Super middleweight champion Andre Ward was limited to only one fight in 2012 because of a hand injury but will get an early start to his 2013 campaign when he defends his unified titles against former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik on Jan. 26 in Los Angeles.
The American stars will meet in the main event of an HBO "World Championship Boxing" doubleheader on the first boxing card to be held at the Galen Center, the home arena for the USC basketball and volleyball teams.
The co-feature is a significant heavyweight bout that will pit Cristobal Arreola against Bermane Stiverne in a title elimination bout that will make the winner the mandatory challenger for titleholder Vitali Klitschko.
Dan Goossen, Ward's promoter, and Top Rank's Bob Arum, Pavlik's promoter, began negotiating the fight in mid-October, but it took time to work out the details, Goossen said.
"It's never easy making fights like this," Goossen said Tuesday. "But the key thing here was everyone involved wanted to get it made. There was never a point where we doubted it would get finalized. I believed we had a deal in October, but we just had to get the particulars together."
Ward, 28, of Oakland, Calif., one of boxing's elite pound-for-pound fighters, will be making his sixth title defense.
The 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, who won the Super Six World Boxing Classic in December by easily outpointing England's Carl Froch to unify two of the 168-pound belts in the tournament final, is coming off a devastating performance on Sept. 8. He destroyed light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson, another pound-for-pound-caliber fighter. Dawson dropped in weight for the fight and Ward (26-0, 14 KOs) routed him, scoring three knockdowns en route to a 10th-round knockout.
"Andre Ward's a hell of a world champ," Pavlik said. "He's the super middleweight king right now. He went through a tough tournament and proved where he's at. He beat everybody that he was supposed to fight, and he's top dog. When I was (middleweight) champ, I was the one being pursued. Now he's (super middleweight) champ and I'm in hot pursuit."
Many view Pavlik as an easier assignment for Ward than Dawson or some of his Super Six opponents, such as Froch and Mikkel Kessler, because he has not had a significant win in a few years and has had outside-the-ring issues.
"Pavlik is a big name, but he is also a formidable former world champion whose only losses have been to Bernard Hopkins and Sergio Martinez in 12-round decisions," Goossen said. "It's the Pavliks of the world who have been to the top and want to get back there who are dangerous. You don't take anything for granted, and I know Andre isn't. He doesn't underestimate the challenge from Pavlik."
Pavlik (40-2, 34 KOs), 30, of Youngstown, Ohio, held the middleweight championship from 2007, when he knocked out Jermain Taylor to win it, to 2010, when he lost a bloody decision to Sergio Martinez. But outside-the-ring problems led to long layoffs, and the perception by many that he is not close to the fighter he was when he was at his best.
He battled alcoholism and wound up in rehab twice, was arrested on a DUI charge, had a contract dispute with Top Rank and switched trainers from Jack Loew to Robert Garcia.
However, Pavlik seemed to get back on track in 2012, fighting three times between March and July and winning in dominant fashion, although against lesser competition in Will Rosinsky, Scott Sigmon and Aaron Jaco.
"I've heard all the talk about Kelly Pavlik, but I know better than that," Ward said. "He's beaten plenty of the big names. Bob Arum has done a great job of keeping Kelly busy until an opportunity like this came along. You can bet that a former world champion like Kelly Pavlik, being afforded another title shot, he's going to be primed and ready. We are going to be ready, too, and it's going to be a tremendous show."
Said Arum, "Kelly Pavlik has been determined to get back onto the top of the heap in boxing. I know he's ready to give it his all against one of the best champions today. I really believe this will be an exciting, competitive fight."
Promoter Don King, who handles Stiverne, originally planned to put the fight with Arreola on in Venezuela in December after winning promotional rights for $1.1 million at a purse bid. However, King's deal fell apart, and he defaulted on the purse bid. At that point, promotional rights fell to Goossen, whose $550,000 bid was the second-highest.
Under Goossen's bid, Arreola is entitled to $302,500 (55 percent of the bid) with Stiverne's share being $247,500. Had King come through, Arreola would have gotten $605,000 with Stiverne getting $495,000.
"This fight is one of those ringside nail-biters," Goossen said. "When you've got two heavyweights out there, one big blow can take you out. They're both big punchers, and either guy can end it with one punch, so there will be a lot of nail biting at ringside."
Arreola (35-2, 30 KOs), 31, of Riverside, Calif., has had a heavyweight title shot. He challenged Klitschko in September 2009 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and was stopped in the 10th round when his corner threw in the towel of a one-sided fight. Two bouts later, Arreola lost a majority decision to Tomasz Adamek in a mild upset, but he has won seven fights in a row since to work his way into the eliminator.
"I'm going to make 2013 my year," said Arreola, who has not fought since a first-round knockout of Eric Molina in February. "I'm thrilled to be back on HBO and fighting someone worthy and good in Stiverne. He's a tough fighter, but my will and strength will break him down. I'm not going to let anyone stand in my way."
Arreola (35-2, 30 KOs) was supposed to fight in June but withdrew because of an elbow problem. Goossen said Arreola's elbow is healthy now and that his conditioning is also good.
"The big difference is when he fights under 250 pounds, and he has been under 250 all year," Goossen said. "When Arreola is in great shape, I believe he is the best heavyweight in the world. His quickness has always been key to his success and he is quicker when he is lighter. He can get inside faster, move his feet and throw combinations. I see him 100 percent mentally and physically. He always had the mental aspect and the physical was lagging behind. Now, he has both."
Stiverne (22-1-1, 20 KOs), 34, who was born in Haiti and now lives in Las Vegas, is known for having a big punch, but he has a limited résumé. His most notable victory was a 10th-round knockout of former world title challenger Ray Austin on an HBO card in June 2011. In his lone loss, Stiverne was knocked out in the fourth round by Demetrice King in 2007. Stiverne is coming off a tune-up eight-round decision win against journeyman Willie Herring in April.
"It should have been done a long time ago," Stiverne said of the fight with Arreola. "I don't know what he's been doing besides running from me. I'm looking forward to the fight. He is a tough customer, but nothing that I can't deal with. I'll get the job done. I'm not concerned about a knockout. We have a plan that we want to execute. If the knockout comes, it comes."