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45 Greatest Fighters Of The Last 45 Years – 18: Andre Ward

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Since its inception, boxing has always been a haven for the downtrodden. Andre Ward is one of the greatest examples of a young man who overcame severe hardship as an adolescent to not only become one of the five greatest fighters of his generation, but also one of the class acts of the sports world in the 21st century. Without a doubt, the adversity in his youth helped to also propel him in becoming the 18th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

Ward’s childhood growing up in Oakland saw both of his parents become addicted to drugs. Ward’s trainer Virgil Hunter became Ward’s guardian, and helped guide Andre to not only becoming an outstanding fighter inside the ring, but an outstanding person outside the ring. With Hunter’s guidance, Ward won the 178-pound Olympic Gold Medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He is still the last American male boxer to win an Olympic Gold Medal. In a surprising move, Ward, upon turning pro, began his career as a middleweight instead of at light heavyweight. Eventually, Ward moved up to 168 and after winning his first 20 fights, and he entered Showtime Network’s World Boxing Super Series Super Middleweight Tournament.

It is amazing that of the six fighters who entered the tournament in 2009, the odds of Ward winning was the sixth worst. At the time, I was shocked because in my opinion, Ward was the most skillful of the six. I didn’t see any way that anyone would come close to competing with Ward if he was on his A game. Ward’s boxing style wasn’t flashy or sophisticated. He was a tremendous boxer whose boxing IQ was on the level of a prime Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather. Ward, like Floyd, defensively would take away your best weapon and make it obsolete. Combine that with accurate counterpunching and a keen ability to switch from orthodox to southpaw made him an almost impossible puzzle to solve. His first opponent in the tourney, Mikkel Kessler, found this out in spades.

On November 21, 2009, in Ward’s hometown of Oakland, California, Ward made the longtime champion Kessler look like a preliminary fighter. Ward made Kessler miss while controlling the fight with both his jab and blistering combinations. An accidental butt caused the fight to be stopped in the 11th, which resulted in Ward winning a lopsided technical decision and in turn claiming his first world title, the WBA 168-pound version. Ward put on a similar performance seven months later, again in Oakland against Allan Green, winning in a virtual 12 round shutout. Eleven months later, on May 14, 2011, Ward once again put on a virtuoso performance against the Armenian slugger Arthur Abraham. Abraham’s slow, methodical slugging style was completely picked apart by the ring general Ward. Another lopsided unanimous decision victory propelled Ward to the tournament final on December 17, 2011 against Carl Froch.

As I wrote earlier in an article on Froch, Froch was caught off guard by Ward and Hunter’s game plan to fight inside. Ward and Hunter decided on an aggressive infighting style in order to nullify Froch’s long arms and counterpunching ability. Froch was unable to adjust as he too was convincingly defeated over 12 rounds. The victory resulted in Ward gaining not only the tournament championship, but the prestigious Ring Magazine 168-pound title and Froch’s WBC title as well. He was also voted the 2011 Ring Fighter of the Year.

Ward’s next fight is, in my opinion, the single, greatest performance of his career. On September 8, 2012, Ward defended his super middleweight titles against the reigning Ring light heavyweight titleholder Chad Dawson. This was the first time I thought a Ward opponent had a legitimate shot at beating him. After an uneventful first two rounds, Ward dropped Dawson with a beautiful counter left hook in the third round. This was the beginning of a brutal beating that Ward would inflict on Dawson. Dawson missed all night as Ward looked like a prime Sugar Ray Leonard, landing combination after combination. Finally, after another thunderous combination dropped Dawson again in the 10th round, referee Steve Smoger put a halt to the fight. Dawson was never the same after the Ward beating, as he was knocked out in the first round in his next fight while losing his 175-pound title to Adonis Stevenson. At the age of 31, Dawson was completely washed up.

Ward successfully defended his title one more time against Edwin Rodriguez before engaging in a nasty legal battle in an attempt to get out of his promotional contract with Dan Goosen. It wasn’t until 19 months later that Ward was finally able to fight again as Roc Nation Sports was able to get him out his contract after Goosen passed away and signed on as his promoter. It was also the end of his reign at 168, as Ward moved up to 175 pounds.

The Oakland native fought three straight times in 2015 and 2016 in his hometown at light heavyweight before signing to fight the WBO, IBF, and WBA light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev. The Russian 175-pound champion had dominated the division for three years and other than the then WBC champion Stevenson, had cleaned out the division. I was very concerned about whether or not Ward had the chin to stand up to the power hitting Kovalev. On the night of November 19, 2016, I found out rather quickly the answer to that question.

Ward attempted to try and outbox Kovalev early on, but was unable to get past the Russian’s jackhammer of a left jab. Early in round two, Kovalev followed one of those jabs with a thunderous right cross that both dropped and staggered Ward. Kovalev continued to thoroughly outbox Ward going into the seventh round. It was at this point that Hunter and his prodigal son decided to shift gears. Ward began to bully Kovalev on the inside and take it to Kovalev’s body as he completely dominated the second half of the fight. Ward won via controversial unanimous 12 round decision to become a two-time unified and Ring world champion. Ward also agreed to an immediate rematch with Kovalev as a way to put to rest the doubt that many boxing fans and media members had in him earning the decision.

On June 17, 2017, both men stepped inside the Las Vegas Mandalay Bay ring in their highly anticipated rematch. As with the first fight, Kovalev controlled the first six rounds with his jab. Ward continued to stalk and work Kovalev’s body like he did in the second half of the first fight. Then the unthinkable happened in the eighth round. Midway through the round, Ward landed a spectacular right cross that hurt the usually granite-chinned Kovalev. Ward jumped on Kovalev and landed several uncontested body shots that resulted in referee Tony Weeks stopping the fight. Ward’s stoppage of Kovalev all but erased the controversy of their first fight. Three months later, Ward shocked the world by announcing his retirement at the age of 33. Ward, despite numerous big money offers to return to the ring, has never once seriously considered making a comeback. He’s content with being a great husband and father.

Ward ended his career undefeated with a stellar record of 32-0 with 16 knockouts. He demonstrated one of the greatest ring IQ’s in the history of the sport. He defeated the top fighters at both 168 and 175 pounds. Most importantly, he survived being raised by two parents addicted to drugs when his trainer and surrogate father Virgil Hunter intervened to raise him. That childhood adversity has destroyed too many young people with unlimited potential. That adversity not only helped Ward become one of the greater fighters who ever lived, it also helped him to become an even greater father and husband.

 

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