NEW YORK – He settled into a seat, and within minutes you remembered why Andre Ward is the closest thing to an American boxing star. Articulate, smooth, impeccably credentialed, the Olympic gold medalist turned super middleweight champion turned light heavyweight kingpin is perfect on paper, a franchise player in a sport starved for them.
He started to speak, and within seconds you remembered why Ward isn’t there yet. The denial. The entitlement. The disconnect with reality. The lies — oh, my, the lies. Reflecting on how he has been covered over the years, Ward lamented the lack of reporters who bothered to try to get to know him, who ran with one side of a story without trying to get his. Across the table a handful of them — this one included — looked back, astonished, remembering the Herculean efforts that have been taken to get a hold of Ward. Efforts, it should be noted, that were almost always futile.
On Monday, promotion for the rematch between Ward and Sergey Kovalev began, and here is what the narrative should have been: Two 175-pound stars reunited, a narrow and controversial decision win by Ward last November run back. The animosity between Ward and Kovalev is real; Ward’s condescension infuriates Kovalev, while the anointing of Kovalev as a light heavyweight boogeyman has bothered Ward for years. Asked what he wants from the fight, Kovalev said, “End [Ward’s] career.”
What the narrative was instead was negotiation. Catnip for the boxing diehards, white noise to everyone else. It’s no secret Main Events, which promotes Kovalev, and Roc Nation, Ward’s promoter, are bitter rivals. An acrimonious first round of negotiations led to a challenging second, with Main Events wondering if Kovalev was going to fight Ward in the ring or if the company was going to fight him in court.
Palace intrigue makes for fun copy; it does nothing to sell a fight.
It was about Ward, and why he didn’t immediately clamor for a second fight. Ward called the rematch “academic.” To Main Events, to HBO, to every industry insider privy to the talks, it was anything but. Negotiations should have been easy. Deal points — including a 60-40 Ward-favored split — were hammered out in the first contract. Yet Ward killed any momentum by flirting with retirement (come on) and declaring that he would fight Kovalev on his terms, on his time.
Interviews with Ward are interesting. He is thoughtful, yet shows a remarkable lack of self-awareness. Take the question of why someone so well credentialed is not yet a mainstream star.
“I feel like over the years, some of the knock on me is because I’m not what the collective media wants me to be,” Ward said. “It’s, ‘He should do this, he should do that, he’s boring.’ I’m boring because I don’t want to act a certain way on [HBO’s] 24/7? Why is that not promotable? I talk a lot, and I walk it also. I try to be an ambassador for the sport.
“The fight is over the casual fan. The hardcore fans, nine times out of 10 they are going to come, they are going to like who they like. The week of the [last] fight, my team brought to me two different headlines. ‘How Kovalev became a star in the sport.’ No disrespect to Kovalev, but when Kovalev came to Las Vegas before we fought, he didn’t do great with tickets. And the next article was, ‘Ward great talent, but nobody knows him.’ The casual fan reads the headline like that and says, ‘Oh, this guy is not worth watching.’ When you have a lot of that, that has something to do with it.”
Artfully articulated — and complete nonsense. Understanding Ward’s stalled rise is easy. Bad luck was part of it; the Super Six tournament established Ward as the top 168-pound fighter in the world, but the tourney, plagued by problems and watched by too few, did little to boost Ward’s profile.
Ward’s biggest problem? Ward. Great fighters fight. Ward doesn’t. In 2012, Ward knocked out Chad Dawson. It was his biggest win to date. He didn’t fight again until 14 months later. He outpointed Edwin Rodriguez in 2013. He took 18 months off after that. He fought his promoter in court more often than opponents in the ring. Popularity is backboned by a string of great performances. Ward wants you to watch his fights, then rewind them to remember how good they were.
Floyd Mayweather is a crutch. It’s true: Mayweather’s popularity exploded when he became a WWE-style heel. But Manny Pacquiao is as interesting as cardboard. Gennady Golovkin is a Kazakh-born middleweight who has used broken phrases like “good boy” and “big drama show” to build himself into one of the sport’s most popular stars.
Ward wants you to believe the deck is stacked against him. The reality: It’s not.
It’s a shame, really. Ward is a great fighter. Members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team worshipped him. One — silver medalist Shakur Stevenson — enlisted him as a manager. Ward should be the subject of deep New York Times profiles and featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But he’s not. And he probably won’t be. He’s dug in on the disrespect narrative and will forever blame his refusal to act cartoonish for why a sports-starved country won’t get behind him. His conduit to the casual fans he covets is the media, and those talking points inspire in them a collective shrug. There’s a greatness to Ward, in the ring and out. It’s unfortunate so few will get to see it.