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Andre Ward to debut as light heavyweight vs. Sullivan Barrera

Former super middleweight world champion Andre Ward already has a deal in place to challenge fearsome unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev in a fall HBO PPV main event, but he has other business to attend to first.

Eleven days after sitting ringside in Montreal to watch Kovalev defeat former light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal by seventh-round knockout in the first of two supposed warm-up bouts, Ward made it official that he will face Sullivan Barrera in a scheduled 12-round fight on March 26 (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET/PT) at Oracle Arena in Ward's hometown of Oakland, California.

The bout was finalized after an agonizing, nearly two-month process and announced by Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports on Tuesday night. It will represent Ward's first fight as a full-fledged light heavyweight.

Barrera (17-0, 12 KOs), annoyed at the snail's pace it took to make the fight, repeatedly taunted Ward on social media. Ward took exception.

"I don't really have much to say other than this: On March 26, it will be very simple. I'll be in a new weight class against a tough opponent, but I'm coming with the same approach," said Ward, who vacated his super middleweight title late last year. "I'll be in great shape and ready for battle. Sullivan Barrera has had a lot to say lately, and I love it. He's going to have an opportunity to back up every word that he has spoken. These are the type of challenges I like, and on March 26, it's go time."

Ward (28-0, 15 KOs), 31, has fought only three times since the end of 2011, mainly because of a battle over his promotional contract with the late Dan Goossen, a contract whose validity was upheld time and again. He signed with Roc Nation Sports after making a deal for his release following Goossen's death in September 2014. Ward returned from a 19-month layoff last June and knocked out former two-time super middleweight title challenger Paul Smith in the ninth round.

Ward was supposed to make his 175-pound debut against Alexander Brand on Nov. 21 in the co-feature on the Canelo Alvarez-Miguel Cotto pay-per-view card, but Ward pulled out of the bout because of swelling and soreness in his right knee.

That fight was supposed to be Ward's first bout of a three-fight deal with HBO. However, because the fight was canceled, Ward's team and HBO have battled over whether the March 26 fight is the first fight of the deal or the second. HBO's position was that March 26 is the second and that the third fight should be the one against Kovalev. Ward's position is that since the November bout did not happen, March 26 should be the first fight, and he should get a second fight, and the accompanying seven-figure payday, before facing Kovalev.

That debate was one of the reasons the fight with Barrera took so long to finalize. However, it remains to be seen whether Ward will get another interim bout or go directly to a fall fight with Kovalev (29-0-1, 26 KOs), provided he defeats Barrera. Kovalev is due to fight again in June.

If HBO does give Ward another fight before Kovalev, it would mean Ward would fight three times in 2016 after having fought only three times between 2012 and 2015. The last time Ward boxed three times in a calendar year was 2009, before he won his first world title.

Barrera, 33, a Cuban defector living in Miami, is trained by Abel Sanchez, the 2015 Boxing Writers Association trainer of the year. He is not concerned with Ward's HBO deal or his possible fight with Kovalev. He has the fight he wants.

Barrera would have gotten a mandatory title shot against Kovalev, his Main Events stablemate, because he knocked out Karo Murat in the fifth round on Dec. 12 in a title elimination fight.

However, with the Kovalev fight unlikely to happen until at least the summer, Barrera opted for the challenge of facing Ward, a 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medalist who has not lost a fight since he was a 12-year-old amateur.

"We as a team had a tough choice to make -- crash the party by taking out Ward first or wait for the mandatory and take out Kovalev," said Barrera, who was a star amateur for the Cuban national team, going 285-27. "We decided that the time is now. Ward will fall first, and then we will go after the belts."

Said David Itskowitch, COO of Roc Nation Sports' boxing division: "With both fighters having their sights set on an eventual showdown with unified light heavyweight world champion Sergey Kovalev, there's a lot on the line in this fight, but only one man will move on."