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OAKLAND, Calif. – Being a noble and enterprising concept was no guarantee that the Super Six World Boxing Classic was going to be a success.
Getting six fighters and their respective promoters to agree on the minutiae of a two-year tournament was never going to be easy given the unpredictable nature of the fight game. Once it started with a pair of American defeats, the Showtime paymasters had to be worried about waning interest.
Enter Andre Ward.
Ward's crushing victory over Mikkel Kessler at the Oracle Arena on Saturday night was not just the crowning of a new WBA champion or the emergence of a genuine star, but it also provided the shot in the arm that this event so desperately needed.
The Super Six now has a face, genuine intrigue and, heck, even the sumptuous plotline of a trans-Atlantic feud.
"This will put a lot of steam into the tournament," said Dan Goossen, Ward's promoter. "This is exactly what Showtime had the vision of, and this will take us off and running in the second stage."
After Jermain Taylor was knocked out by Arthur Abraham and Andre Dirrell lost a contentious decision to Carl Froch last month, both on European soil, it looked as if the Americans would become a non-entity – even with the competition in its infancy.
Kessler was a heavy favorite to retain his WBA title Saturday night and also to win the tournament, coming in with 42 victories to just a single defeat, that coming against Joe Calzaghe in 2007.
But Ward dominated him from the outset, with superb defense and an accurate and selective attack from both wings. The movement and speed that took the Californian to an Olympic gold medal in 2004 – but which had been largely untested against elite competition – were too much for the man from Denmark to handle.
Ward claimed a unanimous technical decision when the fight was stopped in the 11th round, with Kessler bleeding heavily from a cut judged to have been caused by an accidental head-butt. Two judges had Ward leading 98-92, with a third scoring it 97-93. Yahoo! Sports had Ward on course for a shutout (100-90) for the fight, which saw some American pride and interest injected back into the super-middleweight division.
"Absolutely this was important," Ward said. "I love America. This is the country I was born in, I make a living here, I live here. When people talk bad about America, you take it personal. You want to represent your country and I was able to do that. Just like at the Olympics."
Ward is a devout Christian who steers clear of the verbal histrionics that invariably accompany a sport in which hype and hyperbole are seen as a form of currency. However, he and his team were annoyed by what they perceived as disrespectful actions from the Kessler camp beginning before the contest and continuing afterward.
Kessler's promoter, Wilfried Sauerland, was infuriated by the performance of referee Jack Reiss, claiming that the official had pandered to Ward and restricted his fighter's chances of landing meaningful shots.
"From the first minute, Ward used his head and his elbow and didn't even get a warning," Sauerland said. "When Andre Ward fights Andre Dirrell, I don't think there will be any action at all. They both hold all the time."
Despite having been out-boxed all night, Kessler himself, usually a class act and a modest man, reached for the book of excuses.
"I wanted to do this to make the tournament exciting," he joked. "I didn't want to be the favorite. I just couldn't see because he kept head-butting me. He was holding me all the time and it ruined my plan. It wasn't fair and it gave him a huge advantage."
The bad blood between the American and European camps has grown steadily since even before the first punch was thrown. Much of it has been stirred by Carl Froch and Dirrell, with both fighters acting boorishly around the time of their clash in Nottingham, England. Dirrell, an American, repeatedly taunted Froch in the lead-up to the bout, while Froch, who is British, was similarly graceless after being given a narrow victory.
Froch's comments that he already was looking ahead to a title unification matchup with Kessler did not please those in Ward's circle and added extra motivation to the 25-year-old's preparations.
Those words, combined with Sauerland's comments, rankled both Ward and his trainer Virgil Hunter, causing the mild-mannered pair to react strongly.
"It is disrespectful," Ward said. "This is kind of a shock to them and sometimes when things don't go your way, you respond this way. Froch has made it clear it is going to be an all-Euro tournament – he was already planning a unification. That was disrespectful, but things have changed. Everybody has got to go back to the drawing board now because of me and what I did."
Hunter barked at Kessler and Sauerland during the post-fight press conference, accusing them of conjuring excuses. In a conversation with Yahoo! Sports afterward, he explained the extent of the simmering ill-feeling now permeating throughout those invested in the Super Six.
"We felt that Sauerland and the whole crew were smug," Hunter said. "You can't blame them for being confident and not being able to see this could happen. We saw how they were from the first press conference, but we don't get bitter about it. The thing what bothered me the most was to see how smug Froch was. It is not that you dislike people, but you do take it personally when you see people act in a certain way. I hope we get to see him soon."
Ward is due to fight Taylor next, then Dirrell in his final round-robin match. Two points are awarded for each win, with an extra bonus point for knockouts. The top four qualify for the semifinal, scheduled for late next year.
With Taylor and Dirrell likely to be the two eliminated fighters, the intriguing prospect looms of either another Ward-Kessler bout or a Ward-Froch showdown in the semifinals.
Ward may be on his own when it comes to the Americans' hopes in this tournament, but based on his performance vs. Kessler, he has the smarts, spirit and conviction to carry the flag.