OAKLAND, Calif. – Photos and posters of Andre Ward are plastered everywhere in the downtown area. They're on poles and street signs, in windows and on doors.
It doesn't matter so much who Ward is fighting on Saturday at Oracle Arena, just that he is. Nowhere on those omnipresent posters can one see the face of Ward's opponent in his HBO-televised match on Saturday, light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson.
This is a city very much in love with its hometown hero. Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist and reigning super middleweight champion, has already won over the home folks with his skill, his humility and utter lack of pretense.
He hasn't captivated the country, though, the way he has the locals. Dawson drew nearly three times as many television viewers for his last fight – against Bernard Hopkins on HBO on April 29 – as Ward did for his on Showtime against Carl Froch on Dec. 17.
Boxing is a personality-driven sport. And while Ward is the kind of guy you pray your daughter meets, he's not flashy, either inside or outside of the ring. He's not an easy sell despite his brilliance in the ring because, to this point, he lacks the big-time explosive power and he's been unwilling to compromise his principles for the sake of a few ticket sales.
Former Oakland Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman is one of Ward's close friends and has been his pastor at the Well Christian Community church in Dublin, Calif.
Ward is enormously respected by his fellow parishioners, Kaufman said, and not because of his boxing skills. He's revered because of his devotion, his knowledge of scripture and his willingness to help someone in need. Ward hasn't changed at all in those eight years, Kaufman said – other than he's now more knowledgeable about the bible and more comfortable professing his faith publicly.
It's against Ward's nature to try to be outrageous, so he simply doesn't do it. In a business in which a large part of his job is to sell himself, his humility isn't his greatest asset.
But Kaufman believes Ward can blaze a new path for boxers, selling a more wholesome image.
"Andre is taking the unconventional route," Kaufman said. "That is to not use profanity and to not do any star-power-type things. He just allows his talent to speak for itself. The best thing is, he wants to make classy fashionable.
"He maintains that classy attitude and I think people are starting to get with that. They realize he is a great guy who is a great fighter. He's achieving his success in such a way I would want my kids to follow that example."
And so, following Ward's lead, Thursday's news conference at a downtown restaurant was decidedly low-key. There were a few good-natured jabs thrown by promoters Dan Goossen and Gary Shaw. Shaw shouted, "I want a rebuttal," as Goossen was talking about what Ward would do to Dawson. Goossen turned to the rotund promoter and said, "You have a big rebuttal."
It was pretty tame stuff. But in the ring, Ward is anything but tame. He's 25-0 with 13 knockouts and is ranked No. 4 in the Yahoo! Sports ratings. He hasn't lost since he was 12 years old.
If there is one thing missing in his game, it's a lack of finishing ability, and that's nitpicking, considering how dominant he's been. Ward has had only one knockout, though, in the last four years and none since Sept. 12, 2009.
He's had opportunities in the five fights since, but hasn't capitalized. In Dawson, he's fighting the most physically gifted man he's ever met. But Ward so believes in his talent that he said he thought he might finish Dawson.
"Absolutely, it's not out of the question," Ward said. "You better believe it. We've prepared for that and that's the last piece of my game, becoming a great finisher."
If he makes that step, he'd seemingly have the entire package, but not everyone is convinced. Dawson trainer John Scully said Ward's accomplishments don't match the hype he's been getting.
He fully expects a difficult fight on Saturday, but he said he isn't buying the talk of Ward as the Fight Game Jesus.
"To be honest with you, and no disrespect at all, but I think he's a little overrated," Scully said. "It's at the point where average people hear his name and they go, 'He's unbelievable. He's spectacular.' I'll ask them, 'How many times have you seen him fight?' And they go, 'Well, I haven't really seen him, but I've read a lot of stuff about him.'
"You read about him and it's like he does no wrong. That happens a lot. They just hype the guy so much. He's a good, good, good fighter, obviously, but they have him walking on water."
His record commands that kind of respect. He's unbeaten for 15 years and he's run through the best super middleweights in the world without having so much as a scary moment.
A win over Dawson would be something of a vindication for the skeptics, but Ward doesn't see that.
"I don't get caught up in all that," he said. "I want to be the best I can be in everything I do. I want to be the best father, the best husband, the best fighter. What other people think about how I'm doing is out of my control.
"For me to reach my fullest potential, as an athlete and as a man, I have to keep striving to be the best I can be every day. If you do that, you'll never wake with any regrets."
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