By John J. Raspanti
I wasn’t surprised when I heard Andre Ward announced his retirement. The first time I interviewed him, nine years ago, he talked of hanging up his gloves in his early thirties. It seemed unlikely at the time, since Ward was only 25, but the young man had a plan.
That day we discussed his upcoming fight with Mikkel Kessler in Round one of the Super Six World Boxing tournament. It was countdown time. Ward was a big underdog. So much so that at the weigh-in a few weeks later, Kessler’s fans mocked him. But as I sat there on a bench in Kings Gym in Oakland, CA, a rickety old building reeking of sweat and character, Ward was so focused, and amazingly intense. There was no way he would lose. He would find a way, as he always would, over the course of his career.
Ward stopped Kessler in 11 rounds. His performance was a mixture of grit and brilliance. He boxed when he felt like it, slugged when he had too. He had told me of his dream of winning a world championship. As he stood on the top row of the ring ropes, his eyes closed, the roar of the crowd echoing around him, the ring announcer bellowing, “The winner and the new super middleweight champion of the world Andre Ward,”I couldn’t help but smile. He had achieved his goal. I was seated in "media row," roughly 15 feet from the ring. Ward spotted me. I waved and nodded. He waved back. He was on his way.
I had first heard of Ward prior to the 2004 Olympic Games. Nobody raved about his talent. He wasn’t expected to make it to the medal round. But there he was a month later, standing on the podium with a gold medal dangling from his neck. Ward never received the credit he should have for winning the gold. I sensed his bitterness when I interviewed him. He always felt like he had something to prove. Which he did, over and over.
Ward would go on to capture the Super-six trophy by defeating heavy-handed Carl Froch in 2011. He beat Froch with ease, so much so that the Nottingham fighter admitted after the fight that Ward was a better boxer. What was unknown at the time was that Ward had fought Froch with a fractured left hand.
Next up was reigning light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson. I liked the champ. He was polite and great to talk to.With his glasses on, he resembled a teacher. But he got schooled when he fought Ward. The bout wasn’t competitive. Ward beat up Dawson over 10 one-sided rounds. Some said Dawson was weak after dropping down a division.
An injury put Ward on the shelf for over a year. He came back to defeat Edwin Rodriguez in southern California. He then took on his promoter, Dan Goossen. This act was hard to understand. Goossen had signed Ward right after the Olympics. Fighter and promoter seemed to genuinely like each other. Boxing promoters can be slimy. In most cases, their goal is the almighty buck. Their word means nothing. But Goossen was different. Everyone liked him. Yet, after almost ten years as a team, Ward wanted out of his contract. He sued twice, and lost. The action was costly and frustrating. He almost walked away from boxing.
“Every time I reached that point, my wife or my pastor, or Virgil (Hunter), would say, ’Look, it’s not time. It’s going to pass’," Ward told me at the time. “It’s going to pass.”
It did. Ward returned to the ring to mixed reviews in 2015. Though he denied it at the time, the layoff had hurt him physically. Some said his performances were so-so. He did look a tad slower, but his mind was as sharp as ever. I interviewed him a few days before one of his comeback victories. We laughed and talked about the past. I said he was getting old. He nodded. He had signed a contract to fight the monster of the light heavyweight division, Sergey Kovalev, in Las Vegas. Some critics said he was scared to fight Kovalev. Ridiculous.
One must remember that many fighters were scared of Kovalev. “The Krusher” was undefeated. He was knocking out virtually everybody. Ward had had his eye on Kovalev for a while. The Russian champion fights like a cold-blooded assassin. He seems to enjoy beating up on people. He’s the hitman lurking in the shadows.
When they fought the first time, Kovalev knocked down Ward with a blistering right hand to the mouth. Ward got up with a smile, dug down deep, and rallied, capturing a debatable, 12-round decision. Kovalev’s great start had been chilled by Ward’s gritty determination.
Kovalev rightfully demanded a rematch. Ward talked retirement, but I never doubted that he would give his rival the rematch. Kovalev said Ward was scared. He talked of ending Ward’s career. Did he really think he could scare Ward? Not likely. Ward has seen the dark side. Both his parents were drug addicts. He ran with a gang, but he made it back, all the way to the mountain top.
I attended Ward’s media day two weeks before the sequel. He exuded confidence. He seemed content. I remember thinking about his career. Was the end near? I had a feeling it was. Ward had always been a complicated person. He has interest’s outside of the ring. Most of all, he does things his way, when he wants to.
Fight two was similar to their first go around, except Kovalev didn’t knock Ward down. Each round was close. Ward had the edge heading into round. But there was something else going on. Ward was beating Kovalev mentally. His grittiness was sapping “The Krusher’s” strength.
Kovalev had come to the realization that he couldn’t beat Ward. The mighty Russian was wilting like a flower. Ward won by stoppage in round eight. Did a few punches stray below the belt? Yes, but Kovalev reacted passively to the beating. He knew he had met his match.
Ward had found a way to victory.
As I wrote a few months ago, “Ward is not a pretty fighter like Sugar Ray Robinson was. He doesn’t ’float like a butterfly and sting like a bee’ like Ali.
He’s a talented boxer, but his grit is his greatest strength.
That grit was what I had noticed the first time we sat down and talked. It was in his eyes. Nobody would deny what he wanted. No fighter, promoter, nobody.
As he often said,“It’s my time.”
Yes, it was. And for me, it was great to watch him evolve. His ambition was greatness, and in my opinion, he achieved it.