|The champ is here: Andre Ward returns
By John J. Raspanti, Doghouse Boxing (Nov 11, 2013)
Photo © John J. Raspanti, Doghouse Boxing
As I watched super-middleweight champion Andre Ward (26-0, 14 KOs) work the mitts with trainer Virgil Hunter, I could feel some tension between the two men. Ward is less than a week away from defending his WBA and THE RING title against undefeated challenger Edwin Rodriguez. He hasn’t been in the ring since his impressive victory over then-light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson 14 months ago. He was scheduled to defend his title against Kelly Pavlik last January until injuring his shoulder in training. What followed was surgery and rehab – plus the longest layoff of Ward’s professional career.
After working together for twenty minutes, Hunter was smiling as Ward paced nearby. Hunter bounded down the ring steps and said to me, “He’s ready.”
I nodded. Hunter then added, “When they get a little edgy, you know they’re ready.”
No surprise there. Ward is always ready. Our first interview took place nearly four years ago as he prepared to meet Mikkel Kessler in Showtime’s Super Six tournament. We sat on a bench in Kings Gym in Oakland, CA, a few feet away from the ring surrounded by visitors and old-time boxing
Ward was the decided underdog going into that bout. During the weigh-in the previous day, some of Kessler’s fans mocked Ward, saying that their fighter would knock him cold in the first round. I didn’t agree. Ward, age twenty-five at the time, was mature and focused. He stopped Kessler in round 11 and a year later dethroned WBC champion Carl Froch. That victory earned the 2004 Olympic gold medalist the top spot in the tourney.
Four years later, he trains in a spacious former warehouse. James Brown blasts from the speakers. The ring sits in the center of the floor a few feet away from trainer Hunter’s office. Boxing posters add color to the spare walls.
As he works the heavy bag, his co-trainer watches him intently. It strikes me how lonely training can be. Sure he has his team helping, but it’s really up to him to prepare himself for the battle ahead. Ward works with an extra dose of intensity his fast hands cracking the bag with the sound of a war drum.
Before his workout, Ward and I discussed the many aspects of his professional career. After kidding him about his upcoming 30th birthday, I asked how much he felt he had changed over the past four years.
“I just think I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “I’ve become more of a man.
"I don’t think there have been any changes from a negative standpoint. It’s not like my entourage has grown. It’s the same guys around me. Everybody that’s around me, for the most part, they’ve got a job and they’re working.
“We’ve all got one singular goal. I’ve got more on my plate now,” said Ward. ”I’ve paid my dues. I think I’ve grown as a man and an athlete. I’m not just a young fighter trying to make a name. I’m a fighter and a business man. That comes with a lot of responsibility."
I was curious, because of his extended layoff, if he felt the Rodriguez bout carried more import.
“Every fight has its own storyline,” said Ward. “The Carl Froch fight, let’s start there. It's a must win. It's the finals of the Super Six. There’s really no room for error, we had to get it done. From there you bask in the victory for a short time and it's on to the next, he said.
"Then it was light heavyweight kingpin Chad Dawson. It's another challenge you have to overcome. Then the layoff, and now it's Edwin Rodriguez, a young hungry fighter who’s coming to win. To me, it's different but it's all the same.
“Not knocking these other sports, I'm big fan, but in football and baseball you can lose and regroup and comeback,” Ward said. “You can't afford to have a bad night. I'm approaching this fight like all of my fights. There's a sense of urgency and desperation.”
Ward feels that his time away from boxing gave him an appreciation for what he does, and more of an edge. Will he be trying to prove something November sixteenth?
“It's funny, I don't go out there and say I've got something to prove to this guy and that guy,” said Ward. “Just from a general standpoint, you always have to prove yourself. The Chad Dawson fight is in the back of people’s minds right now. You're only as good as your last victory and I understand that. And that being said, yeah, I have to go there and remind people who the super middleweight champion of the world is.”
Earlier this year, Ward was criticized by many in the media for his desire to have a tune-up fight. He also caught flack when he attempted to break his contract with his long time promoter Dan Goosen. The criticism surprised him.
“To be honest with you, I read a limited amount of that stuff,” said Ward. “I stopped reading it a long time ago. You have websites guys who are very credible who call the sport very fairly. You have big writers who are very good and objective."
"What I've noticed with a lot of this stuff is it's personal. When it's personal, it's not professional. When it's not professional, there's no room for it in this sport."
“I was posed a question by a writer about whether he was qualified to write about boxing, even though he had never been on the field of play. I said, 'Absolutely'.
“What a writer doesn't have the right to do is degrade, to trash, to disrespect a fighter when they've never been on the field of play,” Ward said. “If you've never been punched in the face - it's a little out of line to watch a fight, maybe not like something about the fight, and then start to degrade a guy who prepared himself to walk up those steps to fight another man. But hey, if I stink out the joint and it was a bad fight, call it for what it is. But I get the sense that there’s a double standard.”
Ward sees a paradox in certain aspects of boxing referring to media favorite Gennady Golovkin as an example. He respects the Kazak cruncher, but finds it interesting that some in the press were overly taken by the five thousand attendees of Golovkin’s bout in New York City, New York last weekend against Curtis Stevens. Stevens hails from nearby Brooklyn.
“When I fought Chad Dawson and there were eight thousand and change, I heard that it’s a moderate crowd. It’s a double standard. When you see things like that you take it for what is.”
Ward encountered Golovkin last month at a press conference announcing his fight with Rodriguez. I saw a marked difference between the two fighters. Golovkin was smiling. Ward was not. I got the impression that he was sending a subtle message to Golovkin. I asked him if I was right.
Ward smiled, nodded, and chuckled. “Yeah, that’s just how I operate. I respect all fighters. It’s weird; In the sport of boxing you can respect a guy and still want to take his head off. Golovkin is making a name for himself. He’s got some buzz right now, but we’re not friends. And sometimes, people want us to take these buddy pictures. We’re on opposite sides of the fence. One day we’re probably going to meet, so at the time (when the pictures were being taken) I really didn’t feel like smiling.”
Rodriguez surprised many by calling for Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) testing during the same press conference. A few days ago he called Ward a “dirty fighter.”
Is Rodriguez trying to get inside Ward’s head?
“If he is he better do better than that,” Ward said. “I mean, honestly, I disconnected from what was being said, even pertaining to my own fight weeks ago. What information I do get is usually from someone like yourself. Or someone from my team might bring something up.
"It’s funny he said that about being a dirty-fighter because we’ve been talking about him being a dirty-fighter lately too. He’s got a tendency to hit behind the head. He throws these wild right hands. He’ll rabbit punch a guy. We’ll definitely bring this up to the referee because that’s not within the rules.”
Ward also feels that his opponent is in way over his head.
“Rodriguez has never been on this level," said Ward. "He’s got a lot a people coming at him right now. “This is the same guy who said that I’m a dirty-fighter, who also said that our fight was off and it wasn’t going to happen. He’s the same guy that said that I need him more than he needs me. This kid is susceptible to say anything. I think he gets a microphone in his face and he doesn’t think about what he’s going to say, before he says it."
I asked Ward why he thought Rodriguez brought up pre-fight drug testing at the press conference.
“The VADA testing situation is another issue,” said Ward. “We went through a rigorous two-month negotiation where he wants this and he wants that. And not one person, from Lou Dibella, to Al Hayman, from him or anybody on his side said anything about VADA. It sounded like he was reading off a cue card.
"The message we wanted to send to him is you don’t run from anything. You are the challenger in this fight and you’re going to realize that now, and you’re going to realize it during the fight.”
Ward wants it understood that if the matter had been addressed during the negotiations, he would have agreed to testing. But not if he felt he was being "manipulated" into it.
“Now if people want to have this cloud of suspicion around Andre Ward because we don’t want to adhere to his demands the way that he put them down then you’re entitled to it,” he said.
Vocal in his support of random drug testing, Ward points out that his weight has only fluctuated by a few pounds over the past ten years.
“I would remind people to do your research on me a little bit. I’m at the same weight class that I’ve been at since I was seventeen years old. I weighed one hundred sixty-five pounds. When I won the light heavyweight title in the Olympics I weighted one hundred and seventy pounds.”
When an athlete returns from a lengthy layoff like Ward is about to do, there are always questions. Has he lost anything? Will his timing be off?
“It’s not easy knocking off the rust, but the good part is I don’t abuse my body,” said Ward. “I wasn’t just lying on the table rehabbing the shoulder. I was working out. Nothing replaces being in the gym and actually working on your craft. I think I’m peaking at the right time.
“I really don’t know what this fight is going to look like,” he said. “I’ve trained to dominate Rodriguez and if he gets too crazy in there, he can get caught. I’m confident I’ll leave the ring with my hand raised and my belts.”
So, how does he think he’ll perform next weekend?
“I think it’s going to be a great performance,” Ward said. “I think it’s going to be a tough fight, but we respect Rodriguez. I’ve never underestimated any of these guys. I think he’s going to realize that I’m a little better than people are giving me credit for. Word from his camp is that they think they’re going to back me up, get me in some kind of a shootout and catch me with something big. My question is, if we get into a shootout what makes you think you’re going to win a shootout?”
Ward also questions Rodriguez' physical condition going into the fight.
“I know for a fact that he’s had on plastic in training camp for the past four weeks. That's not good," said Ward. "I saw him at the Floyd Mayweather fight and he was big. Not big and strong like he’s working out, but enjoying your vacation big.
"As a fighter those are the kind of things I look at in a guy I’m going to fight. He’s working and training, but he’s hurting his body right now trying to get that weight off. He’s going to feel that in the mid to late rounds because it’s going to be a high pace in this fight. His body is going to remind him of what he went through as the fight goes on. That’s a fact.”
Undefeated as a professional, the Hayward, CA native hasn’t lost a fight since he was twelve years old. Does he feel he’s still improving?”
“I think so, we’re peaking at the right time,” Ward said. “My right hand is a lot better. My right shoulder is better from the standpoint that I’ve got more pop. I had a major muscle that had been missing for years. That just didn’t happen. I tore this rotator sixteen years ago. It just got to the point where the doc said we needed to go in there and fix this. I now have stability that I didn’t have before. Some fighters can take some time off and not miss a beat. I think I’m going to be fine.”
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