Andre Ward: 2011 Fighter of the Year
By Gabriel Montoya, MaxBoxing (Dec 29, 2011) Doghouse Boxing
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Andre Ward
Universal respect has been a long time coming for the man I consider to be the 2011 Fighter of the Year. The last of the American Olympic Gold Medal winners, Oakland, CA born and raised Andre Ward has been through all the trials and tribulations a boxer should while journeying on the road from prospect to champion. A knee injury, getting dropped early in his career, media scrutiny, increased competition, and finally the gauntlet that was Showtime’s Super Six Super Middleweight World Classic were just part of the process for Ward. Like a true champion, Ward took it all in stride without so much as a blink of his eyes.

The Super Six Finals, which ended December 17 when Ward nearly shutout Carl Froch to win it all, was a microcosm of Ward’s time in the sport of boxing. He began as a heavy underdog. Many considered him too young, too chinny, inexperienced or simply not good enough to defeat favorites Arthur Abraham or Mikkel Kessler. By the time it was all over, Ward had run through Kessler and Abraham along with replacement fighter Allan Green. For good measure, Ward threw in a win over Sakia Bika just to stay active when another Super Sixer, Andre Dirrell dropped out. While each fight was a near shutout that allowed Ward to display different facets of his ever developing game, perhaps none exemplified who he is as a warrior like the Froch fight. It wasn’t just Ward’s ability to take away everything Froch does well so much as he did it with a fractured lead left hand.

“One of my last sparring sessions was Thursday [before fight week]. Hit the hand. I banged it up. The X-Ray the next day didn’t show anything. But it just felt wrong. The doctor said to just keep ice packs on and take anti-inflammatories,” Ward told me and co-host David Duenez on Leave-it-in-the-ring.com radio show. “So we did that the whole week. I would go to bed with ice packs on. In between each session I would keep ice packs, I would tape them to my hand. But the pain stayed with me all the way until the week of the fight. So I had (cut man) Stitch Duran come to my room the night before the fight and show me what type of wrap that we would be using. I put on a ten ounce glove to test it out and I could still feel it. So I knew it was inevitable that I would feel some pain that night. But I had to do it. Everything went fine until about the sixth round when I hit Froch with a left hook and it was kind of downhill from there. But we got through it.”

As it turned out, the X-rays missed a third and fifth metacarpal fracture on Ward’s left hand. A hard cast was put on after the fight and according to Ward will be removed in two weeks so he can begin rehabbing it. Despite the injury, Ward had a game plan he had to stick to. Most important was establishing his dominance and winning the jab war early on. From there, the rest of the fight plan would flow.

“All throughout camp and especially in the days leading up to the fight, [trainer Virgil Hunter] stayed in my ear about ‘You have to take control of the ring in the first round.’ He said ‘With this kind of guy you gotta let him know who is boss. And you have to take his jab away early,” Ward explained. “Froch has a great jab, he has a long upper torso and he knows how to use his reach. We worked on that. We worked on keeping my head off center and not in front of him. On the outside, we worked on staying just out of his reach but at the same time be aggressive with the jab when I did use it. He jabbed with me for a few rounds but we won that battle and that started things along their way.”

Even with pain shooting through his hand each time he used it, Ward also stuck to a weapon he had developed in camp specifically for Froch: the left hook. He land it early and often inside Froch’s leaky defense. If you didn’t know Ward was injured, you wouldn’t from watching the fight.

“We talked about that, too. I don’t want to make it seem like we had this perfect plan and everything went perfect but we did talk about [the left hook], said Ward. “Froch is known to get hit by right hands but we don’t really see a lot of people follow up with the hook. We saw in his last fight with Glen Johnson that Glen would explode with the right hand and Froch’s tendency was to turn to the left and kind of hold his hand protecting the left side of his jaw but everything on the right side was exposed. We worked on that in the gym but honestly I wasn’t overly thinking of that going into the fight. The left just kind of had a mind of its own. I saw that it was clicking. In between me wincing in pain, I don’t know if you could tell anything on my face, I tried to use it. But there were times when I could use it and times where I hit him and then the pain would last for the whole round. So it was kind of up and down in terms of the pain. But yeah the hook had a mind of its own that night.”

Virgil Hunter told us before the fight that for the first time Ward’s knee was 100% not only physically but in the way the fighter seemed to approach it mentally. Injuries like that take time to come back from on all fronts. But in the fight, it appeared Ward did not fully trust some part of his left hook delivery system. At the time, it appeared as if he might be favoring his knee. In fact, it was the hand all along.

“The knee is fine. I have no problems with my knee,” said Ward. “Obviously it was a serious injury but I have no ill effects. It doesn’t affect anything in my opinion. But I was very cognizant of trying to throw the hook. That’s why I would try and pot shot him. Just throw one hook or one shot because it’s almost like I was trying to hit him in the perfect spot because I would try and hit him on the chin and miss and land on top of the head. It was almost unbearable. I didn’t fully have the zip that I would want to have. I know I caught him with some hard shots and I think I buzzed him, A lot of people say I don’t hit hard but I know I hit hard enough and I think Froch realized that [in the fight].”

Those that aspire to greatness are rarely if ever satisfied. Ward is no exception. While he is atop most Fighter of the Year ballots and is receiving praise for the fight, he still sees room for improvement.

“I feel like obviously it was a great victory for the team overall. But I honestly think it was a good performance. I don’t think it was a great performance,” said Ward. “Some of it was the hand because I was conscious of the hand. I didn’t mention it to Virg but I was conscious of it. When you have that kind of pain and the fight is moving at a fast pace and there is so much going on, you make adjustments and you don’t really get off the way you know you can. I would have liked to get off more with both hands. Even the inside work, I didn’t really get off the way I envisioned. Part of that is a credit to Froch and his defense. Some of it is wide open like one the outside. But he does some subtle things where he turns his body. He has a lot of tactics that he uses that are very subtle. And some of it just happened that way. You envision a perfect fight but it doesn’t always go that way. But to not fight a perfect fight and still get your hand raised is encouraging. I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I have been saying it since the fight but there is room to grow. And that is what I am most excited about. I’ll be 28 in February. I am approaching my prime and I just think that 28, 29, 30 or even my early 30’s can be devastating. We can put together a strong of fights that will be unbelievable.”

If there has been a criticism of Ward it’s that he is not the most exciting fighter in the world. To some that may be true. But this is art and entertainment. As such, the beauty of a fight is in the eye of the beholder. It might be argued that power might be the one thing that Ward lacks. While he hits strong, he is not a one punch knockout power. Ward countered with the idea that at the top level, knockout artists are very rare.

“Allan Green was known before our fight for his devastating power. He gets discredited now but before that, he was known for knocking out Jaidon [Codrington,” Ward began. “We fought Bika who is known as a rough customer. We fought Abraham whose power is feared. We fought Froch. But these guys don’t have a lot of knockouts at the A level. Its not the easiest thing in the world to get knockouts at the elite level. When I was fighting C level guys I got those knockouts. I had a string of knockouts. Froch had a string of knockouts. It’s not the easiest thing. They talk about big punchers. But we challenged Froch in this area before the fight. We said other than Jermain [taylor who Froch stopped in the final moments of their fight] who had had some problems in that area, who was the last person that you wobbled? Who was the last person that you knocked down or that you stopped? So these guys with monstrous power, they haven’t done anything that I haven’t done. They’re not blowing through guys in one round. Nobody in the Super Six did that and these were the best Super middles in the world.”

The future is bright for Ward now that the Super Six is over. He has options at 175 pounds with fighters like Tavoris Cloud, Jean Pascal or Chad Dawson. While Ward is open to taking those bouts, he is not even sure yet if he will campaign at light heavyweight. For the record, he is not interested in facing friend and something of a mentor Bernard Hopkins. Arguably the most lucrative and anticipated match-up is between Ward and IBF super middle titleholder Lucien Bute. Ward says he would like the fight but first, he would prefer Bute at least do half of what he has done these past two years.

“I think that is a fight that will be made and should be made,” said Ward. “This is something I couldn’t talk about before the fight because I didn’t want to put the cart before the horse. But I think Lucien needs to fight some A-level competition whether it is one fight, two fights. And I will continue to fight and we will see what happens after that. That is a fight that should happen and one that I think will happen. Some of the things that are being written, that we are ducking Lucien, I mean, it hasn’t even been a week yet. We have been in a tournament for two and half years. I think we warrant just to exhale a little bit, take a break. And in the meantime while we are doing that I think he should fight top level guys. I don’t think it is fair, I don’t know if it was strategic or if it just happened this way because I was not privy to the negotiations from his side. I just don’t think it is fair to sit back and let six of the best guys fight it out and you are sitting at home picking who you want to fight and waiting for the winner. Maybe I am wrong for thinking that but I just don’t think that is right.”

When it comes to winning, Ward understands who he is and what it will take to keep doing so. Criticism or not, he will continue to prepare and fight as he always has. Considering his 25-0, 13 KOs record and WBC and WBA titles, that might be a pretty good formula to stick to.

“I know what I possess,” said Ward. “I know I am work in progress. I am still getting physically strong. I am still maturing. I am hitting enough believe you me. If I didn’t have power to keep these guys honest, a guy like Froch would have tried to blow right through me and walk all over me. But the critics are not in the ring. They are looking from the outside in. Before this tournament I didn’t have a chin. I wasn’t mentally tough. So there are a lot of things. I am not fighting to prove those guys wrong because you will never prove some people wrong. Its just some people are going to sit back and be experts and they are going to write. I may never be the guy they want me to be. What I can do is keep getting better keep working hard and keep winning.”

Whatever the future holds for Andre Ward, rest assured that he will do it with class, dignity and above all the warrior spirit that led him to Olympic glory and now professional boxing’s elite.
More of Gabriel's recent work (Contact info for Montoya below):
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You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

* Special Thanks To MaxBoxing.

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