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The Great Unknown

Most people couldn’t pick Andre Ward out of a crowd. But with a star-making, career-defining megafight around the corner, that’s all about to change.

Andre Ward training at his Hayward gym in advance of his November 19 fight vs. Sergey Kovalev.

 

 

Step into Andre Ward’s office. It’s small, hot, cramped. Maybe three feet by three feet, just you and him, nose to nose, sweat dripping, Ward angling for the extra inch of positioning that’ll allow for a clean chance to throw a hook and maybe break your ribs. You don’t want to stay here long.

This is the clinch, and it’s where Andre Ward does his work. And it’s the unenviable spot where Alexander Brand, a 39-year-old journeyman fighter from Colombia, has just found himself. Ward, a 32-year-old East Bay native, is one of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers. But tonight he’s having this tête-à-tête in Oakland’s half-full Oracle Arena, fighting a nobody who’s going off as a massive underdog and making just $30,000 for his troubles. 

The fight, like so many of Ward’s, is a strange mix of rowdy flash—it is a prizefight, after all—and humility. There are all the trappings of a major sporting event: HBO is televising it live, ring girls are decked out in blue Corona-branded outfits, and there are enough strobe lights between rounds to make it mistakable for a hair-metal concert. Michael Buffer even showed up to growl out his signature “Let’s get ready to rumble!” And yet things feel somehow hollow. The fight is widely acknowledged to be a tune-up for Ward’s next bout, a November 19 pay-per-view card against Russian light heavyweight Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev—a fight with enough buzz to launch Ward into superstardom—but tonight the stakes don’t feel especially high. (Indeed, an estimated 742,000 viewers tune in for the Ward–Brand fight; in comparison, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. beat Manny Pacquiao in May 2015, 4.4 million people bought the roughly $100 pay-per-view telecast.) Add to that the fact that this is the third consecutive time Ward has fought in Oakland—not exactly Las Vegas—and against a virtually unknown opponent. 

Ward before his August bout with Alexander Brand.

Photo: Roc Nation Sports/Tom Hogan-Hogan Photos

Given his perfect 30–0 record, his Olympic gold medal, and his wholesome persona, Ward should by all rights be a star. A superstar. And yet outside the Bay Area, he’s still relatively unknown. On the way to meet him at his gym in an industrial park in Hayward, I drive past Oracle Arena, where there’s a giant animated billboard promoting Ward’s fight, next to an equally large banner welcoming Kevin Durant to the Warriors. When I mention this to Ward, he seems bashful about getting equal billing with KD, an NBA All-Star and an Olympian. It occurs to me later that, in terms of accomplishments within their own sports, it’s really Durant who should be thankful to be in Ward’s company.

It’s possible the roles could be reversed soon. Ward’s November 19 fight with Kovalev (currently ranked as the Ring’s number-two pound-for-pound fighter) is the kind of career-defining megafight that makes fans put up with the Alexander Brands of the world. The winner will have an extraordinary claim to being the best in the business. Should it happen—should Ward win and break into mainstream fame—it’d certainly represent a sea change from the narrative that typically accompanies him.

Up until now, Ward has toiled in relative obscurity, except to dedicated boxing heads. He’s ranked number four on the Ring’s pound-for-pound list, the highest of any American fighter, and yet his star appeal pales in comparison with that of many lesser contemporaries, despite the fact that he had a cameo in Creed and has served as an analyst on several televised fights. Ward has never gotten to fight on pay-per-view, never fought in Las Vegas. His biggest purses have been in the $2 million range. (By comparison, Mexican fighter Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.—who is half the fighter Ward is, but who has a sizable following—commands more in non-title fights.) Carl Froch, the British super middleweight whom Ward beat in 2011, hit the nail on the head when describing why a proposed rematch, which Ward wanted to stage at the 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium, couldn’t work: “Guess what, Andre Ward, nobody wants to come and see you fight.… It’s not a big enough fight for Wembley Stadium because Andre Ward is boring and unknown.” 

In boxing, the big stars are expected to bring their own sizzle to fights, to sell the spectacle. Pacquiao, despite speaking little English, is irresistible because he lacks any sense of a filter: In the ring he’s a blur of manic energy and high-stakes gambits, and out of it he’s willing to go on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and sing ballads. Mayweather molded himself into the game’s arch-villain, the rainmaking, arrogant bad boy. Gennady Golovkin, the Kazakh middleweight who may be the most exciting fighter in the game, dominates through sheer power, having knocked out each of his past 23 opponents.

Says veteran boxing analyst Barry Tompkins of Ward, however, “He’s a lunch-bucket guy. The way he fights—he beats his opponents, but he doesn’t wipe them out.” That’s both a blessing and a curse, Tompkins says: Ward avoids injury, which allows him to keep his body (and brain) in shape, but doesn’t inspire many fans. “That’s why he’s not a big ticket seller outside the Bay Area.”

Once in the ring, Ward plays chess, not Whac-A-Mole. Rather than press the action and hunt for highlight-reel knockouts, he’s willing to bide his time and avoid getting hit, then use his speed and technical mastery to land enough punches to win comfortably, if not spectacularly. In the parlance of the sport, he’s more boxer, less puncher.

Taken together, Ward’s quiet demeanor—his fighting moniker is S.O.G., for “Son of God”—and subtle ring artistry conspire against his gaining stardom. “He doesn’t light up a room,” Tompkins says, “and that’s kind of a shame.” 

And yet it bears repeating: Ward is very possibly the best boxer in the world. Consider the third round of tonight’s fight. Brand seems resigned to his inability to outbox Ward, so he’s content to simply harangue the champ—pin him against the ropes and tie him up. Seconds tick, and with each clinch, Brand is that much closer to making it through 12 rounds without having his face rearranged.

Once again, the two are about to step into Ward’s office, where they’ve been wrestling most of the night. But suddenly, a flash: It’s Ward on the attack. He takes two quick strides forward—he almost bunny-hops—into Brand’s chest, fists beside his ears, elbows bent in to protect his ribs. Brand moves to wrap him around the shoulders, but he’s been sniffed out, and Ward uncorks a left hook into Brand’s side that I swear to God you can feel from press row.


Many boxers
—very likely a great majority—have incredible origin stories. Ward is no exception, although he doesn’t often discuss it.

Ward was raised in Hayward by his father, Frank Ward, who was white. His mother, Madeline Taylor, who is black, was in and out of his life; a crack addict, she spent most of Ward’s childhood living in San Francisco. Ward describes his father, a glazier and a former heavyweight, as a functional heroin addict who cycled through rehab stints during Ward’s childhood. Frank instilled a love of boxing in Ward, though, and when Ward was nine, Frank enrolled his son in boxing classes. But Frank’s preferred style ran counter to the technique his son was being taught. “It was take two to get one,” Ward says of the prevailing boxing philosophy—eat two punches to throw one back. His father, who’d idolized Muhammad Ali, valued defensive fighting, epitomized as “Hit and don’t get hit.”

Soon thereafter, Ward was introduced to Virgil Hunter, a former probation officer and an apprentice boxing trainer. Hunter watched Ward train and offered to take him as his pupil. “Dad couldn’t train me,” Ward says. “He was too high-strung, like, ‘Throw your jab!’ and I’d start crying. Virg is more laid-back.”

The two proved to be a match, and within a few years, Hunter became Ward’s godfather. So when Ward’s father checked himself into a rehab facility in Berkeley, Hunter offered to take in Ward, then 12. Ward blossomed as a fighter under Hunter and was afforded some much-needed structure. Ward says Frank did eventually get clean, but died suddenly of heart disease at 46, when Ward was 18. 

As Ward tells it, that was a turning point: Feeling burned out on boxing and mourning his father’s death, he veered off the straight and narrow. “Drinking, partying—all the stuff I didn’t get to do as a kid,” he says. “I told Virgil, ‘I don’t care about the Olympics.’ But he said, ‘Son, listen: If they come and go without you fighting, you’ll never live it down.’”


Until this year,
Ward had never spoken publicly about his upbringing. In general, he tends to be wary of the media. Much of the press Ward has received during his career has been critical—of his choices of opponents, of his style, of his inaction. (Ward didn’t fight for more than a year on the heels of his 2012 knockout of Chad Dawson, during which time he was recovering from surgery and entangled in a lawsuit against his former promoter. In the four years since that fight, Ward has fought only four times.)

It’s not surprising, then, that he’s been guarded about sharing his story. “It makes you not want to participate,” Ward says of the criticisms. “People keep bringing up the same stuff—but really it’s in the rearview mirror. I’m cool with it, I know what I stand for.”

If Ward’s willingness to discuss his backstory seems sudden, perhaps it’s because he’s in a good place now. He’s financially set. He has a wife and four children. His mother has gotten clean and is back in his life. She goes with Ward to the Livermore church where he’s an altar worker; she babysits the kids. Normal grandma stuff.

Plus, Ward is getting ready for his close-up. If all goes well in the Kovalev fight, Ward will have earned the right to be in the conversation as the face of the sport. And Ward is a model candidate for the job. He’s the good guy in this fight, whereas Kovalev—a brutish slugger (if a seemingly affable guy) who once beat an opponent to death—is playing the heel.

Then again, it’s unclear if Ward is willing to embody that role, even if he’s cast for it. He’s not likely to suddenly become any more charismatic, or to start hanging with an A-list posse. He’ll probably remain maddeningly discriminating about his opponents. And he certainly won’t hang around for long. That’s not a bad thing. Ward has a family, plenty of money in the bank, and a fully functioning brain—more than a lot of ex-fighters can say. Will he give that up for a few extra paychecks? Don’t bet on it.

And so, looking toward the November fight, we’re left with what? On one hand, Ward has a potentially life-changing opportunity before him to become a mainstream star. And yet even with a win, it’s hard to imagine Ward on a Wheaties box. 

I put that to Tompkins, who broadcast Ward’s Olympic gold-medal victory. He sighs and answers, “He’s a wonderful guy, and a hugely talented fighter, and a really good person—a real role model. But I think he’s one of those guys who’s going to be more appreciated after he retires than while he’s fighting.”


Originally published in the November issue of
San Francisco 

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