What a year it has been for Andre Ward.
Previously known for winning an Olympic gold medal for the United States at the 2004 Olympics, he is now best thought of for being a super middleweight champion and one of the best fighters in the world.
It was more than a year ago -- on Nov. 21, 2009 -- that he upset Mikkel Kessler via 11th-round technical decision in a dominant performance to win his 168-pound title and pounded his way to the top of the division.
It was just the start of what Ward hopes will be a long title reign.
"I'm just as hungry as any opponent I'm fighting," Ward said. "I'm just as desperate as any opponent I'm fighting. I take this game very, very seriously. Having a championship and defending it means the world to me."
The resounding victory against Kessler came in the opening round of the Super Six World Boxing Classic against the pre-tournament favorite. Ward followed with a shutout decision win against Allan Green in their Group Stage 2 fight in June to become the first man in the six-man field to secure a semifinal berth. Now he is the clear tournament favorite.
Yet as Ward prepares to meet Sakio Bika on Saturday night (Showtime, 9 ET/PT), the fight is not a Group Stage 3 fight as had been planned.
Instead, Ward will fight Bika outside the confines of the tournament, with a semifinal fight slated for the first quarter of 2011 against either Glen Johnson or the Arthur Abraham-Carl Froch winner.
"There have been many twists and turns," Ward said, "but we are still here and ready for our next opponent."
Ward was supposed to face Olympic teammate Andre Dirrell on Saturday, not Bika. However, no deal was finalized for a scheduled Sept. 25 fight with Dirrell, no promotion had taken place and no venue had been secured. Then the fight was postponed and finally canceled -- even after Showtime threatened legal action -- when Dirrell mysteriously pulled out of the tournament on Oct. 7, claiming a neurological issue stemming from his March fight with Abraham. Dirrell dominated Abraham before being knocked cold in the 11th round when Abraham hit him while he was down after slipping. (Abraham was disqualified.)
But few believe the veracity of Dirrell's injury, especially after a highly suspicious interview that aired on Showtime's "Fight Camp 360" reality series, which has been following the tournament.
Ward wouldn't go there when pressed about Dirrell's withdrawal.
"I think Andre Dirrell's team has already said why we're not fighting Saturday night," he said. "Apparently, Andre's got some neurological issues, and I'll leave it at that. I think with the writers and the media, it's their job to be able to figure out what's true and not true and I just have to take whatever comes. I take Dirrell at his word and I hope he gets better soon and that we can see him back in the ring."
Showtime had previously replaced two original tournament participants -- Jermain Taylor and Kessler, both of whom pulled out with injuries -- with Green and Johnson, respectively. However, the network decided against replacing Dirrell because Ward had already advanced to the semis anyway.
Thus, Ward will have the non-tournament bout against the rugged Bika (28-4-2, 19 KOs), a battle-tested two-time title challenger and former winner of "The Contender" reality series, at the Oracle Arena in Ward's hometown of Oakland, Calif.
Promoter Dan Goossen said he was disappointed Dirrell pulled out, but his main concern was lining something up for Ward so that the Showtime date could be kept.
"Andre is such a professional and we kept him abreast of everything as twists and turns were happening," Goossen said. "Through it all, he was still in the gym. Maybe not to the point of having a full-blown training camp, but certainly one that kept him sharp and ready to move in whatever direction we were headed. He's a real pro.
"The key, as our conversations with [Showtime's] Ken Hershman progressed, was keeping the date open so Andre could defend his title this Saturday. There was so much happening and so much turmoil, but we didn't want to lose the date and be put in the black hole while everything was trying to be worked out."
As focused a fighter as there is in boxing, Ward couldn't care less that this fight is against a different opponent than he expected.
"It's been a year since I won my world title, and I'm focused and locked in on defending my title," Ward said. "That's all me and my team has ever focused on: Not just becoming a champion but being a defending champion and striving for great challenges, like Sakio Bika. I've prepared myself for a fight like this years in advance. I'm prepared for Sakio and I know he's prepared for me. And I know we're going to put on a great show on Saturday."
And as for the fight not being a part of the tournament?
"At the end of the day, my championship belt is still on the line and at the end of the day I've got to show up and get the job done," Ward said. "And I've got a guy on the other side of the ring that's trying to hurt me. For me, personally, there's no letdown. This is as big as it gets. There's really no problem with this not being in the tournament. Everyone understands why it's not in the tournament, but this is a fight. So as far as myself and my team, it's business as usual."
Said Bika: "Andre Ward is a professional fighter and this is a business. He was preparing for Andre Dirrell, and now he has prepared to fight me.
"This is a very big opportunity for me. I just want to take care of my business and make a big upset, even though I'm not in the tournament. I was very disappointed at the start that they didn't include me in this tournament. ... I think I'm one of the best fighters in the world at 168 pounds. I was disappointed I wasn't selected at the start, but I'm just very happy for this opportunity to get a chance to win this fight."
Opening Showtime's broadcast will be same-day taped coverage of the Super Six Group Stage 3 fight between Germany's Abraham (31-1, 25 KOs) and England's Froch (26-1, 20 KOs) at Hartwall Areena on neutral turf in Helsinki, Finland. They meet for the vacant 168-pound belt stripped from the injured Kessler, who dropped out because of an eye injury in late August after outpointing Froch in Group Stage 2.
Abraham and Froch have both already secured spots in the tournament semifinals, but besides fighting for the belt, they will be vying for their seeding.
Before Dirrell opted out of the tournament, rumors swirled that he and Ward (22-0, 13 KOs) had somehow concocted a plan to avoid fighting each other because they were friends. Ward strongly refuted that accusation.
"I think it's unfortunate people think Dirrell and I were trying to take the fight off the table and that we were working together," Ward said. "That's personally not who I am. I was always going to do what I had to do."
Sure, Ward said, he is friendly with Dirrell -- but this is business. He said he was mentally preparing to fight Dirrell and that he had nothing to do with the fight being called off.
"When you sign a contract, it's a binding agreement and we were legally bound to fight Dirrell in our third fight [of the tournament]," Ward said. "Personally, it's not something you want to do. That's a friend of yours, your family knows one another. It's not really an ideal situation. But at the end of the day, I've been fighting for a long time and I was prepared to do what I agreed to do. I think some of the fans blew things out of proportion."
So now, Ward has Bika, who owns a technical draw with Markus Beyer in a 2006 title fight in Germany and a competitive decision loss to Joe Calzaghe in England later that year. Bika has also faced Lucian Bute in Montreal and regularly fights in his opponents' hometowns.
"I am very confident that I will win this fight," said Bika, who is from Cameroon but lives in Australia. "I'm happy to be fighting in Andre Ward's hometown. It doesn't matter where I fight because all of my career I have fought for my country and will continue to do that no matter where the fight takes place."
"I know they call Glen Johnson the 'Road Warrior,' but that would also be apt for Sakio," said David Itskowitch of Golden Boy, which co-promotes Bika with Jeff Wald. "When you look at his record, he's really fought the best of the best in their backyard. Going into someone's backyard and taking them on is nothing new for him. It's not something that fazes him at all. We expect him to come out with a victory this weekend. He's an offensive machine who keeps coming and coming and coming. I think his style and Ward's style are going to mesh for just a really great fight."
Ward has other plans.
"I am going to do what I do except a little bit better," he said. "Sakio has never been stopped. It would be great to get a stoppage in this fight."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.