By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Ask any boxing know-it-all.
Chances are they’ll suggest that the only thing declining faster than a fighter who’s past his 30th birthday… is an inactive fighter who’s past his 30th birthday.
It’s easy to understand, then, why Andre Ward doesn’t have much time for know-it-alls.
Though the Olympic light heavyweight and professional super middleweight king has fought just four times in Barack Obama’s second term, he’s convinced that success at age 32 will be every bit as attainable as it was when the twice-elected president was still an unknown Midwestern state senator.
“I hope I’m getting better. I’m very hard on myself personally. But looking at my performances in the gym and different things like that, given the layoffs, I’m pleased,” he said.
“It could always be better, but I feel like I’m in the middle of my prime right now. Not looking behind too much, really just focused on the future and I like what I’m seeing in the gym. I like what I see in my fights. And I just think I’m evolving into a more mature fighter.”
Don’t believe him? You’ll get your chance soon enough.
It’s T-minus 25 days until he faces Sergey Kovalev – a three-belted monster with 26 KOs in 30 professional victories – in the latest light heavyweight fight to end all light heavyweight fights on Nov. 19 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
For Ward, it’s just the fifth ring appearance since what many consider his reigning career-defining victory -- a 10-round thrashing of then 175-pound champion Chad Dawson in an elite vs. elite match in September 2012.
Surgeries, injuries and promotional lawsuits have limited his participation since then, leaving the affable stylist to engage with his fans through a gig as a ringside commentator and hone his gloved craft in a sparsely-populated gym that sits miles away from the television spotlight.
He’s still considered among the sport’s very best -- evidenced by a No. 4 pound-for-pound slot in Ring Magazine’s latest rankings -- but he concedes to some frustration caused by those whose tales now define him more by the inactivity than the prowess.
“People don’t fact check,” he said. “I’ve had a 10-plus-year career and the last maybe two years have been rough. There have been surgeries, and there has been obviously a lawsuit that I was embroiled in, and that’s just like the narrative. Everybody forgets about everything that happened since then.
“That’s the part that can be frustrating. But I get it. Even the shoulder surgery and the lawsuit. That’s life. If I had to give up boxing today, I don’t have any regrets. Of course, there would be things that I would say, ‘Man I wish I could’ve did this or did that,’ but I wouldn’t regret anything because I’ve had a 10-plus-year career and I’ve been doing this total time over 20 years.”
If he defeats Kovalev, there’ll be no shortage of opportunities to remind.
The imminent fight matches Ward with Ring’s No. 2-ranked pound-for-pound commodity and provides him an opportunity to continue his version of an evolution he saw as Floyd Mayweather Jr. aged.
“You look at a young 20-year-old Floyd and he’s moving all over the ring, and then you see Floyd in his 30s and he’s moving just enough. That’s the zone that I’m getting into right now,” Ward said. “The key to all of this from a physical standpoint is not putting poison in your body, not mistreating your body and actually still being mentally engaged in the sport.
“When I was off, I cared about the sport, I was around the sport, I watched the sport, I commentated, I stayed in the gym. Days that I didn’t want to be there, days that I was like ‘Man, this is never going to end,’ I stayed in the gym. It seems like you’re wasting your time, but then when you get that phone call that it all was done and resolved, then you see the results and the fruit of all your labor. That’s just been the key over the last couple years. Just keep hammering away. Just stay in the gym and keep working your craft and then you’ll see the fruit later on down the road.”
The targets for Kovalev, though, were not always so lofty.
“When I was growing up in Russia I did not hear these words -- pound for pound,” he said. “Once I learned what this was I knew this was important. I am honored that people think I am the fighter that could get this title. It's important for me, for my career. I am champion in my division now, but I want to get all the belts and also I would like to be best pound-for-pound boxer in the world.”
It's nearly a pick-’em proposition when it comes to forecasting a winner, with a $125 wager on Ward required to earn a $100 profit from the Bovada online sportsbook.
Meanwhile, it’ll take a $105 outlay on the realistic Kovalev to yield a similar $100 profit.
“I respect Andre Ward,” he said. “He is very good boxer and Olympic gold medal winner, but he is man, not alien, so I have chance to beat him. My fight against Andre Ward is very interesting for all boxing fans. We both have undefeated record and top rating. I will be prepared 100% to do all I have to do, box, fight, go 12 rounds, what it takes to win I will do. There is much intrigue, many people talk of this fight. They say it’s 50/50 who will win. We will see (on Nov. 19). This is boxing, anything can happen during fight, but I try always to do my best to win. My goal is to get victory over Andre Ward. It’s big step for me in my boxing career and I must be ready.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
No fights scheduled.
Last week’s picks: 1-1 (WIN: Bellew; LOSS: Geale)
2016 picks record: 71-20 (78.0 percent)
Overall picks record: 803-268 (74.9 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.