Andre Ward — The Smartest Guy In The Room?

Sept. 8 will mark one year since Andre Ward last entered the boxing ring. That’s one year since he destroyed Chad Dawson, the former lineal light heavyweight champion, over 10 brutal rounds and rose to number two in the consensus pound-for-pound rankings of those that like to keep track of such things. To say the masses have pined for him would be a little hyperbolic, given that large swaths of fandom will never fully embrace an individual who places his faith in a methodical, draining style with little hint of one-punch, flashy showmanship. Still, his absence has been felt in the more dedicated corners of the sport, most notably within the boxing media and sections of “hardcore” supporters, some of whom were anointing him a living legend in the wake of his victory last autumn, with others daring to go even further and crown him the sport’s best, usurping longtime ruler Floyd Mayweather on a wave of wide-eyed rapture.

Since then, even by the fighter’s own admission, things haven’t exactly gone to plan. There is, at the very least, a growing concern regarding the corner Ward has seemingly backed himself into. Tales of protracted disputes with sugar daddy HBO, both in terms of potential opponents and prospective purses, have compounded an extended period of inactivity due to shoulder surgery and led to a good deal of debate regarding the number of realistic challenges he can look toward. Questions of entitlement, respect, standing, and greed have all reared their heads, while answers have been at a premium and tempers have grown ever more frayed. What will become of the second best fighter in the sport? At present, no one quite seems to know.

That Ward now finds himself so hemmed in is somewhat ironic when you consider just how adept he is at controlling distance between the ropes. Arguably more spatially aware than any other active fighter, he is a hugely effective competitor in the ring. Even Mayweather, the only man universally acknowledged as his superior, having quietly returned to the summit after the Dawson dust settled, does not possess quite the same level of depth perception, relying instead on his almost superhuman reflexes to stay out of trouble. Simply put, in the words of Carl Froch, Ward is a man who’s always “either too close… or too far away.” Less poetically put, in the words of me, his opponents find it exceptionally hard to hit him cleanly because he’s so seldom caught in that no man’s land between inside and out.

Far from a flash in the pan, the man they call “Son of God” has long showcased his talents. He won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games and has risen to the role of HBO darling, even becoming a guest analyst in the irregular place of Roy Jones during his injury layoff. Having stepped up their investment, the powerful network (as well as the fighter himself) are at pains to ensure he comes across as a humble family man. Portrayed as the type of all-American son any father would be proud to have, Ward has made great play of his successful avoidance of the trappings of fame and riches, all the while still clutching that precious “0” on his ledger.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a clean cut individual, Ward’s performance in the commentary booth is somewhat bland, somewhat lacking in the overt passion figures like George Foreman, even in his misguided, avuncular way, so consistently brought to the table. He often comes across as conceited and cold in his modest outbursts of praise for the fighters on display. He can even appear downright bitter on occasion, as was the case when he called the rematch of Froch vs. Mikkel Kessler earlier this summer and stained the airwaves with shriveling dismissals of anything resembling a positive remark from his fellow pundits, amidst an hour long spell of raining damnation down upon both men in the barbed form of the very faintest of praise.

Make no mistake, as humble as Ward may very well be away from the cameras, he has an ego the size of an oil tanker when it comes to his standing in the game. He’s earned it, for sure. His resume of victims reads like a super middleweight who’s who. But it can still grate when rivals like Froch and Kessler — who have both been top five rated contenders in the same division for a number of years, traveled to Ward’s home country to unsuccessfully take him on and responded to the defeat by coming back to claim title belts again — are treated with the disdain, ennui, and bizarre form of passive-aggressive jealousy he displayed that night.

Of course there’s a chance this could have been an oratory anomaly, a lesson in simmering truculence born of the unique frustrations that come with being sidelined. Ward has, after all, been out of action for a considerable amount of time since coming off the aforementioned win over Dawson, and he may have felt the two men in the ring that night were getting undue credit. Yet it could equally have been the latest example of a spoiled fighter lashing out when things appeared to have stopped going his way. There he was, sidelined through injury and the retirement of his proposed latest opponent, Kelly Pavlik, being forced to watch two men he clearly considers below him captivate a packed London arena, drawing a volume of spectators Ward could only dream of. For a man accustomed to getting exactly what he wants, this must have made uncomfortable viewing.

You see, for all his undoubted talent, Ward is someone who likes to hold all the cards in a given scenario. If there’s an advantage to be had, he will contractually ensure that he is the one in receipt of it. Whether he truly needs it or not is irrelevant; it simply has to be his. Yet despite his fondness for gamesmanship and ruling with an iron fist at the negotiating table, the abiding feeling amongst fight fans is that he is not a figure who needs to stack the deck in his favour. Ability-wise, he beats nigh-on everyone out there, certainly everyone within a feasible ballpark of weight classes — but still this does not seem to be enough. Dawson was made to drop down and fight at the super middleweight limit, let’s not forget, after Ward had refused to entertain a catchweight during discussions for the bout. Ward may have knocked him from pillar to post on the night, but those seven lost pounds made a visible difference to the former champion’s punch resistance and legs.

Somewhat oddly, however, perhaps the most damning evidence against Andre Ward’s beatification by the boxing powers that be lies outside the ring, in the surrounding towns and cities in which he chooses to fight. For a man of his standing, his record is actually quite remarkable. Of his last 10 fights — all against top competition from around the world — nine of them have been contested in his home state of California. Of these nine, five have taken place in his hometown of Oakland. The other, against Froch in Atlantic City, N.J. for the Super Six final, represented the furthest he had traveled in almost six years, since defeating Roger Cantrell on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia in November, 2007.

Of course, such a parochial schedule is nothing new in boxing. Even within the super middleweight division, one only has to look as far back as the mid to late nineties to see long-time titleholders like Sven Ottke and Joe Calzaghe roundly criticised for refusing to leave home. Decried by many as paper champions, they were seen as cowardly fighters who refused to risk their belts on foreign shores precisely because they lacked the ability to win without local backing. The difference with Ward lies in this last point. No one believes he is anything other than a worthy champion. No one doubts that he has the ability to win on the road, which makes his refusal to even entertain the thought all the more frustrating.

The true shame lies in the fact that over the last half decade the super middleweight division has been one of boxing’s most exciting at least partly because of its internationality. Even in these testing times when the popularity of the sport is on the wane in so many of its former hotbeds, 168 pounds has stood out as a division with a truly global feel to it. Since 2007, prizefights of real significance have taken place in cities as far afield as Helsinki, Montreal, London, Cardiff, Nottingham, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Atlantic City, and even little old Oakland. Yet throughout this period of jet-setting activity, one man has remained stoically on the tarmac, pinned to a small corner of the grid with the growing profile of someone with their head lodged deep in the sand.

Following the conclusion of the Super Six tournament, in which Ward was the only participant not required to fight outside his home country, the champion decided to take a break. He elected not to sign up for a fight with Lucian Bute, the recognised number two fighter in the division at the time, and was ambiguous as to his future plans under questioning. When Bute grew impatient and agreed to take on Froch in his hometown of Nottingham, England (for around half his usual Showtime-guaranteed purse), Ward complained with theatrical disappointment that he had been left out in the cold, despite having publicly questioned the Romanian’s worthiness as an opponent. Fortunately he didn’t have to wait long for a new challenger, as along came Anthony Dirrell, younger brother of Andre Dirrell, who had risen to the position of mandatory challenger for Ward’s WBC belt. Yet the champion elected not to step into the ring with this opponent either, claiming it was due to a lack of interest from the networks and conveniently ignoring the fact that Dirrell’s previous fight against little known Renan St-Juste had been televised by Showtime.

2012 bled into 2013 and, having brought a weight drained Dawson to his backyard and given him a good licking, he signing to fight the shell of Pavlik, a bout which was initially postponed following Ward’s decision to undergo surgery in January, before being canceled altogether after Pavlik’s decision to retire. Since then he has been scavenging for a dance partner, searching with increased desperation for someone willing to (presumably) travel to Oakland and receive a drubbing in front of the HBO cameras. Due to either to a lack of audience interest or some overzealous financial demands, depending on who you ask, he’s had a proposed match-up with little known fringe-contender Dimitry Sartison rejected by the network bosses, and continues to look on powerlessly as the key movers and shakers in his division seek out other challenges in far-off parts of the world.

The broad feeling now appears to be that he should move up to light heavyweight and source new opponents in order to secure his legacy — or, failing that, at the very least take a temporary financial hit to fight a lesser opponent in a tune-up at 168, someone like Edwin Rodriguez, who is reportedly being lowballed by Ward as we speak. Whilst I can’t argue with the former option, and wins over the likes of Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson would do his profile no harm at all, I also can’t help but feel that the problem is less tied up in circumstance and more a product of Ward’s single-mindedness. If the sport of boxing doesn’t break you, it will at the very least force you to bend. Andre Ward is 29 and in his prime. He simply cannot afford to repeat the year in pugilistic limbo that his aversion to compromise has bought him. His time is now and he must be prepared to step out of his West Coast comfort zone and bring the fight to his opponents. He must swallow his pride and take a risk or two. To put it simply, he must show us he’s as good as we think he is.