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ESPN Fighter of the Year: Andre Ward
When Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic began in late 2009, Mikkel Kessler was the favorite to win the tournament featuring six of the best super middleweights in the world. Arthur Abraham was widely considered the second choice, with Carl Froch also expected to do well.
Andre Ward, despite a 2004 Olympic gold medal and a winning streak that stretched back to 1996, when he was just 12, was not a popular pick.
As Ward said, he was just a "young puppy" when the tournament began, even though he had high expectations for himself.
"I expected from the beginning to make it to the final," he said. "And slowly but surely we made believers out of a lot of people that doubted me."
Now, 26 months later, few doubt the Oakland, Calif., native, who stands alone atop the super middleweight mountain.
He was the only fighter to roll through the tournament undefeated, taking a title from Kessler with ease in an 11th-round technical decision in his opening bout and manhandling his 2010 opponents, Allan Green and Sakio Bika (in a fight outside the tournament), in lopsided decisions.
Those blowout victories set the stage for Ward's stellar 2011 campaign. This year he took apart Abraham for a no-doubt-about-it decision in the semifinals in May and then capped his tremendous tournament run in the Dec. 17 final, easily outpointing Froch in a masterpiece to unify two belts, win the vacant Ring magazine title and stamp himself as one of the best fighters on the planet.
Selecting Ward as the 2011 ESPN.com fighter of the year was an easy call. And it could be just the first of multiple such awards for Ward, 27, whose speed, skills, defense, smarts and fierce competitive spirit should make him a force for years to come.
"Andre is on a path for greatness," said Dan Goossen, who has promoted Ward for his entire professional career.
Going into the Super Six final, no clear-cut fighter of the year had emerged, but many viewed the winner of the tournament as the likely selection, which was made even easier when Ward beat Froch so easily.
When asked before he faced Froch about the possibility of being named fighter of the year, Ward said it was one of his career dreams.
"One of my goals has always been for me to be fighter of the year and to get my coach [Virgil Hunter] trainer of the year. It's been a long time coming, almost 15 years of grinding and toiling when no one is around patting you on the back and there are no lights, camera, action. The lights and the cameras have just been coming around the last five, six, seven years, but we've been grinding for many, many years. [Winning fighter of the year] would be icing on the cake for winning this tournament."
And after he shut Froch down and hoisted the Super Six championship trophy, Ward was asked about it again at his postfight news conference.
"I heard some rumblings about that before the fight," Ward said. "Obviously, that's not something I could focus on before this fight, but if that comes true, that's unbelievable. You don't set out to do that when the year starts. You just put your head down and put in the work, and then you look up and hopefully you win an award like that. So if we can get that award on top of everything else we won tonight, it would just be an unbelievable year."
Guess what, Andre? It was an unbelievable year, indeed.
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