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Andre Ward vacates 168-pound belt, plans to move to light heavyweight

Andre Ward, the longtime super middleweight world champion, vacated his 168-pound belt on Thursday, another step in his move up to the light heavyweight division for an anticipated showdown with three-belt titleholder Sergey Kovalev in 2016.

Ward's decision to vacate the world title has been expected. He had not defended the title since a lopsided decision win against Edwin Rodriguez in November 2013.

Because of a protracted contract battle with his late promoter, Dan Goossen, which Ward lost, he did not fight again until knocking out Paul Smith in a non-title bout on June 20. It was Ward's first fight since signing in January with Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports, which bought out the agreement from Goossen's family.

Ward recently signed a three-fight contract with HBO that was to have begun with a fight against Alexander Brand on Nov. 21 in the HBO PPV co-feature of the middleweight championship fight between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez in Las Vegas. However, a few days after the deal was announced, Ward withdrew from the card because of swelling in his right knee that left him unable to train properly for the bout.

Still, Ward said he is looking forward to fighting at 175 pounds and winning another world title when he returns to action.

"I won the WBA belt for my first world title in 2009 and have defended it six times, and it's been a wonderful ride with the WBA," Ward said. "[WBA head] Gilberto Mendoza and his team have shown me nothing but respect, and I'm looking forward to moving up and hopefully winning the WBA light heavyweight belt."

Despite his recent inactivity, Ward (28-0, 15 KOs), 31, of Oakland, California, essentially cleaned out the super middleweight division by beating all of the top names. He has boxed in that division for almost his entire career.

He dominated the 2009-to-2011 Super Six World Boxing Classic, rolling through the tournament unchallenged en route to winning it and unifying two world title belts in the process. He won a lopsided 11th-round technical decision against Mikkel Kessler in the tournament opener in November 2009 to win his first world title.

Lopsided decision wins over Allan Green, Sakio Bika (in a non-tournament bout) and Arthur Abraham followed before Ward manhandled Carl Froch in another decision win in the final to unify belts.

In 2012, Ward retained the title with a one-sided shellacking of then-light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson. He dropped down one weight division to challenge Ward and got smoked in a 10th-round knockout loss. It was not until more than a year later that Ward faced Rodriguez.

Many considered Ward, a 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, to be No. 2 on the pound-for-pound list behind the recently retired Floyd Mayweather before the long stretch of inactivity.