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Ward needs to step up in competition

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Never has an Olympic boxing champion been as anonymous as Andre Ward.

Never has a man with Ward's physical gifts been moved so slowly.

Never has a boxer with Ward's charm been so overlooked by sponsors and advertisers.

Chances are, unless you're a hardcore boxing fan, you might never have heard of Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist at 178 lbs.

There was a time that a gold medal conferred millions upon a fighter and meant almost instant superstar status as a pro. Promoters would fall all over themselves to get the Olympic champion into a title shot.

Oscar De La Hoya, a 1992 gold medalist, fought for a world championship just 15 months into his pro career. Heavyweight Joe Frazier was in a championship bout just two years and six months after his first pro bout.

For Muhammad Ali (1960) and George Foreman (1968), it was three years and four months. It was two years and nine months for Sugar Ray Leonard (1976) and three years and five months for Pernell Whitaker (1984).

But Ward is now three years and three months into his career and still hasn't faced a ranked opponent, let alone fought for a championship.

He'll face Rubin Williams on Thursday in a super middleweight bout at the H.P. Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. Promoter Dan Goossen insists that Williams represents a significant step up in class for Ward and says that many of his colleagues questioned him for agreeing to the fight.

It's hard to believe on many levels that more than three years after winning a gold medal, Ward's toughest test is a journeyman opponent best known for competitive losses to bigger name fighters.

Ward, though, is hardly bothered by it. He's developing at his own pace and is at peace with the thought that the opportunity will be there when he's ready for it.

"I don't worry about the mechanics of boxing," said Ward, who is 14-0 with nine knockouts against primarily C-level or lower competition. "I've never worried about that. I've always concerned myself with being prepared as best I could be for my upcoming fight and letting the other stuff take care of itself.

"When I was an amateur, I didn't worry about it and in the end, I was better than I was in the beginning. And that's kind of how I'm approaching my professional career."

His trainer, Virgil Hunter, points to middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik's long road to the title as he preaches patience with Ward. Pavlik won the championship seven years after he turned pro, Hunter points out.

But Pavlik didn't have Ward's notoriety entering the pros and was not on the Olympic team.

Still, Hunter, who is a father figure to the 24-year-old Ward, is convinced that Ward is on target.

"I'm somewhat of a student of boxing and I've looked at this carefully," Hunter said.

"Middleweights don't progress as quickly as the lighter weight fighters. I would agree that the lighter weight guys can get there a lot more quickly. Middleweights with 14, 15 fights don't get there as quickly as guys who are a lot smaller.

"A middleweight is a special kind of a boxer. A middleweight is a guy with the power to knock out a heavyweight and is as fast as a featherweight. It takes a little longer for a guy like that to develop."

A hand injury that cost him much of 2006 also slowed his development, but Ward and Hunter are convinced they're now on an express route toward the top.

Ward even admits to changing the amateur style he used that was designed to be agreeable with the crazy Olympic scoring system, in which the power of the punches is not considered.

He fought very defensively as an amateur and wanted to make certain he was able to land a high percentage of punches. But he's vowed to make himself more exciting as he's about to move into the upper echelon of the super middleweight division.

"I'm evolving day by day and fight by fight," Ward said. "You have to understand, I was an amateur for more than a decade and I fought the kind of fights you have to fight in that system. Mindsets need to be reversed and bad habits need to be overcome, and that's what I'm doing.

"My focus in the amateurs was to hit and not be hit. I really didn't want to let anyone touch me, because of that scoring system. But as a pro, I have some gifts that I wasn't able to use as an amateur. I'm starting to develop those now."

Primarily, Hunter says, it's punching power. Ward has lightning fast hands, but only recently has begun putting his body into his punches. Previously, he was all arms, flicking shots that connected but did little damage.

Now, as he's matured physically and learned the game, he's putting a much more imposing body behind his shots and the result is that Hunter is convinced he's a threat with either hand.

"Andre has a number of facets of his game that the public isn't aware of, because when he was a middleweight, I purposely kept him in boxing mode," Hunter said. "See, what you have to understand is this: We have a plan and our plan is that once we get a title, we intend to keep it for a long, long time. And so, rounds were crucial to Andre. He needed to be in there and see things for himself (as a pro). There were guys he could have gotten out of there in one or two rounds if we'd gone that way, but I insisted he boxed, because I wanted to get him those rounds to help him in his development.

"But because of my decision — my decision, not Andre's — people question his punching power. That's their right, but look at the facts. He's ended a fight in every way possible. You want to see a guy knocked out with one shot? He's done that. You want to see a guy beaten up so much the corner waves the white flag? He's done it. You want a guy who has made the referee stop the fight? The doctor? He's done all of those. He has the ability to apply a sustained beating and also the ability to get you out of there with one punch."

He'll get the opportunity to prove that on Thursday against Williams and, hopefully soon, against fighters with a significantly better resume.

Ward is hardly over the hill by any means and super middleweight isn't a division filled with juggernauts. It's hardly out of the question that Ward could become the best 168-pounder in the world one day.

But it's about time to find out. The 2004 Olympics are but a distant and pleasant memory now. Now, it's time to not talk, but to actually face the best fighters in the division.

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