Andre Ward will never sell tickets like Floyd Mayweather but he belatedly gave some credence to those old comparisons with a career-defining yet controversial victory over Sergey Kovalev in Las Vegas.
Ward, the former unified super middleweight champion, now holds the WBO, IBF and WBA titles in the light heavyweight division, as all three ringside judges saw it 114-113 in his favour at the TMobile Arena on Saturday night.
The American was completely outgunned in the first half of the fight and tasted the canvas for only the second time in his career in the second session. Yet, as is his trademark, Ward made the necessary adjustments to gain the upper hand in the latter stages.
Whether that was actually enough to dethrone the reigning champion has divided opinion, with many scoring in favour of Kovalev, who was left disgusted by what he labelled a hometown decision.
The Russian has a rematch clause and his team are determined to exercise it.
“It’s the wrong decision,” said Kovalev, 32-30-1-1 (28KO), to a chorus of boos from a partisan American crowd. “The witnesses are here. They saw it. It’s my job. It was the fight of my life. I am disappointed in the judges’ decision.
“Ward got maybe a few rounds. I agree with that. I kept control. I lost maybe three rounds in the whole fight. It is the USA and all the judges were from the USA. It’s a sport. Don’t make it politics. Of course, I want a rematch, and I will kick his a**.”
Ward, now 31-0 (15KO), denied he was surprised by the verdict, even though his look of astonishment told a different story.
He said: “I was not surprised. I don’t know where you got that from. I know it was a close fight. The crowd, you can hear they thought I won. Kovalev did everything I expected him to do. My coach (Virgil Hunter) did a great job.”
What neither Ward or Hunter would have expected was for him to be sent sprawling to the deck early on. But after claiming the opener, a visibly bigger Kovalev crowned his dominance by flooring Ward with a short straight right in the second.
Indeed, it was hard to give the increasingly-bullied home fighter a sniff before the halfway point. To his huge credit, though, he adapted to the challenge and took away Kovalev’s long-range weapons, closing the gap in rounds seven, eight and nine and landing the cleaner shots.
They were difficult sessions to score but the judges were clearly sold. Only one, Burt Clements, saw fit to give Kovalev a single round after the sixth.
The Russian will feel aggrieved and it will be an injustice if he isn’t afforded the opportunity to reclaim his titles. For now, they belong to Ward, who mustn’t slip into obscurity as he has done before in the wake of a notable triumph.
With Mayweather officially retired, this was billed as a face-off to decide who should replace him at the pinnacle of boxing’s hypothetical pound-for-pound stakes. Ward was once heavily tipped as his compatriot’s rightful heir, but a crippling combination of non-existent promotion, his sullen persona and long spells of inaction had derailed his ascent.
The 32-year-old may never transcend into the mainstream. He may never even be popular within boxing, but he is a rare talent who, like Mayweather, leaves observers with mixed feelings. His skills are obvious, but most fans unashamedly crave action fights.
Ward’s style is like boxing’s equivalent to Catenaccio. He hasn’t lost since he was 12 years old for very good reason, but it isn’t always easy on the eye. Mayweather proved beyond doubt that with the right marketing, a safety-first style can sell, and it will be interesting to see if Ward can finally inject some momentum to his career.
A heavily promoted rematch against a vengeful Kovalev should provide the perfect start.
For Andre Ward, the fight has been relentless. Undoubtedly the prospect of unbeaten Sergey Kovalev attempting to shatter his own perfect record in Las Vegas on Saturday night is unnerving enough. The Russian (30-1-0- KO 26) isn’t known as ‘Krusher’ for nothing.
This is a meeting boxing has longed for. Yet for Ward, arguably the greatest technician on earth, to have reached this dramatic juncture is a triumph within itself.
Growing up in the debilitating shadow of crippling drug addiction was heartbreaking in the extreme. Raised by his beloved late father who kept a secret heroin habit from his two sons while longing for a mother who lived on the streets battling a crack cocaine problem, the California native looks back on his childhood with a sense of bewilderment and relief.
Domestic violence – his parents often clashed physically – and drugs are a horribly toxic mix. Now with religion by his side and devoted trainer Virgil Hunter in his corner, the former super-middleweight world champion steps up to light heavyweight in an attempt to snatch the Russian’s WBO, IBF and WBA titles in what promises to be one of the fights of 2016.
Boxing is littered with harrowing rags to riches tales yet Ward’s story takes some serious beating. The 32-year -old told Sport360:“I look back on my life, and it wasn’t all bad, but there were some things that should have took me out. It’s a miracle that I’m here doing what I’m doing. I was raised between a heroin addict and a crack addict. How did I make it out of that?”
A young Ward would often look forlornly out of his Oakland bedroom window praying his mother would soon zoom into view.
“I didn’t have all the details but I just knew my mom was struggling with drugs,” he continued. “I could see how my father’s side of the family would react when her name was brought up. Or my mom would show up sometimes, dirt under her nails.
“She had been living on the streets. She might show up for Thanksgiving and I could see my aunts and uncles and their reactions but my dad did a great job because he would always say ‘don’t you ever say anything negative about their mother’. I knew it was something different because I had friends who had both parents. I longed for that.”
His beloved father, whose initials are emblazoned on his shorts, shared a similar hell.
“My dad did a great job with me and my brother,” he recalled. “He would pick us up from school and be fine. We’d go home and then later on he would disappear in his room for an hour. When he came out, he was different. I remember saying to my brother ‘I don’t like it when he goes in there.’ We had no idea of his struggles with heroin.”
While his experience of dysfunctional families have helped shape his own character, the influence of Hunter cannot be discounted. Following the death of father Frank in 2002, Ward sought solace in Christianity while the 63-year-old trainer’s role in his life became all-encompassing.
Guiding Ward to gold at the Athens Olympics in 2004 (he’s the last American fighter to become Olympic champion) was the start of an emotional journey which has many miles left to run. The former probation officer who also works with Amir Khan saved his protege from the abyss.
“I don’t know where I would be without Virgil,” says Ward. “My mother wasn’t there. My father was a great man but battled on and on with heroin addiction. He would fight it but there would be times when he had to go on programs to get himself together. I met Virgil at 10-years-old so the next couple of years, my brother and I would spend the night at his house. He was already playing that dual father role. When my father went into a program, we lost our home.
“None of my family were able to step up and take us so what would have happened? Group home? Juvenile hall? Virgil has been a probation officer for 20 years. He has a gift with young men. He knows how to talk to them, how to put things into perspective. He is a lifesaver.”
The last four years have been littered with inactivity – a mere four bouts since 2012 – following a regrettably fearsome battle with former promoter Dan Goosen which threatened to rip Ward’s career apart. When Goosen died from a heart attack in September 2014 while the arguments raged, the American was brought to his knees once again, a default setting he knows only too well.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to box anymore,” Ward said of his absence from the ring. “I wasn’t interested in fighting in the courts for years on end when I felt like the situation could have been resolved. At that time, I thought, well okay, if it’s not going to end, I would rather it would end on my terms and move on to other things in life.
“What happened to Dan is heartbreaking. I hate it to this day that we had our situation going on in the midst of that. It was not personal, I still got love for his wife and his family to this day. It’s just a tough situation.”
The same can be said of his childhood.
“It is funny because those hardships and struggles, all those things forge you into who you are,” said Ward, whose ability in the ring is matched by his brutal honesty. “You bring all of that into the ring. When people look into your eyes they can see it, they can see ‘he has been through something’.
“You draw on it. You have to. I never want to go back to that place ever again. I never want my kids to have to experience something like that. Even with a fight like this, yes it is legacy, there are some superficial things we can point to but I am literally fighting for the future of my kids from a financial standpoint.”
It’s a tantalising, pure 50-50 battle with Kovalev. A win for Ward will see him elevated closer to the pantheon of greats. Does the Hall of Fame beckon?
“How many champions do you have to beat?” he concluded. “How many top guys do you have to beat before you are in? I don’t know. I got a decent resume but I can’t think like that. I know one thing – November 19 will solidify it. There is going to be no argument. That is my motivation.”
Ward doesn’t have to look far for sporting inspiration. His hometown of Oakland may boast one of the greatest boxers around yet is also home to the brilliant Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Curry has carried Ward’s belts in the past while new boy Kevin Durant has wasted no time in striking up a friendship.
“I associate with Steph and Kevin Durant,” said Ward. “We had a relationship, it started with Rocnation, long before he made the decision to join Golden State. He messaged me one night on Instagram, I was like ‘is this the real KD?’. He sent me a really long message saying how much he respects me as a fighter.
“So for him to be here now I think it is a perfect fit. I do feed off Steph too. We have some of the similar things that are said about us. The basketball and boxing industries are different. Basketball is not as blatant.
“Just the doubts which have been levelled at us – ‘he is undersized, he went to a small college, he is good but…’. I draw a lot of inspiration from him. He is just a humble guy that works hard at his craft and you see the results. It encourages me to keep improving.”
He is currently unbeaten in the Super Fight League and will fight in the Brave Combat Federation in the coming months.
Originally from India, Amit moved to Dubai six years ago where he trains at Team Nogueira under Coach Ryan Bow and Amin Sharifi.
A multiple boxing champion before switching to MMA, Amit has plans to hold titles in both SFL and Brave organisations in the next 12 months.
To follow his progress, visit Amit’s Instagram HERE