By Jake Donovan
Andre Ward had just won the biggest fight of his career in scoring a unanimous decision win over Carl Froch in the Super Six finals last December, capping off the biggest year he’s enjoyed as a fighter since capturing a Gold medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics. The win came at a price, as he entered with a left hand bruised and fractured in one place, only to suffer an additional fracture midway through the fight.
All of this came following a 26-month tour of facing the best super middleweights in the world during the Super Six World Boxing Classic round-robin tournament.
Between the elevated level of competition, a career-best win capping a career year, the accolades to follow and the injuries suffered both before and during the bout, you’d think that Ward would have been given at least a moment to take it all in and spend the last two weeks of 2011 enjoying some much needed R&R.
Not in today’s demanding society. Instead came questions of when he would step into the ring with Lucian Bute, arguably the world’s best super middleweight that didn’t participate in the Super Six.
“That’s just part of boxing,” Ward says ever so slightly of the situation. “Everyone was demanding a Bute fight 10 minutes after I beat Carl Froch. I made it clear how I feel about him. I don’t feel like I have to prove that I’m willing to fight him. We proved that over the past two years that I’m willing to take on all comers.”
It’s really something that Ward (25-0, 13KO) has proven ever since putting on his first pair of boxing gloves some 18 years ago. The plan was always set in place for the Oakland native to make his run at the right time in his career, which happened to coincide with the start of the Super Six tournament.
The end result saw Ward – who entered as somewhat of a novice in comparison to the other contestants – turn away the challenge of top-rated Froch to end a 2011 campaign that was rightfully recognized as being worthy of Fighter of the Year accolades.
With the win also came the recognition as the division’s first lineal super middleweight champion since Joe Calzaghe vacated the crown four years ago. Some three weeks later, Ward still awaits the day when the cast can be removed to give him full use of his hand again, with further rehab to follow before resuming training.
At that point, he’ll be able to properly determine what lies ahead in 2012 and beyond. Until then, he’s content to reflect on life as a prizefighter and rise to fame.
The only active American fighter to have claimed Olympic Gold, Ward takes great pride in representing the United States every time he steps through the ropes. Four of his five opponents over the course of the Super Six tournament were from outside the U.S., lending that much more motivation to Ward in honor of the nation he so proudly represented in 2004.
“It means a lot to me,” Ward says of rallying the American boxing public whenever he fights. “Some people look at me funny when I rep my country, even as a pro. I feel like this is the greatest country in the world. For me to have represented my country in the Super Six is unbelievable.
“I’m in the history books as an Olympic Gold medal winner. I went in wearing the red/white/blue against a tough Dane in Mikkel Kessler. I wore it to end the tournament against a tough Brit in Carl Froch. I’m proud of where I come from and the country I represent and will proudly do so against anyone in the world.”
That same angle will certainly play out should the day come when he faces Lucian Bute, who like Ward is also unbeaten and also carries alphabet hardware. Bute enjoys immense popularity in his adopted Canada homeland, playing to sold-out arenas nearly every time he’s fought.
This fact is not lost on Ward, who has developed a following of his own in the Bay Area. The love was in full effect during his title challenge against Kessler, who at the time was considered the favorite to win the Super Six tournament.
A sold-out Oracle Arena played host to Oakland’s first world title fight in more than four decades. Not only did Ward not disappoint in outpointing Kessler, but doing so in surprisingly dominant fashion.
Surprisingly dominant to everyone except those closest to him, that is.
“When I sat down with James Prince (Ward’s manager), Antonio Leonard (co-promoter) and Virgil Hunter (Ward’s lifelong trainer, both amateur and pro) at the start of his career, this is what we had in mind,” states promoter Dan Goossen, who has guided Ward since turning pro in late 2004. “There’s a tried and true method and ingredient that has always been successful.
“Our biggest stars in the past have won that Gold medal. Today’s world it’s a lot harder, given the lack of success in today’s U.S. amateur scene at the Olympic level. Andre is moving forward like some of the greatest before him – one that is as enjoyable as was the case 30-40 years ago.”
The history of the sport is not lost on Ward, at the start of his career promised to one day go down as the greatest who ever laced ‘em up. A big part of that promise comes with knowing how to fight, but Ward also respects the fact that living in the limelight means setting an example for those who follow his every move.
The only headlines that will feature Ward’s name are most likely to be boxing-related, unless it’s to promote a community activity beyond the ropes. Where you won’t find his name is in the police blotters, on gossip sites or in the midst of scandals.
All of that goes against how he was raised, and the man he chooses to be. Ward is not an athlete who loves his family and goes to church; he’s a churchgoing family man who happens to be a stud athlete.
“His foundation of faith, and family - those are things that are very hard to hold as a solid foundation in someone’s life given the environment we’re in,” Goossen states. “Andre and I were talking about Tim Tebow and what he’s done with his faith without going out there and being anything other than a devout Christian who is one heck of a football player.
“I take great pride in Andre, who lives his life by the same high moral standards, which is ironic considering that he’s one of the most vicious fighters out there when steps through the ropes.”
Vicious or not, he’s certainly proven to be among the most effective. Ward’s last loss came as a teenager in the amateurs. Given his level of competition both as an amateur and pro, the bottom lines it that he is a proven winner.
Yet for whatever reason, the perception remains that he needs to respond whenever challenged.
Accepting a challenge has never been Ward’s problem. It’s the suggestion that he needs to go on the hunt that doesn’t sit well.
“It’s never been our M.O. to call out another fighter,” Ward points out. “Right now, we’re tentatively looking at April or May to return. Everyone wants to know who I’m fighting next and believe me, I wish I had that good news to share. Once I know, I promise that all of my fans will know.”
Before he can get to that point, there still remains the matter of the healing process.
“I didn’t take a lot of punishment, other than my hand injury. But my body went through two years of tremendously hard fights,” ward indicates. “On top of that, you have the training camps that went with those fights. A part of me needs to rest.
“In my heart of hearts, I want to keep fighting the best. There is no need to go backward. But outside of tournaments like the Super Six, it’s not always a reality. It doesn’t always work out.”
Whoever Ward next faces, it will come from agreed upon terms that it’s the best next move for his career. It could be a hometown showcase. It could very well be a showdown with Bute. Or it can be a fight in between, such as his mandatory with unbeaten contender Anthony Dirrell.
Whatever it turns out to be, there will be a right time and place for that decision and the subsequent announcement. It won’t be on demand from a media member, or at the whim of a divisional peer.
For now, Ward is still taking it all in and allowing his mind and body to rest from the physical and emotional grind that came with the Super Six competition. Running the tables and coming out on top should earn him that much.
“I don’t want to be backed in a corner and feel like I have one option. We should have options and choose what we want to do, regardless of what network or venue. We should have options. Right now, there are a lot of moving pieces. I wish I had something to tell everyone but I don’t even know.”
“Make no mistake, Bute is a fight that I want and a fight that should be made. One weight class above and below as well as my own are also options. It doesn’t have to be against the first guy that calls us out. My point is that I want people to know – and would like to believe I’ve proven – is that I’ll defend against anybody.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]