By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Alfredo Perez
In the eight years since he first emerged on the international scene in the 2004 Olympics, Andre Ward hasn’t changed a bit. That may be the most remarkable achievement in a boxing career full of impressive feats. From his Olympic Gold medal in Athens, to his world titles at 168 pounds and his win in the Super Six tournament, to his unbeaten professional record, he’s already compiled quite the resume, but not at the price of his integrity.
In the eyes of many, what that equates to in the lead-up to his Saturday fight with Chad Dawson is that he’s boring. God forbid a boxer carries himself as a gentleman, a family man, and a non-trash talker. Put him in with the soft-spoken Dawson, who is much like Ward in many ways, and you would think that what should be celebrated as a Superfight will be the international cure for insomnia.
That’s a shame.
Maybe it’s because the last highly-anticipated fight between two United States born and bred stars on the rise between Tim Bradley and Devon Alexander in January of 2011 turned out to be a dud both financially and aesthetically, making fans and pundits a little gun-shy. Or maybe watching two of the game’s top talents compete at the highest level of the sport just isn’t enough anymore.
Whatever it is, Ward is not about to change what he’s doing now, not while he’s midstream and especially not while everything is going so well for him. More importantly, he has yet to stray from the course he set for himself all those years ago. Even back in June of 2004, with the Olympics still two months away, a 20-year old Ward gave a quick glimpse into the man he was and who he was going to be. Already pegged as the United States team’s leading candidate for Gold medal honors, he was far from a cocky kid soaking in his moment in the spotlight. He had the serious demeanor boxing fans would come to know pretty well in the ensuing years, and when asked about being the favorite heading to Greece, he told me “I don’t look at myself like that. It’s an honor for people to say that, but all my teammates have the ability to win a gold medal, and I believe that with all my heart.”
You believed him too. When you’ve been in the game for over 16 years, you tend to sharpen your BS detector. You hear every cliché, you hear every lie, and you hear every line that’s been regurgitated by every fighter since Cain threw down with Abel. So when an Andre Ward comes around, he’s not only a breath of fresh air, but you tend to look forward to picking his brain about various topics because you know that while you may not always agree with what he says, you know he’s giving an honest, thoughtful answer. That’s a gift to any writer these days, and it’s a gift Ward has to be able to break down life and the fight game in a way that separates him far from the pack. It’s so rare that a running joke has been that someday his deep, dark secret will come out: that someone doctored his birth certificate and that he’s far older than his currently accepted age.
He always laughs about it, telling me before the 2004 Games, “I definitely was born like this. People would always tell me, loosen up, be a kid, and I was always acting like the old man. It’s just been instilled in me. I don’t know where it came from, but I believe it’s all for a reason. I kind of trip myself out, so to speak, on some of the things I say and some of the things I do, and I look up and I’m only 20 years old. I don’t know why right now, but I believe it’s necessary, as everything unfolds and everything gets laid out as far as my life is concerned. Then I’ll see why God has given me this type of personality. I also have a kid side to me but when it’s time to go to work and be a businessman, then I’ll do what I have to do.”
And though he does possess an almost unnatural maturity, you have to realize that he grew up faster than most. He lost his father Frank in 2002, and by the time he left for Athens and Olympic glory, he was married with two kids (a daughter has since followed). For many, that much adult experience for someone not even legally allowed to drink would be overwhelming. It fueled Ward, whose work ethic (remember, pushing pick-up trucks was part of his training routine with Godfather and longtime trainer Virgil Hunter) and faith led him to gold as an amateur and a pro.
He also hasn’t lost since he was defeated at the age of 14 by Jesus Gonzales, so there’s plenty of talent to be credited as well. But after he was brought up slowly as a pro, rocked in his second fight by Kenny Kost, and dropped in his seventh fight by Darnell Boone, few pegged him as a future member of the pound-for-pound list. Sure he could box, sure he had skill, but when he got clipped by a legitimate puncher or brought into a dogfight, he would fold.
How wrong those people were.
Knockout artists Esteban Camou and Edison Miranda couldn’t dent his chin, and when he entered the Super Six 168-pound tournament in 2009, he shocked the world with his succession of wins over Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch, with a non-tourney win over Sakio Bika thrown in for good measure. You don’t win fights over that level of competition by sheer luck, and you don’t do it without getting your hands dirty, which wasn’t a problem for Ward. In fact, when I asked him about the possibility of getting into a dogfight with Kessler in their November 2009 bout, he smiled and said “Without giving up too much, you’re gonna see a lot of dog in this fight, definitely.”
That win over the 42-1 Kessler not only earned Ward his first world title, but it established him as not simply a slick and defensively sound boxer, but as a fighter. He waded into the trenches with Bika, Abraham, and Froch as well, confident and fearless about the eventual outcome of each fight.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup with Dawson, he is supremely confident about facing the light heavyweight champion, and not just because the Connecticut native is dropping down in weight to 168 pounds and is fighting in Ward’s hometown of Oakland, California. Maybe it stems from Dawson’s last dogfight, a 2008 war with Glen Johnson that seemed to put him into a bit of a funk when it came to planting his feet and letting his hands go. After that bout, which he won by a 116-112 decision on all scorecards, Dawson simply relied on his boxing ability to get him through two wins over Antonio Tarver, and a rematch victory over Johnson, with a 2010 loss to Jean Pascal making him the poster child for passivity in a major title fight.
It was a disappointing turn of events for the ultra-talented Dawson, who walked through a 2011 win over Adrian Diaconu before getting his mojo back after his controversial no contest with Bernard Hopkins in October of last year. After Hopkins was unable to continue due to a shoulder injury predicated by a toss to the canvas by Dawson, “Bad Chad” re-emerged, showing more fire after the bout than he did in his previous five fights.
He carried that head of steam into the rematch with Hopkins in April, clearly taking back his WBC title from the future Hall of Famer, and then going on to call for a fight with Ward immediately after the final bell. It was a gutsy move and one that was good for the sport. But that kind of goodwill has its way of fading, unfortunately.
The heat behind the September 15th fight between Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Sergio Martinez has been stealing headlines over the last few weeks, and the Golden Boy quadrupleheader featuring Saul Alvarez vs. Josesito Lopez has gotten plenty of ink as well, leaving Ward vs. Dawson as a virtual opening act to next week’s festivities.
This has not gone unnoticed by Ward, who noted on a recent media teleconference, “I think the knock is that if you don't take a lot of punishment or it doesn't seem like you're getting hit that often, (then) you're reluctant, you're getting tagged as being boring. Well, the guys that make it in this sport, the greats, the guys that can still walk and talk when their careers are over and still live their lives like Sugar Ray Leonard and guys like Floyd Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins, those guys, obviously they took shots, they're in the sport of boxing. But those guys are masters, and I've always been trained to be a master, and that's what I'm going to continue training to become is a master of the sport, where even though no fight is easy, you make it look a certain way.”
And greatness has been a recurring theme in the life of the current super middleweight king. Shortly after his pro debut, we sat down for an interview detailing his training regimen, which of course focused on the truck pushing, and I had to ask him why he put himself through such torture every day. His response was immediate and to the point. “I want to be the greatest fighter who ever laced up a pair of gloves and after you make a comment like that, you have to go to work.”
We revisited that topic before last December’s Super Six final with Froch, looking to see if his definition of the term and his claim to it had wavered at all.
“I think greatness is when a fighter is able to dominate over an extended period of time, and who knows how long that time frame is,” he said. “Even if he takes a loss, he’s able to battle back and avenge a loss or just continue to beat great, quality opposition over an extended period of time. And to me personally, I feel like greatness is something that the fans give you, something that the media gives you collectively, and I just don’t think it’s something that because you’ve had a few good battles that you can say that you’re the greatest. I just don’t think it’s something you can crown yourself with.”
So he didn’t. He admitted that neither he nor Froch were there yet and he was just going to go about his business until the world got on board with that notion. He beat Froch decisively, and on Saturday he’ll look to do the same to Chad Dawson. If he’s successful and you ask him again about being a great fighter, he’ll probably say he’s not there yet. That’s just his way. But maybe, just maybe, it will be time for everyone else to start at least mentioning the “G” word around the 28-year old from Oakland.