- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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After Andre Ward won the Super Six World Boxing Classic by taking apart Carl Froch to unify super middleweight titles in December 2011, his stock had never been higher.
Ward was so impressive and so dominant in wiping out the field in the tournament, during which he barely lost any rounds against a series of elite opponents, that he rose to No. 2 on most pound-for-pound lists, behind only the great Floyd Mayweather Jr.
And then, well ... nothing. Ward has fought only once since.
He suffered a fractured hand in the days before the fight with Froch -- making the victory even more impressive, given that he fought with the damage and still won easily. But between the injury, his desire to take some time off during his wife's pregnancy, the birth of the baby and his move from Showtime to HBO, Ward didn't fight again until September 2012.
When Ward finally returned, he was even more impressive than he had been against Froch, destroying then-light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson, who had dropped down in weight for the fight. Not known as a big puncher, Ward scored three knockdowns en route to a masterful 10th-round knockout. Once again, Ward's stock was sky-high.
And then, well ... nothing.
Ward was due to return in January to defend his title against former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, but he tore his right shoulder in a November sparring session, eventually forcing him out of the fight and under the knife.
He had surgery to repair the shoulder and spent months rehabbing, anxious to get back in the ring. After a 14-month layoff, that return will finally happen when Ward faces Edwin Rodriguez on Saturday night (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif.
"I have had a year of setbacks, a year of a mountain that I had to climb to get to this point, and that made me hungry," Ward said. "I thought I was hungry before the injury, but I'm famished right now. I'm ready to get at it."
Said promoter Dan Goossen: "I guess the same type of questions are out there when people are discussing Kobe Bryant and how he's going to come back. There's always that question: Will he come back stronger or will the surgery prevent them from being at the levels that they've gone to before? The one constant I've seen since Andre got back into the gym is his determination to being great again. We're all going to find out on [Saturday] whether or not we believe he's still worthy of that No. 2 pound-for-pound title."
Although Ward (26-0, 13 KOs), 29, of Oakland, Calif., has heard people question whether he will be the same after the layoff and serious injury, he said he isn't worried and has every intention of continuing his unbeaten run.
Ward, who won the 2004 Olympic light heavyweight gold medal -- the only American man to win Olympic boxing gold since David Reid in 1996 -- has not lost a fight since he was a 12-year-old amateur.
"Me and my team, and me specifically, I don't get caught up in the 'Is he going to be the same? Is he not going to be same?' I know where I'm at and I know what I got, and I'm better than I was before I left," said Ward, who will be making his sixth title defense. "I'm just excited to display that against Edwin Rodriguez. He's not some guy that should be taken lightly. We've never taken him lightly. I said this in the press conference, that we followed Edwin for probably the last year and a half, two years, when both of our names started coming up and his name started coming up as a potential opponent."
Because of Ward's injury and layoff, some might believe that Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KOs), 28, of Worcester, Mass., is catching him at the right time.
"People are watching to see what kind of Andre Ward is going to show up," Ward said. "I really think my opponent and his team is banking for the worst. They think that the layoff and injury are going to make this the right time to fight me, and that it's the right time to go after me. I really feel like I am going to be better than I was before I left. I'm just excited, and there are going to be no excuses for this fight."
Rodriguez has good reason to be confident after spending his past two fights in Monte Carlo, winning the four-man Million Dollar Super Four tournament by dropping and outpointing 2008 Argentine Olympian Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna in the March semifinals, then taking the final by drilling light heavyweight contender Denis Grachev in the first round.
Rodriguez said he isn't one of those who think Ward will be diminished after the injury.
"I'm preparing for the best Andre Ward," Rodriguez said. "I'm preparing for the guy that went into the Super Six tournament and beat the guys like Mikkel Kessler when [Ward] was the underdog. That's who I'm preparing for. I'm preparing for someone that is coming back hungry."
Ward said he actually expects his shoulder to be in better shape now than it has been in years.
"It's stronger, it's more powerful," Ward said. "I have no worries about that -- rust and that stuff. I think the media, and probably my opponent and his team, are more concerned about that than we are.
"Obviously, [the doctor] went in and fixed it, and I'm able to do things with this right hand, and I have power in this right hand that I never had before. If I didn't, I wouldn't say that I did. I would find another creative way to say that I feel good."
During his rehabilitation from the injury, Ward took Goossen to arbitration before the California State Athletic Commission in an effort to have his contract voided, upset over aspects of their business dealings.
The commission upheld Goossen's contract, and the fighter remains with the promoter, even though the relationship is strained. Still, Goossen, who has promoted Ward for his entire professional career, is happy that his fighter is healthy and ready to return. He hopes Ward can stay healthy and fight regularly as he looks to help build him into a bigger attraction.
But what does he expect Saturday after the long layoff and injury?
"It's never good to come off 14 months of inactivity, throw in a major shoulder surgery with it and then come back against a guy like Rodriguez, who is a quality opponent," Goossen said. "But from all Andre has said, he feels great. So that makes me have believe he will be better than ever. But we're all anxious to see him back in the ring to substantiate our thoughts.
"Rodriguez is a tough, rugged and hungry fighter, so I think this is a tougher fight for Andre than people are saying. But I believe Andre will stop him."
The injury Ward suffered while training for the Pavlik fight was a serious flare-up of a chronic shoulder problem that had bothered him since his amateur days. He said he first hurt the shoulder during a bout when he was 12 or 13.
"An injury like this isn't something that you broadcast, but now we can talk about it," Ward said. "It's definitely better than what it was. It's stronger. It's more powerful, and I know everyone will see that.
"Now that it's fixed, I have a lot more pop in this arm, and I'm excited about it. I'm excited to showcase it on Saturday. Even though it was a rough road back, I look at like it was a positive to get that fixed finally."
That didn't make the time off any easier, he said.
"It's very difficult; you never want to be off," said Ward, who was an HBO boxing analyst during his time off. "You never want to be on the sidelines, especially against your will. The silver lining is that I've been in this sport 20 years. I'm a max-effort-type person when I train and prepare, so I think my body thanked me for it.
"My body got a chance to relax from the combat, even though I was still working. That was the silver lining. It's very difficult, but it's my story. I'm not worried about the 14-month layoff. I'm excited to get back. I'm sharp. I'm ready. I'm going to be better than ever."
Andre Ward, who hasn't entered the ring in 14 months, says he's "famished" for a fight. With undefeated contender Edwin Rodriguez serving as his foil on Saturday, has he bitten off more than he can chew?