Andre Ward was viewed as a very talented but inexperienced and largely unproven prospect when it was first announced that he would participate in Showtime’s Super Six World Boxing Classic almost two years ago.
Much has changed since then.
Ward, who faces Arthur Abraham in a semifinal bout on Saturday in Carson, Calif., was so impressive in his first two bouts of the super middleweight tournament — a one-sided 11-round technical decision over Mikkel Kessler, which earned him the WBA title, and a shutout over Allan Green — he vaulted to the top of THE RING and ESPN.com’s 168-pound rankings.
The 2004 Olympic gold medalist, who dominated rugged veteran Sakio Bika in his most-recent bout last November, has even cracked the mythical pound-for-pound rankings (he’s No. 7 in the Yahoo! Sports poll and rated No. 9 by THE RING).
The next step in Ward’s evolution is stardom, according to the undefeated titleholder’s promoter, Dan Goossen.
“Andre is on his way to becoming one of the main superstars of the sport,” Goossen said at the final press conference for Ward-Abraham, which took place Wednesday in Burbank, Calif. “He’s got everything it takes to be a star like so many U.S. Olympic gold medalists of the past, going all the way back to Muhammad Ali and then on to Sugar Ray Leonard and then on to Oscar De La Hoya.”
Those are mighty big shoes Goossen hopes Ward can fill. More than a few fans and members of the media are skeptical of the San Francisco native‘s ability to do so.
Nobody doubts Ward’s talent, skill or commitment to the sport, but the three bona fide superstars that Goossen mentioned had more than those attributes going for them. Ali, Leonard and De La Hoya had charisma and media exposure that helped make them household names by the time they challenged for their first world titles.
Ward recognizes that his predecessors were very special fighters, but he says their fame was assisted by circumstances that had nothing to do with their ability or personality.
“You can’t really compare me to Ali and Leonard,” Ward told RingTV.com. “They came up in in a different era. Their Olympic bouts and many of their pro fights were on network television. I believe all of Leonard’s pro bouts were on network television, and both fighters had Howard Cosell, a media icon, pushing them to the public.
“De La Hoya came up during the cable TV era but he had the Hispanic community to back him.”
Ward, one of the most intelligent and articulate active boxers in the sport, makes sound points.
However, it can’t be denied that Ali’s bombastic personality and life choices were a big part of the media and public’s fascination with him. Leonard’s dynamic style and fierce fighting spirit attracted as many fans as his million-dollar smile and personality. De La Hoya’s youth and good looks made him a teen idol to young women, a demographic that usually shunned boxing.
Ward, a devout Christian, is happily married and 100-percent dedicated to his religion, family and craft. The 27-year-old titleholder is a serious but humble competitor whose technical style has been compared to Bernard Hopkins.
In other words, don’t expect him to talk trash or make a lot of noise outside of the ring, don’t expect him to be in the fight of the year and don’t expect teenage girls to fall in love with him.
However, Ward believes his popularity will continue to grow. He says it‘s just going to take more time for him than some of the stars of the past.
“It might be harder for me to get my just due, but I think it will come if I keep winning,” he said. “Popularity is important but it’s not the No. 1 thing with me. Winning is. I’m not going to change my style just to attract more fans. At the end of the day it’s about going home to my wife and kids (healthy). I take the risks I’m supposed to take in the ring, but not unnecessary ones.
"Going back to when I was a boy in the amateurs I was always taught to get the ‘Best Fighter’ award of the tournament, not the ‘Fight of the Night’ award.”
It’s not impossible for a defense-minded technical boxer to become an attraction, especially one with Ward’s talent. The obvious example is Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has been criticized for his safety first tactics in the ring but remains the biggest star in the sport next to Manny Pacquiao.
However, Mayweather, like Ali in the 1960s, has a polarizing personality. Ali's politics did the polarizing. Mayweather does it with his attitude, which many view as arrogant and disrespectful.
“Don’t expect Andre to ever call attention to himself the way Floyd does,” said Ward’s co-promoter, Antonio Leonard, who was part of Mayweather’s managerial team for many years. “His Christian thing is his No. 1 priority. He’s not going be disrespectful or even act that way for anybody.”
Will Ward’s humble nature hold him back? He doesn’t think so.
“I think I can light up a room with my smile when it’s time to light up a room,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t walk around all day saying look at me, look at what I’ve got. That’s not who I am. I’m going to continue to be Andre Ward, and you’d be shocked at how many people come up to me, that write me, that tell me ‘I appreciate who you are, don’t change for anybody.’”
More fight fans and even casual boxing fans will appreciate Ward soon enough, said Goossen. The veteran promoter believes Ward would already have a degree of crossover appeal had the Super Six tournament played out the way he anticipated.
“Remember, Jermain Taylor, an established name in the sport, was part of the Super Six when it began,” Goossen told RingTV.com. “Andre was scheduled to face Taylor in his second bout of the tournament before Abraham knocked him out and forced him to withdraw. I believe that would have been a breakout fight for Andre. It was one of two key fights we wanted out of the tournament. The first was Kessler because that fight gave us a world title. The second, against Taylor, was all about name recognition because Taylor is American, an Olympian and a former middleweight champ.
“Those back-to-back fights made the tournament worth it for us. The third bout with Dirrell, which never happened because of his withdraw, was just one that had to happen. It was part of the package, but we thought it could be a fight that would further Andre’s reputation because we expected him to beat (Carl) Froch for a title. He should have beaten Froch and would have if he had pushed a little harder at the end. However, instead of Taylor and Dirrell we got a substitute in Allan Green and Sakio Bika in a non-tournament bout.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Andre would be more known had Taylor and Dirrell remained in the tournament.”
And it might not help much to beat Abraham, who is a considerable underdog to Ward despite the fact that his punishing fists are somewhat responsible for both Taylor and Dirrell’s withdrawal from the tournament.
However, Goossen believes that winning the Super Six, which Ward is favored to do, will elevate his fighter’s status in the sport. And beyond the tournament, who knows what high-profile bouts can be made? All Ward has to do is stay undefeated, Goossen says. And he can definitely do that.
“He puts the hard work in at the gym, he‘s got discipline,” Goossen said. “Add to that the fact that he likes to fight, add to that the fact that he’s smart, add to that his great athletic ability and his skills and you have a formula for longevity.
“It’s the same reason the Klitschkos have been on top for so long. They’re big, strong, athletic technicians who box very smart in the ring. They’re hard to beat.”
Goossen’s right about the Klitschkos but despite their popularity in Europe, neither Wladimir nor Vitali are stars in the U.S.
As of right now, Ward is only an attraction in his hometown of Oakland, Calif., where he’s averaged around 9,000 fans for his four appearances at the Oracle Arena.
Ward, who has only held his title for 18 months, says he will eventually draw those numbers in Southern California and other parts of the U.S., but for now he asks fans and media to be patient.
“I’m a young champion,” he said. “I’ve been a champion for a very short time and I just think everybody should give me more time so I can keep evolving my style and keep evolving as an individual.
“The more people see me on the internet and on things like Fight Camp 360 and the Super Six tournament, they’ll start to understand who I am and hopefully they’ll catch on.”