Andre Ward is one of the great fighters of his era … and barely anyone knows it

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·Combat columnist
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Andre Ward hasn't lost a fight since 1996. (Getty Images)
Andre Ward, left, hasn’t lost a fight since 1996. (Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Andre Ward is one of the great fighters of his era, and probably of any era, even though he rarely gets the kind of recognition that peers such as Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have received.

To understand Ward’s greatness, it’s easiest to use an analogy about hockey goaltenders.

At the end of the day, the job is simply to keep the puck out of the net. But there are those who flop and dive around to make saves, batting the puck aside at the last instant. And then there are those who are so smart, who read the play and who are always in perfect position. They give the shooter nothing to shoot at and the saves they make seem simple.

As a fighter, Ward’s movements are studied, controlled and precise. He’s always in the right place at the right time and throws the proper punch. There are few wasted movements, and almost never any wild punches swinging at air.

He fights Sergey Kovalev on HBO pay-per-view Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena for supremacy in the light heavyweight division. He’s 30-0 with 15 knockouts as a professional, and was 114-5 as an amateur.

[Related: Sergey Kovalev’s path from boxing unknown to top of the sport]

He’s now 32 years old, and hasn’t lost since 1996, when he was 12 and beaten by Jesus “Ernie” Gonzales, a terrific amateur who didn’t quite have the pro career that was predicted of him.

Ward hasn’t lost since his pre-teen bout with Gonzales, picking up an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and world titles along the way as a professional. He hasn’t, though, received half the acclaim for his greatness that Mayweather has, even though Ward’s record suggests he’s earned it.

“There are different kinds of great fighters,” long-time trainer John Scully said. “An average, casual fan could watch a Roy Jones, a Floyd Mayweather, a Muhammad Ali in his prime, and could obviously see they’re great fighters. It didn’t take a genius to figure that out.

“But Andre, you really have to know what you’re looking at. You have to appreciate his type of boxing and his type of knowledge.”

Scully trained former light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson against Ward in a 2012 super middleweight title fight that Ward won by TKO. He’d always been impressed from afar by Ward, but as he broke down the film, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

Dawson was weight-drained in their fight and had difficulty performing anywhere near his peak, but Scully admits Ward would have been a very difficult opponent for Dawson under the best of circumstances.

Scully even managed to compare Ward favorably to one of the all-time greats, Bernard Hopkins.

“I’ve never been a big film guy, as a trainer or a boxer,” he said. “I never watched film when I boxed, even though maybe I should have. When I watched Bernard Hopkins as a fan, I would say, ‘Wow, this guy is really good. He’s unbelievable.’ But when Chad was getting ready to fight him and I got serious and started breaking down the tape and looking at him, I picked out two or three important things I’d never noticed before that we used to beat him.

“Now, fast forward to when Chad fought Andre Ward. I did the same thing with Andre and I kept watching his fights, over and over and over. It was so hard to find a weakness. I just couldn’t find one. He just gets the job done. There aren’t many holes in his defense, if any. You watch his fights and you’re not sure what he’s doing and it’s over and he’s won eight to four, nine to three, something like that.”

Ward is like Mayweather in that it’s an event when he’s hit cleanly. Often, his opponent’s punch rate dips because Ward simply doesn’t provide them openings.

Against a heavy-handed fighter like Kovalev, that’s critical because Kovalev (30-0-1) can turn a fight around with one shot. Ward has underrated power, though he’s hardly a knockout artist.

One of the things he’s great at, however, is putting physical and mental pressure on his opponents during a fight.

“I know they want blood, they want me knocked down and staggered,” Ward said. “I’ve studied this sport for many years and if you look at old footage of Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins and old interviews and footage of Floyd Mayweather, it’s the same kind of things that were said about them and those three guys are legends and Hall of Famers. You can’t be worried about that because you understand that some people get it and some people won’t, but you have to do what you have to do. Some people won’t like it, but some people will.”

This is the fight of Ward’s life. He has been in the ring with – and easily dominated – several high-level fighters, including Mikkel Kessler, Allan Green, Sakio Bika, Arthur Abraham, Carl Froch and Dawson. Those fighters had a combined mark of 190-10-2 at the time they fought Ward, and none of them came close to defeating him.

He’s been around so long and seen so much that like Mayweather, it almost comes naturally to him. It’s like he’s watching a fight from the highest reaches of the arena, where the moves are most obvious, yet he’s often there right in front of his opponent.

“A lot of who you are is who you are,” Ward said. “It’s who you’ve been all these years, but what I think separates fighters a lot of times is who can make the adjustments and those adjustments start in the gym. One of the things I love about my coach [Virgil Hunter] is that he’s not too enamored with what I do well. He acknowledges it. He starts where he feels I could be beat or I’m susceptible to get hit, or something could happen and that’s where he starts to train me, from that point.

“He’s not enamored with what we’ve done, he’s always tweaking and encouraging me to get better and add a new wrinkle. As long as I’ve been fighting, I come to the gym and sometimes I feel like I’m just starting out because there’s always something he’s working on for me to get better at. And if you put the time in, these things show up when you need them.”

[Related: The best greatest story never told … until now]

Ward has more than put the time in and it’s past time he’s recognized for it. He hasn’t always been the most accessible, or the most colorful, or the flashiest, but he’s been one of the true elites at every level.

“It’s a shame that people in this era don’t recognize what we have in this guy and how great he truly is,” Scully said. “He’s always sharp, in shape, on his game, fully prepared. In this era, it doesn’t matter as much as it used to. People give you credit now for being arrested, for wearing glittery trunks, for doing stupid stuff. You look at a guy like [Adrien] Broner and he is best known for making a fool of himself on WorldStarHipHop, but Ward is 10 times the professional that guy is.

“Some day, when we’re looking back on this era, people are going to ask, ‘How did that guy get overlooked?’ He’s as good as there is and it’s more an indictment of our times than it is of him that he doesn’t get the kind of recognition he should.”

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