Andre Ward is a two-division world champion. He is an Olympic gold medalist. He hasn’t lost a boxing match since he was 13 years old. Why the hell was he not more celebrated?
The easy answer is that Ward wasn’t an action fighter, nor did he possess the one punch knockout power fans clamour to see. The real answer is much more complicated and nuanced, and it starts way back in the year 2009 when the Super Six World Boxing Classic was just starting out. Ward of course won the tournament and basically gutted the division in the process.
Ward, with alarming ease, dusted top-ten super middleweights Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch – he even managed to sneak in a stay-busy fight with another top-ten fighter in Sakio Zika. A run of five fights like that where Ward put the beats on basically everyone at the top of the division not named Jermain Taylor should have set him up to be one of the biggest stars in the sport. He should have had promoters lining up with hopeful after hopeful. He should have been such a draw that he could entice the top middleweights to move up and fight him. Should have.
He followed that up by embarrassing Chad Dawson, stopping him in the tenth. The fight was so one sided that Dawson was telling anyone who would listen that HBO set him up. Although, there is perhaps some credence to that; Ward is billed as a human boxer when he is really a robot designed specifically for out-boxing scary men. The ease with which Ward defeated all these very scary, very violent men would ultimately be to his detriment. The problems for Ward began in the aftermath of this fight.
Ward had taken 8 months off between the Dawson fight and his victory over Froch. When he should have been capitalizing on the momentum he built cleaning out the 168-pound division, Ward was waiting around for opponents to pop up. After Dawson, he was derailed by a shoulder injury which resulted in the cancellation of a fight with Kelly Pavlik. He would return in 2013, outclassing a hilariously overmatched Edwin Rodriguez. Rodriguez missed weight, but he could hardly be criticized given who he was in with and how far out of his depth he was. Best thing you can do when you know you can’t win is create every advantage that you can, fair or foul. Still, Rodriguez put on a pathetic performance. The most interesting thing about the whole affair was Jack Reiss getting clipped with a punch while trying to separate the two fighters and – evidently pissed off and probably concussed – deducting two points from each fighter. Far as I know, that is the only instance of this ever happening in a boxing match.
Problems with his late promoter Dan Goossen and an utter lack of top contenders to fight led to Ward simply not fighting for more than two years, taking 2014 and 2015 off completely. He was stripped of his WBC title before the Rodriguez fight, having allegedly not provided any medical information to them regarding his shoulder injury. He was stripped of his lineal title by Ring in 2015, having not defended it against a top-five contender in two years. The best fighter in the world was languishing in inactivity.
When he returned, it was in another lopsided win over Paul Smith. You’re forgiven if you missed this fight, or completely forgot about it. Ward signed with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation Sports in advance of the fight, and his opponent was such a turn off that HBO turned down the opportunity to showcase Ward’s return to the ring. Smith missed the 172 pound catchweight, and was TKO’d in the ninth round for his trouble. Without HBO, Roc Nation put the fight on BET where something like fifteen people watched it. No knock on the network but BET it isn’t exactly a hotbed for The Fights. Afterward, Ward announced he was vacating his remaining super middleweight title and moving up to 175. All of his hard work had earned him a date with a monster, as a fight with Sergey Kovalev loomed on the horizon.
We all know this part of the story. Ward took another nine months off getting ready for Sullivan Barrera, who he thoroughly dominated. He then won a shutout over Alexander Brand, who he embarrassed by simply popping him in the eye with his jab for 12 rounds – boxing isn’t complicated if you don’t make it complicated. He would then go on to take Kovalev’s belts and undefeated record, winning a razor thin decision. He followed that up by stopping Kovalev in the rematch and promptly retiring, having accomplished all he reasonably could have.
So, why didn’t Ward resonate with fans? The inactivity was surely damaging. Just when Ward would enter the conversation as a hot name in boxing, he would disappear for months at a time. He also lacked the charisma, or perhaps more accurately the guile, of another dominant fighter you may have heard of, Floyd Mayweather. Floyd was nearly as inactive as Andre – he didn’t fight more than twice in a year after 2005, though he played the heel character so well that it didn’t matter. We all paid good money to watch and hope Mayweather would lose, knowing that it would never happen. Ward was never able to get on either side of that. He never inspired fans to revere him as the people’s champion, and he never played the bad guy. He was just a guy.
As a boxer, Ward was one of the best of his generation. Despite lacking flash knockout power or blinding speed, Ward was one of the most complete fighters of the last 20 years. Even when his right shoulder basically gave out, he was unbeatable. Part of this is his extensive amateur background, which gave him a base upon which to build his style, but there’s much more to it than that.
Boxing isn’t complicated unless you decide to make it complicated. Make the right decisions over and over, and you will generally win by virtue of never exposing yourself to fight-ending danger. This sounds quite easy, but only a handful of fighters ever accomplish it. Ward was one of the best at always making the right decision with conviction. And as Hamilton Nolan, one of the best boxing writers in the world for my money, put it:
Another thing that Ward is able to do is to break free of the subtle and unspoken timing pattern that governs mortal boxers. Boxing matches have a rhythm of move and countermove. Fighters tend to fall into a rhythm that is discernible only if you stop and focus very hard on detecting it. Since it is hard to stop and focus in the middle of a fist fight, most boxers allow this rhythm to simply fade into the background. But very great fighters like Ward are able to spot it, and then break it.
By disrupting what mere mortals do in a boxing match, Ward was able to exist in a universe slightly different from our own. He was always just a quarter of a second ahead of everyone else, able to read what was going on and react to it before it ever happened. The problem with this is that it does not lead to exciting fights or big knockouts. Instead, it leads to fights that become gradually one-sided and boring. Not boring because Ward isn’t good, but boring because we all realize what the outcome will be by the middle rounds when one fighter is at a complete loss to understand just how they’re losing.
With his inactivity, lack of polarizing personality, and predictably dominant style, Ward found himself always on the verge of stardom but never quite getting there. This says nothing bad about him, it is simply a fact. Andre Ward is, to me, a genuinely pleasant guy – humble, kind, modest in victory. These are great qualities for someone who runs a bakery, but they are killers when it comes to star-making in boxing. The always elusive “casual fan” doesn’t come for a masterclass in boxing, they come for blood, or at very least to see a jerk potentially get his head swept into the press seats. Ward could never deliver that. All he gave us was some of the best examples of pure boxing ability in the 21st century, when he could be bothered to anyway.