Andre Ward beats Paul Smith in long-awaited return to ring

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- As soon as Andre Ward found his stride following his lengthy layoff, the fight quickly came to an end.

Ward made a triumphant return to the ring and delighted his home crowd when he stopped England's Paul Smith in the ninth round Saturday night in a nontitle fight.

''It took some time to get the ring rust off,'' Ward said. ''I started with the jab. I wanted to come out big bang and get a first round KO but I have a great coach and he told me to take my time and the knockout will come.''

Ward (28-0, 15 knockouts) was fighting for the first time in 19 months because of a protracted legal dispute with his former promoter, the late Dan Goosen.

He dominated from the start against the former British champion Smith (35-6), winning every round on all three judges' scorecards. Smith's corner threw in the white towel to stop the fight in the ninth round with Smith's face covered with blood.

''I know there's another level I can be at where I'm not thinking about anything,'' Ward said. ''There's another level of sharpness and being crisp that I have. ... I felt like I did good tonight but I know I have better.''

Smith spent most of the fight in defensive mode, trying to block Ward's many punches instead of throwing many of his own. Smith did stagger Ward with a big right hand in the seventh, but Ward responded with a flurry and Smith was cut late in the round.

''I know what he was trying to do,'' Ward said. ''He was trying to lure me in then hit me with the big right hand. He hit me with a couple of good shots but he didn't hurt me.''

Ward landed more big punches in the eighth as blood started dripping down the left side of Smith's face. The round ended with a stare down between the two fighters to the delight of the partisan crowd of 9,016.

Another cut opened in the ninth as Smith's face was covered with blood before the fight was called at 1:46 of the round on a technical knockout after trainer Joe Gallagher threw in the towel.

''Smith was taking unnecessary punishment,'' Gallagher said. ''Andre kept cutting open that cut over his eye. Blood was pooling over his eye. It was a war we didn't want to continue.''

Smith said he thought he broke his nose on Ward's final combination before the fight was stopped.

''The towel couldn't have come soon enough,'' Smith said.

Ward had not fought since winning a lopsided unanimous decision against Edwin Rodriguez to defend his WBA super middleweight title in November 2013. The absence from the ring stemmed from the dispute with Goosen, who died in September 2014.

The fight was just Ward's second since beating Carl Froch in December 2011 in the Super Six super middleweight tournament final. Ward also dealt with a shoulder injury that forced him to the sideline before the dispute with Goosen.

After Goosen's death, Ward reached an undisclosed settlement with the promoter's family and signed with Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports. He was using the fight against Smith as a tuneup to work off some of the rust that had accumulated.

''I'm just so happy to be back in the boxing ring,'' Ward said. ''It's been a long time. It was creeping up on two years.''

Smith weighed in for the 172-pound fight at 176.4 pounds on Friday. ESPN reported Smith's weight was 184.4 pounds at a second weigh-in Saturday.

''It was a genuine mistake,'' Smith said. ''I apologized to the team. My fault.''

The bout brought out some big names, including NBA MVP Stephen Curry, who carried Ward's title belt into the ring before the fight. Curry got a thunderous ovation a day after the Golden State Warriors' championship parade. Seattle running back and Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, boxer Miguel Cotto and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick also were on hand, although Kaepernick was booed loudly by the East Bay fans who usually back the Raiders.

The co-feature between junior featherweights Antonio Nieves (12-0-1) and Stephon Young (13-0-2) ended in a split draw.