By Thomas Gerbasi
Andre Ward has been waiting for this moment since he was nine years old. A lot of athletes say things like that before the biggest event of their careers, but Ward has never been the typical professional athlete. At 25, he’s an old soul, a father and husband whose maturity makes him stand out in sports’ wonderland of overgrown adolescents.
So when he says that most of his waking hours have centered around one day becoming a world champion, you believe him and you begin to expect that when he steps into the ring against WBA super middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler this Saturday night, you will see the best Andre Ward yet.
“This is my moment,” Ward told BoxingScene. “I know what I have in the tank and I know what I’m capable of. You get opportunities like the (Edison) Miranda fight, or this fight, to show people, but that’s not really my main focus. I’m just excited because I’ve trained for a world title for many, many years. First on my list was a Gold medal and then from there, a world title, and I’ve prepared. I’ve prepared in this camp and prepared since I was nine years old, so I’m just ready for it to happen, just from a personal standpoint.”
And despite this fight being Ward’s first in the Super Six World Boxing Classic tournament, he’s not losing sight of the fact that it is for a world championship, an even more important distinction for the 2004 Olympic Gold medalist.
“I think a lot people don’t realize that this is a championship fight,” he said. “And really, my main focus is the championship, and then the tournament second.”
It’s more single-minded focus from the Oakland native, who will be fighting in his hometown this weekend, an added benefit in a lot of ways, but one that shouldn’t make too big a difference come fight night. Kessler, a seasoned vet of 43 fights and a world champion for much of the last five years, has taken his show on the road before, fighting Joe Calzaghe in Wales, Anthony Mundine in Australia, and Danilo Haussler in Germany. And on paper, the 30-year old from Denmark should be the prohibitive favorite against the fairly untested Ward (20-0, 13 KOs). But behind the lack of big names on Ward’s record and some shaky early performances is a boxer with the type of prodigious talent that can cover up a multitude of experience-based sins when the bell rings, and while he has heard all the talk about how slow he has been moved by his team since turning pro in 2004, Ward’s patience is about to be rewarded – right on time.
“From the standpoint of my faith in God, I feel like I’m here for a reason and that I’ve gotten this far for a reason,” said Ward, whose nickname is S.O.G. or Son of God. “There was always something in me that said, ‘your time is coming; you just have to wait for the right time.’ A lot of people talk about our approach to getting to this point, and I don’t think we necessarily – (promoter Dan) Goossen, my trainer Virgil (Hunter), and myself – sat down and said ‘we want to take three years, we want to take four years.’ It just kinda happened. I’m blessed to have a coach and a Godfather like Virgil who not only has an eye for the game, but who has a feel for the game. He’s a historian of the game and he’s seen the mistakes that other guys have made in terms of chasing the money, chasing the fame, or even just chasing a big fight. We never wanted that to be us. He always expressed that to my team – James Prince my manager and Goossen my promoter – that I had the goods to win the championship right now, but that I may not have been man enough to win it and keep it. But now, I’m man enough to not only win it, but keep it. And that’s what we were waiting on – just that next level of strength and the next level of wisdom in the ring. And it’s here.”
He’s been showing it as well. While his initial pro performances were characterized by cleaning out the Midwest journeyman circuit and even getting rocked and dropped early on, beginning with a 2007 stoppage of unbeaten Roger Cantrell, Ward began showing signs that he was finally ready to graduate from top-flight amateur to top-flight professional. And the victims’ list started to show more spice as well, as he took out solid fighters like Rubin Williams and Jerson Ravelo, and then decisioned talented Henry Buchanan in February. But it was his dominant victory over hard-hitting contender Edison Miranda in May that truly opened eyes around the boxing world, and soon after he received his invitation into the Super Six tournament.
There was just one more hurdle to jump, and that was a September bout against 22-3-1 Shelby Pudwill. On paper, it was another easy win for Ward. In reality, the bout was a war of nerves because all it would take was one small mistake to get cut, dropped, or injured, and then his tournament dreams would be shattered before they even began.
“Those are the toughest fights,” said Ward. “I would prefer fights like this (against Kessler) where I’ve got a few people thinking I’ve got a chance and the talent, but we’ll wait and see, versus a fight like Pudwill, that you’re supposed to win. These fights are better for me mentally and physically because it’s a different feel and adrenaline. The fight with Pudwill was very nerve racking because I’ve never really been worried about getting cut in the midst of a fight. If it happens, it happens. But this time, I remember ducking shots and thinking ‘man, please don’t headbutt me. No elbows, none of this.’ I understood what was at stake and I didn’t want to mess that up. The good news is we got out of there safely and we took care of business.”
It took Ward just three rounds to halt Pudwill and move on to his first tournament bout against Kessler, one that he’s looking forward to not just because of the stakes involved, but because he will get to test himself against one of the best in the world. As for how the bout will play out, Ward expects there to be a little bit of everything for fight fans watching at home or at the Oracle Arena.
“Because he’s very skillful and I’m very skillful, I think it’s gonna come down to who wants it more, fighting within themselves,” he said. “There’s gonna be tactical battles, but it’s also going to be very physical. There’s gonna be a little bit of everything in this fight, and that’s why I think people are excited about it. To me personally, it’s just the determination to say I’m not leaving the building without this belt, and whatever transpires, so be it. I’ll make the necessary adjustments along the way. My team will keep me abreast of whatever needs to be done, and you can’t really put a finger on it, but there’s gotta be something in you – which is in me – that says, I’m winning this belt, and we’ll work out the details along the way.”
That determination alone makes Ward dangerous, and if he can put some doubt into Kessler’s head early with his speed and accurate punching, it will be interesting to see if the champion will get flustered and off track like he did in his lone loss to Calzaghe in 2007.
“I’m not a guy who takes away anything from his opponents to try to make myself feel better,” said Ward. “He’s a tough guy and in my mind, he’s King Kong, he’s a giant, and he’s a tough task to accomplish. Some people say he’s never fought anyone but Joe Calzaghe, but I’m not looking at it like that. I’m looking at him as a reigning champion who doesn’t want to lose his belt. But give me credit because I’m the hungry challenger and I want that belt really, really bad.”
And if it gets to be a dogfight, let’s just say Ward is looking forward to that possibility.
“Without giving up too much, you’re gonna see a lot of dog in this fight, definitely.”
A win by Ward this Saturday will get him a championship belt, a ton of respect from the skeptics, and two or three (for a KO) points in the tournament, putting him right in the mix at the top of the leader board with previous first round tourney winners Carl Froch (who decisioned Andre Dirrell) and Arthur Abraham (who knocked out Jermain Taylor). Ward has obviously kept an eye on what his 168-pound peers have been up to.
“I thought Dirrell won,” said Ward of the controversial verdict rendered in the Froch-Dirrell bout. “I thought he did enough blow for blow, round for round, but I think in a situation like that, you’ve got to take it. Sometimes his body language, just from getting run down and looking like he was getting manhandled sort of gave the judges the ability to give Froch a lot of those close rounds. But to Dirrell’s credit, he did a great job. This was, with the exception of the Curtis Stevens fight, his biggest fight. He had to go to England to fight it, and it was a world championship fight against a guy a lot of people say is a monster. Granted, with all the stuff they’re saying about Froch, he showed himself very well. And for all the talking Froch did, I think he needs to step his game up, simply put. In terms of Abraham, it was a typical Abraham fight where he’s very defensive, very economical with his punches, and he looks for you to open up so he can land big shots. It’s working for him and you’ve got to take your hat off to him – he’s a very explosive fighter, a very good fighter, and he’s definitely a puzzle that no one has been able to solve this far.”
No one has been able to solve the puzzle of Andre Ward yet either, and just as in his road to the Gold in Athens over five years ago, he’s entering a huge fight not only for himself, but for a country that has seen better days – first in the 2004 Olympics, and now thus far in the Super Six tournament. Ward likes that idea, and he’s embracing it.
“With a fight of this magnitude, with so much at stake, any ounce of motivation you can grab, you grab, and anything that you can take in there with you that can take you to the next level, you try to grab a hold of it before you get in that ring,” he said. “This is just something else that I was able to take and say ‘okay, they’re not giving us much chance at all.’ I think Carl Froch summed it up the best – he said ‘things are going as planned.’ Both the Americans are down, and basically he’s saying one more to go. So that’s definitely something I’m aware of and it’s extremely motivating. I’m decked out in Red, White, and Blue, American flags are gonna be all over the place, and I’m definitely gonna be wearing my country on my back.”