One of the shining lights in American and world boxing takes to the ring this Saturday night when WBA super middleweight champion Andre Ward tries to achieve two things at once against opponent Sakio Bika – defend his title successfully for the second time, and develop his validity as a new icon of American sport. The fight will be held at the Oracle Arena in Ward’s hometown of Oakland, California.

26 year old Ward (22-0, 14 ko’s) a devout Christian (he sometimes uses the nickname S.O.G – Son Of God) who refrains from disrespecting his opponents and ”trash talking” is fast becoming the standard bearer for boxing in the U.S. The last American boxer to win an Olympic gold medal, Ward’s win in the light heavyweight class at the 2004 Athens Olympics capped a remarkable amateur career that saw him win 114 out of 119 bouts.

Ward turned pro in December 2004 and made steady if unspectacular progress on a diet of solid second tier fighters. His breakthrough win came last May when he dominated dangerous Colombian slugger Edison Miranda over twelve rounds in front of his home fans in Oakland, California. Miranda’s only other defeats had come at the hands of established superstars Arthur Abraham and Kelly Pavlik. Suddenly the 6′ 1” Ward was a top-ten contender and clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Following the win over Miranda, Ward was drafted into Showtime TV’s Super Six World Boxing Classic, an ambitious project that pitted the best super middleweights in the world against each other (with the notable exception of IBF champion Lucian Bute) in a round-robin format, followed by a semi-final and final.

In Wards first fight in the tournament last November, he caused a sensation within the boxing world when he went toe-to-toe with pre-tournament favorite Mikkel Kessler and won a one sided eleven round technical decision (a badly cut eye ruled Kessler unable to continue) and with it, Kessler’s WBA super middleweight title.

In June, Ward won his second Super Six bout, dominating opponent Alan Green to such an extent that the combined scorecards of the three judges was 36 rounds to zero in favour of Ward.

With Roy Jones Jr now in his 40’s and Floyd Mayweather battling to stay out of prison, all the signs say that Andre Ward can be the first new American boxing superstar of the millennium.

In the last ten years, American dominance in professional boxing, especially in the divisions from welterweight upward has diminished rapidly. The heavyweight division for example, for almost a century the near exclusive property of America, is now dominated by Europeans from both East (Ukrainians Vitali and Vladimir Klitschko) and West (Britain’s David Haye).

When America ceases to do well at a sport, it loses interest in it. It happened with tennis, it happened with athletics, and now it’s happening with boxing, where less and less is shown on national TV. American’s will always tune is for the BIG fights, and because of its population of 300 million people, its hardcore of boxing fans is still bigger than most other country’s. But as a sport that grabs the attention of the man in the street, boxing is far less popular in the US than it is in Germany or the UK, the sports two fastest growing markets.

In recent decades, the two non-heavyweight American boxer’s to transcend sport and become household name’s were Sugar Ray Leonard in the 70’s and 80’s and Oscar De La Hoya in the 90’s and 00’s. Both were charismatic and handsome, with exciting fighting styles. Both were articulate and intelligent, a PR man’s dream. And both were Olympic Gold medal winners, Leonard at Montreal in ’76, and De La Hoya in Barcelona in ’92.

Cue Andre Ward, who is all of the above, including an Olympic Gold medal winner. All Ward needs now are the eye catching wins that make great clips on TV and grab peoples attention. His WBA title winning effort over Mikkel Kessler was a boxing masterclass and served notice that he was the new kid on the block, but it didn’t grab the attention like Leonard’s first round destruction of top contender Andy Price did in 1979, or De La Hoya’s pair of two-round blitzkrieg’s over tough guys Rafael Ruelas and Jesse James Leija did in 1995.

Ward is looking for that signature, sensational victory. Could it come this Saturday night?

31 year old Sakio Bika (28-4-2, 19 ko’s) is quite possibly the toughest guy currently fighting in the super middleweight division. Not just as a boxer, because all world class fighters are tough, but as an individual; Bika is the type of guy who would be just as happy duking it out in a car park as topping the bill at Madison Square Garden.

Joe Calzaghe described Bika as a ”dirty fighter” after outpointing him in a WBO title fight in 2006. In July of this year, Bika was on the verge of a sensational first round knockout of unbeaten Jean Paul Mendy in an IBF title eliminator when he punched his opponent while he was still on the canvas. Mendy was unable to continue and Bika was disqualified.

Born in Cameroon but based in Sydney for the last decade, Bika is best known as the winner of the 2007 Contender series, defeating Jaidon Codrington on an eighth round TKO in the final and pocketing a cheque for $750,000. In November 2008, he knocked out the winner of the 2006 series – Peter Manfredo Jr, in three rounds.

Saturday will be Bika’s fourth attempt to win a world title – apart from the loss to Calzaghe, he had a technical four round cut eye draw with Marcus Bayer for the WBC belt in 2006, and went the distance with Lucian Bute in an IBF title fight in 2007. The Canadian based Romanian has one of the meanest left hands in boxing, but he couldn’t budge the granite jawed Bika.

Style wise, Bika is similar to Edison Miranda in that he loves to come forward and wing powerful hooks at his opponent, although he is a better boxer than the Colombian. His tactics will be to get close to Ward and rough him up, all the while looking to land the KO punch. But Ward proved against Kessler and Green that when the going gets tough, he can dish out the rough stuff too.

The baton of Olympic gold medal winner turned American sports icon has been passed over the last fifty years from Floyd Patterson to Cassius Clay (as he was then) to Sugar Ray Leonard, on to Oscar De La Hoya and now to Andre Ward. That’s a hell of a lot of history and expectation on Ward’s young shoulders. To become the first fighter to stop Biko, and to do it as spectacularly as Sergio Martinez did against Paul Williams last weekend would go some way to establishing Ward’s legacy.

Although the most likely outcome is a comprehensive points win for the Oaklander, I have a feeling he is going to turn on the style.

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