There was once a time when a boxer who won an Olympic gold medal would be a sports celebrity of the highest magnitude in the United States. He couldn't walk down any street without being recognized. Tickets were quickly gobbled up for his fights, no matter the opponent. The media would always be smitten with him.
Those days, though, are from an era long gone, one which will almost certainly never return.
And so, 27-year-old Andre Ward, unbeaten for more than 15 years, the last American gold medalist, the World Boxing Association super middleweight champion, has almost gone unnoticed as he matured from a novice pro into a bonafide star.
He faces World Boxing Council champion Carl Froch on Saturday in the finale of Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic, disproving the legions of critics who felt he landed a spot in the field solely on the basis of his citizenship.
He's proven that notion laughingly incorrect, routing pre-tournament favorite Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green and Arthur Abraham to get to the finals. If he defeats Froch – and he's about a 2 ½ -1 favorite to do so – he'll likely be voted the 2011 Fighter of the Year.
And he'll no longer be that anonymous low-key Olympian.
"One of my goals has always been for me to be Fighter of the Year and to get my coach [Virgil Hunter] Coach of the Year," Ward said. "It's been a long time coming, almost 15 years of grinding and toiling when no one is around patting you on the back and there are no lights, camera, action.
"The lights and the cameras have just been coming around the last five, six, seven years, but we've been grinding for many, many years. [Winning Fighter of the Year] would be icing on the cake for winning this tournament."
Ward had a bumpy path in his early days as a pro and there were plenty of detractors along the way. They looked at a steady succession of wins, but they didn't see the blazing hand speed of a Manny Pacquiao or a Floyd Mayweather Jr. or the overwhelming power of a Mike Tyson.
They didn't see a guy who had that one jaw-dropping skill that would identify him as a future star.
Instead, he was a guy who would do everything correctly, without flash, without fanfare. He was moved carefully, but was knocked down in his seventh pro fight by a journeyman, Darnell Boone. Ward got up and went on to win the bout handily, but that raised questions.
"Tebow is 7-1 as the starter [for the Broncos] and he won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy in college, but there were guys on his own team who were reluctant to say he was doing great," Goossen said. "In professional sports, the results matter and Tebow is winning, but there are all of these critics and people who view things differently.
"It's kind of been like that in a way with Andre, but the great thing about Andre is, he doesn't get caught up in that. He knows what he needs to do and he's been doing it. Finally, Tebow is starting to get the recognition for what he's done. Every time I turn the channel, there's Tebow on TV. Everybody's talking about him. And I sincerely believe that when Andre does what I think he's going to do on Saturday, the same thing will be true of him."
Ward is one of the toughest guys in the business, though that trait is rarely acknowledged because of his easy smile and genteel manner. Guys like Tyson, who bite ears, talk of smashing noses up into brains and of eating another man's children, are regarded as tough. Men like Ward, who don't rack up one-punch knockouts and who speak frequently of God, are often viewed in boxing circles as weak.
Froch trainer Rob McCracken alluded to that toughness when he was praising Froch for his never-quit attitude.
"A couple of the other fighters [Ward has] fought recently stopped fighting halfway through the fight when they realized they weren't going to win," McCracken said. "They went into survival mode."
That's because Ward is a punishing puncher who never takes the foot off the accelerator. When the bell sounds, Ward is intent on doling out punishment. Whether it's from a distance, with his underrated right cross, or on the inside, where he excels at breaking down an opponent to the body, Ward is the kind of fighter who later makes guys regret they've walked into the ring with him.
Ward opponents begin looking for the exit sign midway through the fight. He took Kessler's will at that stage of their bout. Kessler had been one of the pre-tournament favorites and seemed almost condescending toward Ward before the bout, but as Ward put a brutal beatdown on him in their opening round match on Nov. 21, 2009, Kessler began looking for an escape hatch.
"Before Andre was a boxer he was a fighter, [and] he would fight his way to victory," trainer Virgil Hunter said. "If you're going to win a gold medal in the Olympics, you're going to have to adapt to the amateur point system and learn to win that way. So he's had to adapt through training and repetition. But the fighting never left him. And I think that is one thing that surprises people about his fighting ability.
"Carl has said Andre hasn't fought in any exciting fights. Well, it takes two to make an exciting fight and when one guy is dominating, it's not going to be exciting. When you've got two guys busting each other up beside the head, yes, from the fans' perspective and the media's perspective, that's exciting. His fighting ability has always been there and the power of that fighting ability is that he knows when to use that strength against you and he knows when to use his opponents' strength against him. That's what makes up Andre Ward."
Ward said he wants to make a statement and said he hoped the fight would be dubbed "No Excuses." The bigger the fight, he said, the better he likes it.
And he knows that Froch presents him with one of the greatest challenges of his career. While many see it as Froch's strength versus Ward's boxing skill, Ward doesn't see it that way.
"For some reason, there seems to be questions from Froch's camp and the media about toughness, physicality, things like that," Ward said. "There's a sense that I'm looking to squeak by in this fight. You don't squeak by in fights at this level. You take them and that's what I plan to do. I'm the way that I always am. I'm always like this: Firm. It is a few days away from a big fight.
"But again, just like my fighting style, people will throw things out there, like I'm a nice guy, which I am, or, 'He's a family guy,' which I am. And people will get caught up in what they read in the press rather than looking at me for who I am. I'm a warrior. But people only give you the warrior tag if you get cut every other fight or you're in a Fight of the Year candidate every other fight. But I'm a warrior and I'm coming to win something and take something."
The reason he hasn't been in those kinds of fights has been that his opponents haven't been able to take what he's dished out, as even Froch's trainer has conceded.
The question hanging over this fight is whether Froch can do so.
Froch is very good, and as tough as they come. He's on a significant roll against quality opposition.
But he's never met a guy like Andre Ward, though.
Things are different when you fight Ward. Froch will find that out sometime in the waning hours of Saturday night.
Expect Ward to win the Super Six World Boxing Classic on Saturday, as well as a lot more to come after it.
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- Andre Ward
- Mikkel Kessler