By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – Andre Ward answered the loaded question thoughtfully and honestly.
Race is always a sensitive subject, particularly for star athletes taught to avoid such potentially controversial conversations with the media. Ward joked that he had hoped to get “in and out” of an interview session with a small group of reporters Monday morning without discussing that provocative topic.
When Ward was asked if he thinks “this industry views African-American fighters” differently, the easy answer would’ve been, “Yes.” It’s a complicated matter, though, and if you should anything about Andre Ward by now, it’s that the unbeaten light heavyweight champion generally doesn’t do easy.
Not at the negotiating table. Not in court. Not when assessing the public’s perception of him.
So, seated at the head of a long, rectangular table in a Manhattan hotel ballroom, looking at the faces of mostly white reporters, Ward went into enlightening detail on this often-divisive issue.
Ultimately, the cerebral boxer believes branding someone a racist simply because you don’t like something he or she wrote, or said on television or radio, about you is an irresponsible, dangerous game to play. However, Ward acknowledged there have been times when patterns of what Ward considered unfair and/or incomplete reporting has made him wonder whether race really was at the root of some criticism.
“That’s a tricky subject because do I see things at times that make me scratch my head? Absolutely,” Ward said. “I’ve got two eyes, two ears and I’ve watched the history of the sport. But where I have to stop myself is I can’t judge another man or woman’s intentions. And that’s where it’s tricky. I can’t say, ‘You’re this,’ or ‘You don’t like black fighters.’ I could be dead wrong. Maybe I perceived an article or perceived a question [incorrectly]. So I try to keep myself honest.
“I see things that I scratch my head about, things that sometimes are blatant that I don’t like. But then I try to come back to neutral and say, ‘But you don’t fully know.’ I can’t judge a person’s intentions. So I try to keep it there. I try to keep a balanced view, where I see things and I do have an opinion. But I do reserve the right to be wrong. I may be wrong. So if you’re gonna go down that road, you’ve gotta have some tangible proof. It can’t be just your opinion because in that case, then you kinda stir up the pot and it’s like, ‘OK, what next? You said this. Now where’s the proof?’ That’s a pretty strong coat to put on somebody.”
The 33-year-old Ward (31-0, 15 KOs) brings a well-rounded perspective to this complex subject because the Hayward, California, native was born out of an interracial relationship.
“And again, I’ve talked to you guys about this before,” Ward continued. “You know, my father was white and my mother was black. So I know both sides. I know about the rejection from both sides. I know about the challenges from both sides. So I feel like I can talk about it. But I’ve gotta be careful if I talk about it, to know what I’m talking about.”
Race undoubtedly has become a simmering subplot in Ward’s evolving rivalry with Russia’s Sergey Kovalev, who Ward will fight again June 17 at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. That’s evident everywhere from our own forums and comment sections at BoxingScene.com to heated debates on social media and elsewhere on the Internet.
Though it has become beyond obvious that they genuinely don’t like each other, Ward and Kovalev themselves haven’t turned theirs into a racial rivalry. Their handlers talked more about the United States-Russia rivalry as they’ve promoted their HBO Pay-Per-View rematch this week during a press tour that stopped in New York, Oakland and Los Angeles.
Ward does feel, however, that Kovalev (30-1-1, 26 KOs), for a reason he didn’t identify, has generally been afforded a benefit of the doubt in defeat that he would not have been granted had he lost. The former undisputed super middleweight champion doesn’t think he has been given enough credit, either, for getting off the canvas in the second round against the hard-hitting Kovalev, regaining his composure, taking control of their 12-round fight in its second half and finding a way to win the IBF, WBA and WBO 175-pound championships from Kovalev on November 19 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The 2004 Olympic gold medalist’s take on how he feels many boxing fans and media haven’t given him much margin for error in or out of the ring was what led a black reporter to ask Ward the aforementioned question about how Ward feels race has affected the way he is covered.
“To be able to do what I did, man, it really took my game to another level physically, but also mentally,” said Ward, who is commonly considered one of the top three fighters, pound-for-pound, in boxing. “To know you can go through something like that and come from behind – I don’t think I’ve ever had to come from behind like that in a professional fight. So to do that, and I think that’s gotten lost in all of this. I feel like certain fighters would’ve got the, ‘Oh, my God! It was the greatest comeback in boxing history!’ But because I don’t always get that kind of response, it keeps me grounded. And I think what some may think is hurting me, those types of responses are really helping me. I haven’t had a chance to rest on my laurels. I’ve enjoyed the victory and enjoyed my belts, but my mind is steady working. I’m in great shape right now.
“And like I told you guys before the fight, they said, ‘Why do you have to win? What do you have to do?’ I said, ‘I have to win. Why? Because I won’t have a soft cushion to fall on. I won’t get the benefit of the doubt. And I’m not complaining, but I’m being honest with you.’ I said, ‘But if he does [lose], they’ll justify it and he’ll get the benefit of the doubt.’ And you see that. Have your opinion about the decision, but it’s extra stuff that comes on top of that. That’s why he wasn’t able to dig deep, because he knows he has a soft cushion to fall on. When you know you’re gonna hit that hard concrete, you do everything you can to stay up.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.