By Robert Hough
Photo: Big Joe Miranda
A late-year Fight of the Year candidate awaits us on Saturday if Andre “S.O.G.” Ward and Edwin “La Bomba” Rodriguez trade punches like they’ve traded comments about pre-fight drug testing. Ward (26-0, 14KOs) faces Rodriguez (24-0, 16KOs) – who called for random pre-fight testing after the contracts were signed – in an HBO-televised fight at Citizen’s Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif.
“After the contracts were signed, there was an offer to sponsor the drug testing and I thought, ‘Why not?,'” said Rodriguez, who emphasized during a recent conference call that he believes Ward is clean.
Why not? Because challengers don’t dictate terms, said Ward, who called the move a publicity stunt.
Victor Conte, a nutritionist who says he’s working to rid sports of performance-enhancing drugs in the wake of having supplied them to elite athletes, made the offer to “sponsor” the drug testing, Rodriguez said.
The two jawed with some energy for a while – and kept it civilized – before Ward told Rodriguez, “This fight is about me and you. That’s what I’m focused on.”
For much of 2013, the 29-year-old Ring Magazine super middleweight champion focused on rehabbing his right shoulder after rotator cuff surgery in January.
While he spoke of having more power, a new ability to throw different punches and a new level of hunger, Ward acknowledged that his first fight since he stopped Chad Dawson with a 10th-round TKO in September, 2012 raises questions about what he can do.
“People are always interested, I think, to see how athletes do after they’re injured,” said the San Francisco native and resident of nearby Dublin, Calif. “Do they come back better than they were? Are they the same? Or does the surgery prevent them from going to the level where they’ve been?”
Rodriguez, a resident of Worcester, Mass., acknowledged that with what Ward’s done to date, this fight’s a challenge unlike any that have come before.
“I’ve fought good fighters and I’m undefeated, but, hey, this is fighting the number one guy in the world,” he said.. I understand that Andre Ward’s at a whole different level.”
The 28-year-old, who was an accomplished amateur fighter before turning pro in 2008, said he’s respected Ward – who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and turned pro later that year – for a long time.
“I watched him since the amateur days, through the Super Six,” said Rodriguez, a native of Moca, Dominican Republic. “In the amateur days, he was one of the guys we looked at and thought, ‘Wow!’ We were proud of this guy.”
Rodriguez, who last fought on July 13, when he stopped Denis Grachev in Monte Carlo via a first-round TKO, has made the rounds, to include fights in Fargo, ND, and Key West, Fla. For this fight, he’s trained in Houston, with Ronnie Shields.
Shields was in Sakio Bika’s corner in 2010, when the Cameroonian fighter lost a rugged, grinding fight to Ward, and that experience has been valuable in training, Rodriguez said.
“He’s got to figure me out just as much as I have to figure him out,” he said.