2011 Boxing Fighter Of The Year: Andre Ward

What to do with Andre Ward? The super middleweight is as talented and skilled as they come, but even purists who love inside fighting sometimes can’t stand to watch those stretches of Ward fights where he mauls his man. Outside the ring, he carries himself like a mixture of Michael Jordan and Tim Tebow, the kind of poised all-American athlete who you could imagine pitching McDonald’s but who also could irritate people with his upfront religiosity; he goes by the nickname “S.O.G.” — Son of God — and strolled into his fight against Carl Froch to a Christian rap song about him. (And Him, I guess.) His promoter, Dan Goossen, gets his share or criticism, and while Goossen sold him pretty well in Ward’s native Oakland against Edison Miranda and Mikkel Kessler, interest dropped sharply for Ward’s fights against Sakio Bika and Allan Green. Was Goossen not doing his job? Had fans in Oakland lost interest in one-sided Ward victories that weren’t exactly thrilling spectacles? What gives, when a former U.S. Olympic gold medalist with charisma who’s one of the best fighters in the world can’t get more people to pay attention to him?

Here’s one thing you can’t do with Andre Ward, at least not yet: beat him. No one has defeated Ward in a boxing match since 1998, when Ward was a 13-year-old amateur. In 2011, Ward reached the peak of his in-ring career. That gold medal was a great start, certainly. The Miranda win was eye-opening, and the Kessler win — his first over a world-class, top-ranked fighter — was even more eye-opening. For two years, Ward had been pursuing victory in Showtime’s Super Six tournament, a quest that began with the win over Kessler, the early-tournament favorite. Over that span, he lost only a handful of rounds, most of them by a pretty narrow margin, and the rest of the time has utterly baffled his opponents. It starts with world-class speed and reflexes, but that only tells part of the story. His biggest weapon is a boxing brain that only two fighters in the sport right now can rival: Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Bernard Hopkins. That brain has produced remarkable versatility: Ward can beat you as a left-hander or a right-hander, to your body or to your head, on the inside or the outside, leading or countering.

That two-year quest ended in 2011 with a May victory over Arthur Abraham and a December victory over Froch. Froch, coming in, had the most grueling three-year stretch of any fighter in the world, and had come out of it pretty well: Jean Pascal, Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Kessler, Abraham. Ward was a whole ‘nother story. After their fight, Froch had unkind words for Dirrell, a boxer some thought beat Froch in a decision Dirrell didn’t get on Froch’s home turf in England. Froch did nothing but complain about the decision loss to Kessler for a long time thereafter, and if you brought it up today he’d probably tell you for another 15 minutes about all the reasons he deserved to win. In losing to Ward, he was nothing but graceful. Froch is a headstrong guy, for sure. But even he knew he’d gotten outclassed. Froch, whom I’d argued was one of the top 10 fighters in the world based on resume, was made to look as ordinary as many once thought he was prior to the Super Six tournament. And Ward did it all with a broken hand.

By beating Froch, Ward took home the Super Six trophy. He became the lineal super middleweight champion of the world. He arrived as a consensus top-5 fighter in the sport, regardless of weight class.

Maybe that’s the answer to the question. Perhaps he could use some extra promotional oomph, and perhaps he could stand to score a knockout soon — he looked to me as though he might get it against Froch, prior to the hand injury. Just winning is a great start. Less charismatic and less exciting fighters have become attractions simply by being good; Winky Wright, for instance, never really sold many tickets, but many of his fights did excellent television ratings, somehow, probably because he was so good people wanted to see how he’d do against other top fighters. Winning is something Ward does very, very well, and because of how he won in 2011, he’s the TQBR Fighter of the Year, and probably will be everyone else’s, too.

You can imagine him winning more of those awards in coming years. It’s easier than imagining someone who can beat him, anyway.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.