Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ward-Dawson: Keys to the Fight

The first big event of the fall boxing season kicks off this weekend with Andre Ward facing Chad Dawson, a tasty match featuring the top super middleweight against the number-one light heavyweight.

(Yes, I know it's not technically autumn yet. Don't be that guy. Kids are back in school. Give me a break. And if you're in the Southern Hemisphere, I know that your seasons are different. Can we move on?)

Dawson (31-1, 17 KOs), coming off his definitive victory over Bernard Hopkins, will be moving down to super middleweight to add some more trinkets to his trophy room. Ward (25-0, 13 KOs), the Super Six World Boxing Classic winner, will be making his first appearance of the year, and against arguably the toughest opponent of his career. Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the preview.

1. Weight.
The most frequent discussion topic leading into this fight is Dawson's drop to the super middleweight division; he last appeared in the division six years ago. Although it is far more common for fighters to have success moving up to a higher weight class, some notable boxers have prevailed by dropping down in weight. Dawson has insisted in the buildup to the fight that making 168 lbs. won't be an issue for him.

Just because a boxer can make a particular weight class does not mean that he is best suited for that division. There are legitimate questions about Dawson's efficacy at super middleweight. Will his power (or relative power in his case – Dawson isn't a big puncher) play at the smaller weight or will he be zapped of strength? Will he still have the legs or mobility at 168 that he did at light heavyweight? Dawson hasn't been a bulky fighter at 175. He has always had a muscular and toned physique at the weight. Is there seven pounds for him to lose comfortably? If Dawson's legs look like they are stuck in quicksand, that will be a telltale sign that he's not fighting in the right weight class, which will be a huge advantage for Ward.

2. Desire.
Ward has distinguished himself throughout his career by finding a way to win. His heart, determination and tenacity are factors that make him more than the sum of his parts. Irrespective of the styles of his opponents, Ward doesn't cheat himself in the ring; he puts himself in great position to win – not taking rounds off, closing rounds with gusto and fighting through adversity.

The knock on Dawson has been his lack of fire. Throughout his career, he has given off the impression that he doesn't fight with urgency or passion. Many of his matches resemble glorified sparring sessions, where Dawson will put rounds in the bank with his boxing acumen but will be unwilling to take the necessary chances to excite the boxing public. As a result, his profile in boxing is far beneath his skill level.

Dawson's blasé ring attitude contributed to his only loss as a professional. In 2010, he was down early on the cards to Jean Pascal. After getting his sea legs in the middle rounds of the fight, Dawson didn't press the action. It took until the 10th round for Dawson to push for a knockout. Unfortunately for Dawson, a Pascal cut led to a stoppage during the 11th round just as Dawson had Pascal in danger. It's quite possible that Dawson would have beaten Pascal with another round of action, but he put himself in a position to lose the fight with a regrettable showing in the middle rounds.

The Pascal fight was not an isolated example of Dawson's lack of passion or urgency in the ring. After getting hurt by Glen Johnson in their first fight, Dawson refused to engage during the fight's last third and wound up with a disputed victory. In the rematch, he essentially outmaneuvered Johnson, using his legs to avoid sustained exchanges. In his two fights against Antonio Tarver, he refused to go for the jugular, even though he faced an opponent whom he significantly outclassed. But...

3. Has Dawson turned a corner?
Make no mistake; Dawson had the most difficult fight of his career in his last outing against Bernard Hopkins. The older legend tackled Dawson, put him in headlocks, pressed down on his neck, held him constantly, hit him repeatedly with low blows, embellished phantom fouls and occasionally, he fought. Hopkins tried to win through his mastery of the dark arts, figuring that Dawson would fold under duress. Yet Dawson withstood Hopkins' psychological warfare and prevailed. He stuck to his game plan and pulled away to a comfortable victory. (The judge who scored the fight a draw was significantly misguided.)

Reunited with trainer John Scully after a peripatetic journey that featured assorted other cornermen of note, Dawson exhibited a grace under pressure against Hopkins. He had never looked so confident in the ring. This attribute will come in handy against Ward, who is no stranger to aggressive infighting, grappling and the flinging of random elbows. Dawson can't afford to be passive against Ward. If the fighter who bested Hopkins shows up on Saturday, the match will be very competitive. 

4. Who makes the key adjustments?
The initial strategies of both fighters won't be a secret. With his height and reach advantages, Dawson will look to box Ward from the outside. Ward's best way to win will be to rough Dawson up on the inside and to make the match a brawl. If it's a boxing contest, he'll lose.

But what happens if Dawson's lateral mobility and fluidity in the ring don't give Ward sustained opportunities for infighting? What if Dawson can't control Ward from the outside?

Both fighters have excellent trainers, with John Scully for Dawson and Virgil Hunter for Andre Ward. There will be points of adversity for one if not both fighters during the course of the match. But which team has the better Plan B or C, and which boxer will best be able to execute the needed changes to swing the fight in his favor? These strategic and tactical adjustments will help determine who wins the fight.

5. Does Dawson have an uppercut?
If he does, and he uses it well, Ward won't win the fight. Dawson has streamlined his offensive arsenal over the years to essentially three punches: his right jab, straight left hand and right hook. He places his punches expertly and uses feints and lateral movement very well to land them. And yes, while he does have an uppercut, it hasn't been a featured part of his repertoire. This punch will be critical in dissuading the shorter and more aggressive Ward from continuing to come inside. With Dawson's superior reach and impeccable balance, if he can consistently throw and land the uppercut, he'll be in an even better position to score with the rest of his arsenal. I'd personally like to see a few right uppercut-straight left hand or left uppercut-right hook combinations.

However, if Dawson doesn't throw the uppercut – or throw it with confidence – Ward will find a way inside and connect with his short right hands and left hooks. Remember, Dawson is most comfortable fighting on the outside and using the ring to avoid firefights. Against Ward, who can really cut off the ring and close distance, Dawson won't be able to skate away from trouble all night; he'll have to plant his feet at times and engage. I think Dawson's uppercut, or lack of one, will be the most important punch of the fight.

Ward's intangibles will be the deciding factor in the fight. His superior ring intelligence, determination and confidence will manifest over 12 rounds. Dawson has made many ring adjustments during fights, but mostly they have been defensive in nature – how to buy time, how to survive a round, how to avoid inside fighting, etc. He is more equipped to coast with a lead than to make up ground. I expect Ward to take the fight to Dawson in the early rounds and pick up points through his higher activity and compact power shots. I don't believe that Dawson has the requisite power, tools or temperament to come back from a fight in which he is down. In addition, I don’t think he will be able to consistently stop Ward’s forward attack as the fight progresses.

Although Dawson performed ably against Hopkins and his basket of tricks, I'm not sure if he's ready for 12 tough rounds of pressure against an active fighter who can put punches together. Dawson's going to have to fight, and fight a lot. Ward's energy, body shots and determination will help grind down Dawson. I do expect Dawson to win rounds that are more tactical in nature, but there won't be enough of them for him to prevail.

Andre Ward defeats Chad Dawson by a wide unanimous decision, along the lines of 117-111, or nine rounds to three.

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