In December, light heavyweight Sullivan Barrera scored the most notable win of his professional career as he impressively notched a fifth-round knockout of former world title challenger Karo Murat, who had gone the distance with then-titleholder Bernard Hopkins in a 2013 loss.
Other than a fourth-round knockout of a badly faded former super middleweight titleholder Jeff Lacy in January 2015, Barrera's resume does not show much. But the reason he is a very respected contender is because of his tremendous amateur career, during which he went 285-27 as a member of the Cuban national team and beat significant opponents such as Chad Dawson and Beibut Shumenov.
The win against Murat came in a world title eliminator that put Barrera in a mandatory position to challenge unified titleholder Sergey Kovalev, a fight that would have been a snap to make because Kovalev and Barrera are both promoted by Main Events. However, Barrera was not going to get the title shot right away because Kovalev had other obligations first.
Barrera could have waited, perhaps taken a soft fight or two to retain his position, and gotten a guaranteed shot at Kovalev or whoever held the belt when the mandatory bout was due.
But Barrera did not want to wait. After a long amateur career, the 34-year-old Miami, Florida-based defector knows time is of the essence if he wants to do great things in the ring.
So what did Barrera do? Something unheard of.
Using social media, he repeatedly called out former super middleweight champion Andre Ward, who has been very inactive in recent years but who is indisputably one of the most talented fighters in the world. He was a 2004 Olympic gold medalist and has barely lost rounds as a pro while winning two world title belts and wiping out several elite opponents, including Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, Mikkel Kessler and Dawson. In fact, Ward has not lost since an amateur bout when he was 12.
"If I don't win this fight, there's nothing down the road. If I don't win this fight, I don't deserve to fight for the title. That's the reality of my situation."Andre Ward
But with Ward moving up to light heavyweight on his way to a fight that has already been contracted against Kovalev -- target date Nov. 19 on HBO PPV -- he needed a quality opponent for his first fight at 175 pounds.
Barrera (17-0, 12 KOs) made it well-known that he wanted to be the guy and he got what he wanted -- a title eliminator against Ward on Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET/PT) at the Oracle Arena in Ward's hometown of Oakland, California.
"One of the main reasons that I targeted him was because he is considered one of the top three or four fighters in the world," Barrera said through translator Abel Sanchez, his trainer. "I admire him a lot. He's a great talent. I love what he's done. But I also consider myself a great talent and I also consider myself one of the best fighters in the world. And this opportunity is something that will prove to the world that I am at the top."
Sanchez was happy to see Barrera's intense desire to fight Ward (28-0, 15 KOs), 32, rather than having him sit around waiting for a title shot that was probably a year away.
"As a coach you're excited because your guy really wants to go at the best. That's something that's consistently a topic in the gym, and to have him put it out like that on social media -- I want to have a guy that wants to go to fight, wants to go get his and become the star that everybody else is around you," said Sanchez, the 2015 Boxing Writers Association of America trainer of the year, mainly for his work with middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin.
In the 10-round co-feature, 23-year-old featherweight prospect Joseph Diaz Jr. (19-0, 11 KOs), a 2012 U.S. Olympian from South El Monte, California, steps up in competition against Puerto Rico's Jayson Velez (23-1-1, 16 KOs), 28, a former world title challenger. As confident as Barrera is in himself, his team is also.
"Sullivan has done everything to prepare himself for this event," trainer Ben Lira said. "He knows the challenges in front of him, but he believes in himself and he believes that this is his time to show the public and the viewing audience that this is where he is. He is there to make a statement."
A Barrera win would be an enormous upset and would destroy the plans for Kovalev-Ward. That puts Main Events in the unusual position of wanting to see Barrera perform well against Ward but also knowing that if he wins it will wreck a multi-million dollar fight for Kovalev, its most important client, and the company.
"He's a great talent. I love what he's done. But I also consider myself a great talent and I also consider myself one of the best fighters in the world. And this opportunity is something that will prove to the world that I am at the top."Sullivan Barrera
Main Events' vice president Nicole Duva addressed the company's weird position at this week's final news conference.
"(Barrera) could have sat back and waited for his title fight, but instead he saw this fight against Andre Ward as an opportunity to really reach for greatness and he did that," Duva said. "As you all know, Main Events and Roc Nation Sports have big plans for Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev later this year and Sullivan Barrera can really upset that apple cart.
"Both of these men, Sullivan and Andre, have everything riding on the outcome of Saturday's fight. In the climate that we have in boxing right now, it's refreshing to see real warriors who aren't afraid to take risks. They both deserve our respect and admiration for that. This is what our sport should be about. ... (Barrera) lost several years of his prime while he was defecting to the United States. He's come a really long way to be here today for this moment and this opportunity. He is hungry, he is confident and he is ready."
Since easily outpointing Froch to unify super middleweight belts and win the Super Six World Boxing Classic in December 2011, Ward has only fought three times, mainly because of a lengthy contract dispute with his late former promoter Dan Goossen as well as injuries.
He will be fighting in a new weight class, is coming off a nine-month layoff, has not faced a top opponent since knocking out Dawson in 2012 and might be looking ahead to the big one against Kovalev.
Barrera believes he just might be catching Ward at the right time.
"I think that I'm getting him at the right moment not only because he's moving up," Barrera said. "He didn't say anything about the inactivity. So it's a perfect time for me to prepare for the future."
But Ward said that he is as focused as ever and looking forward to finally getting back in the ring.
"Barrera is a big body. He's confident. Seems to be a good puncher," Ward said. "We did not pick him because he's a soft touch. We picked him because he was going to get me ready and show me what this weight class is all about.
"If you look at my career, there's a place for tune-ups. which I haven't had a lot of. You want to fight the best and if you aren't fighting the best, you want to fight the No. 1 contender. That's what we're doing."