By Thomas Gerbasi
After dealing with a rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder for over a decade, Andre Ward assumed that when it hurt a little more than usual after his September 2012 knockout of Chad Dawson, that it was just one of those things. Rest for a few days and everything will be fine.
It wasn’t. Nearly four weeks of rehab didn’t help either. So after an MRI, he spoke to renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michael Dillingham.
“That little twinge you felt means that it’s time to get this fixed,” the doctor told Ward.
Of course, you have to assume that what was a “little twinge” to Ward would probably be excruciating pain to the rest of us.
“I do have a high pain tolerance,” Ward laughs, the only time he does when describing the subsequent surgery and rehab that kept him out of the ring for over a year. On Saturday, the super middleweight champion returns to defend his WBA title against fellow unbeaten Edwin Rodriguez, but despite resuming his career, you can still hear the pain in Ward’s voice when he talks about his time away, especially when you consider that with one wrong move by Dillingham, the Oakland product’s career could have been over before he reached the age of 30.
“It was a lot physically healing, and it was a grueling rehab process,” he recalled. “Then you factor in the mental stuff: not being able to compete, sitting on the sidelines, calling fights ringside (for HBO) but not being able to get in there. So it wasn’t that easy to say ‘these were the cards that I was dealt.’ But I thank God that I have a strong family, I’ve got a strong church family, a lot of prayers, and it was just a lot of hard work and days where you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no cameras, no media, there’s really nobody going with me to rehab, and I gotta go in there and grind it out every day.”
Ward was never afraid of the grind though, whether it was winning an Olympic Gold medal in 2004, earning his first world title as a pro in 2009, or tearing through the Super Six tournament that netted him that title and then sent him onto the pound-for-pound list. The one-sided stoppage of Dawson should have been the tipping point for him, the fight that sent him into the highest reaches of the boxing stratosphere, but the injury took all that momentum away, and as the months went on, Ward caught more than his share of barbs from fans and the media, whether it was for an attempted split from longtime promoter Dan Goossen, for trying to ease back into active duty with a less than A-list opponent for HBO-level money, or for any other various reasons, some bordering on the bizarre. And while he admits to seeing and hearing some of the criticism, he’s also scaled back his scouring of various websites and news sources over the last couple years.
“I read a limited amount of articles and things like that,” he said. “I’m a fan of the sport, I really am. That being said, probably over the past two, three, four years, I stopped reading a lot of this stuff because anybody can pay for a domain name, give a name to a website, and they’re writers. Don’t get me wrong, there are bona fide writers out there who have paid their dues, and more importantly, they respect the sport. A lot of times, guys will push back on me and say ‘hey, just because you haven’t been on the field of play doesn’t mean that you’re not qualified to write or talk about the field of play.’ And that I agree with a hundred percent. But what you’re not qualified to do is berate, trash, or belittle fighters because you don’t like their style or ‘this guy should have did this’ or ‘why did he coast in the last round when he was up with a lead?’ There are some guys that have mastered it, where they can make a point but always have a positive spin where they’re never just trashing a person. So when I started seeing a lot of this stuff throughout the years, I backed up from a lot of it. And a lot of the stuff that’s written, not just about myself, but about other fighters, it’s personal, and when it’s personal, it’s not professional. And when it’s not professional, then it has no place in this sport, and it’s not good for the sport.
“I’m a casual MMA fan,” Ward continues. “Every now and again I’ll tune in and there are certain guys that I know and guys I don’t know, but I’ve never turned to an MMA broadcast and heard the announcers trash or downplay any of the fighters. So me being a casual MMA fan, even though I don’t really know what’s going on, I stay tuned in because this guy says ‘hey, this guy doesn’t really have a good ground game, but if you let him stand up, he’ll do this and he can knock you out.’ And it keeps you intrigued, ‘okay, let me see what’s going on,’ versus ‘this guy’s horrible, he’s got four losses, why is he fighting like that?’ Those are the types of things that are said sometimes and the things that are written. And hardcore fans, they’ll endure it and keep following the sport, but you get casual fans, and if we’re talking about our own guys, why would they want to watch our sport or follow our sport? They’re going to want to change the channel.”
Comments like those not only show Ward to be an astute observer, but also continue to separate him from the pack. In a perfect world, Ward would be in that stratosphere of making the big paydays while being recognized in the mainstream world as an ambassador of the sport. But this isn’t a perfect world, so in the meantime, Ward will have to be content with controlling what he can, and that’s his performance in the ring. First up? Rodriguez.
“I’m expecting the toughest Edwin Rodriguez,” said Ward. “This is his opportunity to win a title and make his mark. The only problem is, this is my opportunity to keep what I’ve earned and keep what I have, and that’s very important to me because I understand that one loss in this sport can change everything.”
Few expect Ward to lose, because while Rodriguez has power and always shows up to fight, he simply doesn’t have the dimensions to his game that the champion does. Of course, Rodriguez knows that if he can goad Ward into a brawl, anything can happen. Ward isn’t so sure.
“He (Rodriguez) knows one way to fight,” said the 29-year-old champion. “He tries to box, and every now and again he’ll try to be slick and move his head and stuff, but that’s really not him. His nature is to come forward and try to wing big shots and hope he lands something. They want to try and get me in a shootout and try to catch me with a big shot, but my question is, what makes you think you’re gonna win a shootout?”
With that statement, you know for sure that Andre Ward is back and ready for all comers. Just don’t ask him about the idea of being the hunted instead of the hunter.
“It’s funny, because it’s like I’m hunting too,” he said. “When I think about having a target on your back, I think about somebody in retreat, somebody trying to survive, and that’s just not me.”