Boxing's best 168 pounder, Andre Ward, returns to the squared circle tonight after more than a year off, meeting the challenge of hard slugging contender Edwin Rodriguez at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California.
While WBA "super" titlist Ward certainly is favored to retain his crown for the sixth time, there are a couple of questions out there that the 29 year old from Oakland will have to answer.
The first of which is, how much ring rust will Ward, 26-0 (14), have to shake off? It has been 14 long months since the 2004 Olympic Gold Medallist masterfully turned back the challenge of WBC light heavyweight champ Chad Dawson, while Rodriguez, 24-0 (16), has been active during that span, posting three victories in as many appearances.
The other variable surrounding Ward is that he is coming off surgery in January to repair a problem in his right shoulder.
It's a mystery at this point whether or not the procedure fixed the issue or if the shoulder is even less effective than before surgery. If the right arm is better, has there been enough time for Ward to have gotten it up to speed to withstand the rigors of top level professional boxing?
As far as Rodriguez is concerned, there isn't a whole lot of smoke and mirrors there; what you see is what you get. The 28 year old from Worcester, Massachusetts is a true slugger, a real walk forward and wing really hard punches type of fighter.
Which is why, should a post-surgery Ward be at 100 or even 90 percent, he should have little trouble figuring out which punches are coming from Rodriguez, who telegraphs every punch he throws.
But if Ward is not at optimum strength and agility, he could have real problems. Couple that with any stamina issues related to being out of the ring for more than a year, and we could see Ward being forced to go toe to toe in the later rounds.
If the champion doesn't have the punching power to keep Rodriguez off and has to deal with a high volume of hard punches coming his way, round after round, chances are he'll be caught flush with at least a few shots and at that point, it will be down to Ward's chin to keep him in the fight.
These are, however, very big speculations as Ward, regardless of his time away from the sport or state of his right shoulder, has a few massive advantages that should come into play.
First off, in five of his last six bouts, he's faced the likes of Chad Dawson, Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, Sakio Bika and Mikkel Kessler without losing more than a few rounds to any of them. Look up Rodriguez's resume and it absolutely pales in comparison, not a single name at world class level.
Ward has been successful against those fighters because he is very good defensively and very awkward, having the ability to take away what opponents want to do and then forcing them to deal with his own unpredictable offense.
Rodriguez has never faced an opponent that could put him in that position and if you think about it, chances are he won't be successful if his trial run in that kind of situation is also his first world title fight, which happens to come against against the top man in his division in an event that is surrounded by much more media attention and distractions than he has ever had to deal with.
It will be a massive upset if Rodriguez happens to topple Ward because it isn't likely to occur, but, this is Boxing and as such, anything can happen.