By Steve Kim
HBO's boxing franchise is at a crossroads. After jettisoning Golden Boy Promotions earlier this year and losing ground to Showtime (which has the likes of Floyd Mayweather, Saul Alvarez and Adrien Broner), the network is relying on Andre Ward to be their next big thing. The only problem is, he hasn't seen the inside of a ring in 2013.
The last time the WBA super middleweight champion fought was almost a year ago, on September 8, 2012 -- a ten-round destruction of a weight-drained Chad Dawson. Repeated attempts to make a fight with the faded Kelly Pavlik earlier this year proved futile as Ward suffered a damaged right shoulder. Originally the matchup with Pavlik was scheduled for January 26 and then postponed to February 23 and finally March 2 before it was decided that Ward's shoulder required surgery.
The only time HBO viewers have been able to see Ward in 2013 are on "Boxing After Dark" telecasts where he serves as a color commentator alongside Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman. Not exactly riveting TV.
Now, Ward is plotting his comeback, but he and his handlers are squabbling with HBO over just who should be greenlighted by the network as his next foe.
Ward and his team have strongly suggested Dimitri Sartison, a decent fighter out of Germany who in the past held a version of the super middleweight title. But as the late, great Bert Randolph Sugar said of guys like Sartison, "They aren't household names in their own households."
HBO, mindful of the shift in the marketplace, wants Ward to have a much tougher test than Sartison --- or at least a boxer their subscribers would recognize. Ward and his promotional firm, Goossen Tutor, are of the belief that given his recent inactivity and how important he is to the network moving forward, a softer comeback fight is warranted.
So therein lies the dilemma: the fighter you are counting on to draw in ratings doesn't want a ratings draw. What's a cable network to do?
To understand how each party got to this point, a quick history lesson. When the current president of HBO Sports, Ken Hershman, came over from Showtime in the beginning of 2012, one of his first big moves was to bring Ward with him. It was Hershman who came up with "The Super Six" tournament: an ambitious round-robin scrum involving a half-dozen of the best 168-pounders in the world that was designed to crown a clear-cut king in the division. Ward ended up coming out on top, defeating the respected Carl Froch more than two years after the tournament began. You could argue that it was Hershman's brainchild that boosted Ward from a developing prospect to the premiere super middleweight on the planet.
It was believed that a star was born. And better than that, a star who was American, an Olympic gold medalist and a family man. Yes, boxing is an international sport (it is perhaps the one sport which really has 'world champions') but HBO is an American entity and they believed that this native of Oakland could be the modern day Roy Jones and soon, take over the mantle from the likes of Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao as the face of the sport.
Quickly, HBO (and Hershman) went all in with Ward.
But the 19 months since that tournament victory have been pretty rough for the fighter. The champ has fought just once (the aforementioned Dawson bout) and tried to leave his promoter, who by all accounts had done an outstanding job in developing Ward as a professional. Meanwhile his public profile, which was pristine for such a long time, is now a bit stained. There are a growing number of fans and media members who consider him smug, sanctimonious and conceited. (See the hashtag #MorePopularThanWard this past weekend in response to his tweets that alienated some fans).
There's also this: Ward's style is an acquired taste, much more appreciated by the purist than the casual fan, reliant more on effectiveness than entertainment (MMA's Demetrious Johnson can probably relate).
Despite all these setbacks, the plan is for Ward to return on September 28, as part of a split-site doubleheader. His representatives believe that they are well within their rights to ask for a rehabilitation fight after more than a year away from the ring. And it's not like HBO -- which is being counted on to finance this event with a seven-figure license fee -- is above doing "appearance fights" for its featured performers. Hell, they did about a decades worth of that for Jones during his prime when he was considered the boxing's most gifted performer.
As you look ahead, HBO is allowing Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to face Brian Vera (a tough journeyman, who belongs more on ESPN2 than HBO) on September 7 and Miguel Cotto to return to their network against Delvin Rodriguez (a decent worker, who's never been considered an elite fighter) on October 5.
But Chavez Jr. and Cotto are established stars. Ward, for all his superior skills, isn't. At least not yet. He's not who HBO envisioned him to be, as of this moment. The future for him can still be very bright. It's the present that's murky.
Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot.)