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Andre Ward may be the world's best fighter, but he's a long way from a top draw

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

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Andre Ward's last fight, a signature win over Chad Dawson, right, was Sept. 8, 2012. (AP Photo)

CARSON, Calif. – One of the terrible things about the business of professional boxing is exemplified by the relative merits of Andre Ward and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

Ward is light years better as a fighter than Chavez. Ward is an Olympic gold medalist and a highly decorated, skilled professional who right now is no worse than the second-best fighter in the world.

Moreover, he's professional, dedicated to his craft and always magnificently conditioned, a guy who never needs a contract to be rewritten to cover him from a lack of training.

Chavez, by contrast, comes off as an entitled, spoiled brat, who expects to be taken care of because he has a famous last name.

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But that famous last name helps Chavez in ways that Ward can't imagine. Chavez has clearly established himself as one of the most popular draws, both in regard to ticket sales and television ratings.

The weight debacle prior to his fight Saturday at the StubHub Center against Bryan Vera limited ticket sales to a disappointing 5,206, but the bout did a season-best number on HBO. According to Nielsen Media Research, Chavez-Vera drew 1.416 million viewers, the top-rated boxing match on cable this year.

Because Chavez can sell tickets and draw television viewers, promoters made farcical efforts to accommodate him from a weight standpoint last week, giving him a massive, and potentially unsafe, edge over Bryan Vera.

His name probably didn't hurt him with the judges, either, as he scored a questionable victory over Vera that few other than the three judges felt he deserved.

Ward, vastly better than Chavez in the ring, can only imagine what it would be like to have the sport's power brokers jump whenever he spoke.

But Ward (26-0) is in the strange position of being one of the elite boxers in the world, yet hoping to land a bout against Chavez, a far lesser fighter he figures to manhandle in the ring.

His plight hasn't been helped by his extended absence from the ring. When he fights Edwin Rodriguez in a super middleweight title bout on Nov. 16 in Ontario, Calif., he'll have gone more than 14 months between fights.

After the signature fight of his pro career, an impressive and comprehensive stoppage of an overmatched Chad Dawson on Sept. 8, 2012, Ward has been on the sidelines.

He had surgery to repair a rotator cuff injury that had been bothering him since he was a teenager. He also sought to break his promotional contract with Goossen Tutor Promotions.

Any momentum he might have gained from knocking out Dawson was lost with the lengthy time off. Fans have short attention spans and he'll have to remind them again of his in-ring greatness.

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Ward had surgery to repair a longtime shoulder injury. (AP Photo)

He's hungry, he said, to get back at it. You never really know how much you'll miss something until it's taken away, and Ward's champing at the bit to get back to boxing.

"I really love what I do and it was taken away from me by the injury," Ward told Yahoo Sports. "I battled back from the injury, but then I had some internal problems, issues with the promoter. It was the business of boxing that held me up. It's been a trying 12 months.

"But look at my body now: I'm not fat. I'm not out of shape. I've been working, and I think everyone will understand that and the fans will see that on Nov. 16."

Ward argues that he is a bigger draw than he is given credit for and said he has a strong fan base in the Bay Area, where he lives. According to the California State Athletic Commission, the Ward-Dawson fight at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., sold 7,611 tickets for a gate of $706,469, with 1,308 complimentary tickets distributed.

That's a pittance compared to what a Floyd Mayweather Jr. or a Manny Pacquiao might do at the gate, but that kind of a gate, particularly in a nontraditional boxing market like Oakland, isn't that bad.

He's never fought in Las Vegas, the nominal Boxing Capital of the World, and he hasn't attracted a turn-away crowd anywhere he's fought.

But Ward emphatically denied a commonly held belief that he's not a draw and has no natural fan base.

"If people are honest, they'll admit that I do have a fan base," Ward said. "Look at what we did in Oakland [for the Dawson fight], and that was not with some all-out promotion, where we were hitting everything. There weren't a million billboards out there. That was word of mouth.

"That came against a guy who is a good fighter, but let's be honest, Chad isn't really outspoken. I think we did a great job [selling the fight]. People turn a blind eye to that and say we can't sell. It's something some people are saying and others latch onto it, but I have a fan base here, and I go everywhere from here to the East Coast to the U.K., and I'm recognized and appreciated everywhere."

Boxing aficionados have long appreciated his skill. In the Dawson fight, he showed an aggressiveness and a killer instinct that wasn't previously seen much.

A lot of that was due to his right rotator cuff, which was torn when he was 16. It's incredible to think he won an Olympic gold medal and became arguably the best fighter in the world with a shoulder so badly injured he couldn't throw an uppercut without searing pain.

Imagine Peyton Manning having the season he's having with a torn rotator cuff, and that makes it easier to appreciate what Ward did.

Ward put it off for years because he knew how complicated it would be.

"The rotator recovery is brutal and it's taxing and grueling in many different ways," he said. "I didn't want that, and there was no guarantee everything was going to go right with the surgery. This surgery was very complicated."

But it got to the point where he couldn't compete any more the way he wanted with the shoulder the way it was.

It will be a new and physically improved Ward who returns to the ring to meet Rodriguez.

If the repaired shoulder allows him to do things he couldn't do before and turns him into a finisher, then Ward may finally be able to put to rest the talk that he is not a draw.

Everyone loves a power puncher, particularly one with skills like Ward.

But Ward needs to get out there and take an active role in promoting his fights, just like Mayweather has done. Those who don't see it simply can't imagine the work Mayweather does by himself to sell his bouts.

Ward's biggest challenge now is to follow that lead.

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