LAS VEGAS – Whenever athletes say they’re not bothered by fan or media criticism, it’s a pretty good bet that they are.
Andre Ward is the most recent to say he’s unconcerned with his media portrayal, the perception that he got a gift decision in November in his first fight with Sergey Kovalev and that he is something less than a star.
No, Ward is not now, nor is he ever going to be, a carbon copy of Floyd Mayweather, the sport’s biggest draw and a larger-than-life character. You won’t see Ward flaunting his wealth, nor posting ads for his strip club online, as Mayweather often does.
Ward, who is every bit Mayweather’s equal as a boxer, is far quieter, more reserved and significantly more concerned about presenting a wholesome image.
“My job is to represent this sport, treat people as best I can and live my life,” he said. “Some people are going to get it; some people aren’t. My pastor, [former Oakland Raider] Napoleon Kaufman, told me, ‘Live your life in the middle, man. Live your life in the middle.’ … I understand my position in the sport. My lane is being the understated one, and that’s OK.”
Ward is days away from a rematch at Mandalay Bay with Kovalev for the IBF, WBA and WBO light heavyweight belts. Ward controversially defeated Kovalev by a thin margin of 114-113 in November.
Kovalev has mocked Ward and the Russian has insisted he was overtrained and not nearly himself. He always got a good dig in when he made a play on Ward’s “Son of God” nickname by referring to him as “Son of the Judges.”
Ward has heard Kovalev’s criticism, and the criticism of many in the media as well as from his fan base. It was a remarkably close fight and included a slew of rounds that could have gone either way. Kovalev landed and threw more punches, and scored a knockdown. Ward landed at a much higher percentage and clearly changed the momentum of the fight beginning in the sixth round.
Much like Mayweather, Ward is a genius in the ring and, whether or not you believe he won, you must concede he turned the tide of the fight by changing the distance. He got inside in the second half and the complexion of the fight changed from what appeared to be a Kovalev rout into a nail-biter.
Ward is usually the epitome of cool and takes pride in the way he always maintains an even keel.
“I enjoyed my victory, but we didn’t have any parades or anything like that because that’s not how I was raised in this sport,” Ward said. “We’ve always just done our business and moved on. It’s crazy, because you get higher in the sport, it’s a little weird, like, ‘Man, is it OK to enjoy this?’ ”
One gets the distinct impression from listening to him that he was wounded by the criticism. He felt even before the first fight that the tide of opinion was against him.
Kovalev has said it was hard for a Russian to go into Las Vegas and defeat an American Olympic medal-winning hero, but said he felt he won despite his empty gas tank.
Ward insisted he’s not bothered by perceptions, but said he sensed that much of the criticism he got both before and after the fight was personal.
“A lot of people didn’t want me to win that fight, so you see the true colors come out,” said Ward, who hails from Oakland, California. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion. I’m cool with that. But when you start hearing stuff, from notable [people], ‘Ah, it’s home cooking.’ That was my first time in Vegas. I live on this coast, but I’m not from here. I have no bearings here, so explain to me how that’s not a personal agenda.
“It’s beyond, ‘Ah, I thought he got hit.’ I respect that. It’s an opinion and you’re entitled to it, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
Judging in boxing, either by the paid judges or those in the stands or in front of television, is totally subjective and a matter of opinion.
Ward later said something very un-Ward-like when he discussed his approach to Saturday’s rematch. He’s a master defensive fighter, and though he’s not a slugger like Kovalev or Gennady Golovkin, his punches sting, and you don’t see guys willing to walk through his shots to get inside and try to bully him. The reaction of his opponents proves that while he’s no knockout artist, he has some pop on his punches.
“My goal, simply, is to make a statement,” Ward said. “I’m not here to prove anybody wrong, but I’m going to make a statement. I just want to take away any question mark they may have.”