But at the end of the day, you want to get that good performance and you want to get that win.”

Ward appeared to drop Barrera again with a left hook to the body in the eighth round, but the shot landed low and referee Raul Caiz Sr. ruled it a low blow before deducting a point from Ward.

When asked about the situation, Ward acknowledged Caiz Sr. as a great official, but noted that he was not issued a proper warning.

Despite the point deduction, Ward stepped up his attack in the later rounds, clipping Barrera with more pinpoint combinations and briefly stunning him with a sizzling left-right combination that punctuated the 12th round.

Ward – a 2004 Olympic gold medalist – landed 166 out of 463 punches thrown (36 percent), while Barrera only landed 15 percent (111 out of 722).

Despite losing by wide margins and having the lesser punch connect percentage, Barrera (17-1, 12 KOs) presented himself as a tougher challenge than many may have expected – resulting in the roughest bout of Ward’s career in recent years.

Barrera – a 34-year-old Cuban amateur standout who defected and now lives in Miami – knocked some sweat off of Ward’s head with his left jab and also clipped Ward with a straight right hand while Ward was backed up against the ropes during the second round.

He also landed his fair share of punches to head and body whenever he backed Ward up against the ropes, though a few of them lacked the sting necessary to put Ward in any serious trouble.

Barrera acknowledged Ward as a great champion after the fight and said that if he could fight Ward again, he would work on improving his speed.

Abel Sanchez, Barrera’s trainer said he wasn’t ashamed of Barrera’s performance:

“Seventeen fights into a pro career, it’s a tough task to fight a guy like (Andre Ward). But we’ll go back to the gym, start training probably in another month. Hopefully HBO or (his promoter) Main Events can put something together for him because I think he deserves it.”

Though he gave himself a B- based on his performance, Ward said he enjoyed fighting as a full-fledged light heavyweight for the first time because he physically demonstrated why he’s strong enough to compete in the 175 lb. division:

“We showed the pop in this weight class. We just want to keep sharpening things up offensively and defensively.”

Ward’s victory moves him a step closer towards a contracted Nov. 19 world title showdown with unified light heavyweight champion – and feared Russian knockout artist – Sergey Kovalev.

Sanchez said he believes Ward wouldn’t fare well against Kovalev based on his performance against Barrera.

Ward, however, had a different opinion about the fight:

“I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years, so just like I’ve faced every other challenge, I will face the Kovalev challenge the same way. There’s no fear on my end. I don’t fear anybody. I respect fighters. He’s a great fighter and he’s done some things that people haven’t done. He’s won on the road and you have to respect that. But I don’t look at it like how you guys may look at it in terms of, ‘Oh my God, he’s knocking guys out!’ I just don’t look at it like that because if I looked at it like that, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

The Barrera fight – which was an IBF light heavyweight eliminator – marked Ward’s seventh time competing in front of his hometown and 11th-overall in the Bay Area.

The bout was also only his fourth since dominating Carl Froch in December 2011 to unify the WBA and WBC super middleweight titles and win Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic.

Following victories over Chad Dawson in September 2012 and Edwin Rodriguez in November 2013, Ward found himself in promotional and legal disputes with his late longtime promoter Dan Goossen before Goossen’s unexpected passing in October 2014.

Ward eventually signed with Roc Nation Sports last January and in his first fight under them, ended a 19-month layoff by bloodying and dismantling Paul Smith Jr. at Oracle last June en route to a ninth-round technical knockout.

Ward’s inactivity prior to the Smith fight ultimately resulted in him being stripped of his Ring Magazine super middleweight championship and dropped from the top ten rankings at 168 lbs.

Having moved up in weight and racked up two victories under his new promoter, Ward is still motivated to regain his number one spot and reemerge among the pond-for-pound elite:

“I’m trying to get to a position where I leave no doubt, because right now it’s an argument. They can throw the layoffs at me and they may have an argument with that. They can throw the inconsistency and it’s hard to argue with that. But my motivation is to leave it to where there’s no doubt, where they can’t take the number one spot.”