Super middleweight champion Andre Ward, who earlier this month announced that he would return from a 19-month layoff on June 20, will face England's Paul Smith in a nontitle fight at the Oracle Arena in his hometown of Oakland, California, promoter Roc Nation Sports announced on Wednesday night.
The fight will headline the first card under a new time-buy deal between music mogul Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports, which signed Ward in January, and BET, which will televise at least nine live, two-hour "throne boxing" cards during the 18-month arrangement. The telecast will also include a live musical performance by a Roc Nation artist.
In addition to airing live on BET (10 p.m. ET) in the United States, the cards can be streamed internationally on Tidal.com, the newly launched streaming service in which Jay Z is a partner.
"We're thrilled to not only be introducing our newest broadcast partnership with BET Networks, but also to use this new platform to telecast Andre Ward's highly anticipated return to the ring," said David Itskowitch, COO of Roc Nation Sports' boxing division. "On June 20, we will once again provide fans a night of exciting 'throne boxing' fights, live musical entertainment and an unprecedented fan experience."
Said Stephen G. Hill, BET's president of programming, "BET is constantly searching for ways to expand its portfolio of content with the sole goal of satisfying our audiences. Roc Nation is doing very exciting things in the entertainment space and we are excited to partner with them on this groundbreaking deal positioning BET Networks as a go-to destination for premier live boxing events. Together, we'll provide unique entertainment."
Ward (27-0, 14 KO's), 31, is one of boxing's best fighters pound-for-pound but has not been in the ring since easily outpointing Edwin Rodriguez in a November 2013 title defense in Ontario, California. He has fought only twice since dominating Carl Froch to unify 168-pound world titles in December 2011 in the final of the Super Six World Boxing Classic. His long layoffs were partly due to a shoulder injury but mainly because of a protracted fight over his promotional contract with late promoter Dan Goossen, who died in September 2014.
In the wake of Goossen's death, Ward and Goossen's family reached a settlement for undisclosed terms and Ward, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist, signed with Roc Nation Sports, the company's first high-profile signing since entering the boxing business in August.
Roc Nation Sports attempted to make a deal for Ward's return with HBO, where he has had his last two fights -- and where he has also worked as an analyst -- but Ward's desire for a second-tier opponent after such a long layoff led HBO to pass.
"I'm very excited to be coming back on June 20 at Oracle Arena in my hometown of Oakland, which has been a long time coming," Ward said. "I'm equally excited to be fighting on BET in front of a potential viewership of over 90 million homes. As a fighter, this diversifies my portfolio and puts me in front of a whole different audience. I have an extremely tough fighter in front of me in Paul Smith, who's looking to pull the upset, but I can't let that happen.
"I have to be on my best game to turn Smith away and beat him the way I want to beat him. As always, I'm ready to put on a tremendous performance in front of my hometown fans and those watching on BET. This is a fight you don't want to miss."
The 35-year-old Smith (35-5, 20 KOs), the former British champion, fought for a 168-pound world title in his last two fights, but lost decisions both times to Germany's Arthur Abraham in Germany.
In September 2014, Smith fought the fight of his life against Abraham in a fight that was highly competitive. But because the scores were so wide in Abraham's favor -- 119-109, 117-111 and 117-111 -- there was an outcry from the public and Abraham gave him a rematch on Feb. 21. In the sequel, Abraham, who lost a near-shutout decision to Ward in a 2011 world title bout during the Super Six tournament, beat Smith much more easily.
"I cannot wait to get back in the ring and test myself against a class act like Andre Ward," Smith said. "I proved that I belong at the top level with my performances against Arthur Abraham and this is a challenge that I am relishing. Andre is a top pound-for-pound fighter and someone I respect a lot, but he has only boxed once in almost three years and I will give it everything I have got.
"I am fresh and confident going into this fight. It's a massive opportunity for me and one that I took with both hands when it was offered. I have spent a lot of time boxing in the United States and I look forward to returning for this fight."