Thursday, August 16, 2012

Andre Ward and the Quest for Greatness

Modern boxing orthodoxy maintains that the best fighters carefully choose their opponents in an economic system that maximizes revenue with the least amount of risk. Inherently, this construct makes sense. Why should a boxer place himself at risk for undue harm if he can make millions fighting lesser opponents? The two highest-regarded fighters in the sport (Mayweather and Pacquiao) have played this game and its multi-faceted variations for years, but this conceit did not originate with them – it has been around since the beginning of the sport. Rugged contenders have been avoided. Rematches of tough fights have not been granted. Boxers have exercised legal remedies, hid behind promoters, relinquished belts and jumped weight classes to avoid taking on their stiffest challengers.

However, as a counterpoint to this thesis, each generation has a number of elite fighters who buck orthodoxy and face the best in the sport. Whether it is Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Marvin Hagler, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar de la Hoya or Evander Holyfield, certain boxers derive ultimate glory from fighting their top rivals. Yes, money and fame are still important to them – they don't lace them up for charity – but they want need to fight the best. These special fighters define themselves on accepting difficult challenges and dethroning their fellow elites. Andre Ward is such a fighter.

Heading into the Super Six World Boxing Classic in 2009, Andre Ward was not considered a favorite to win. Mikkel Kessler was the de facto head honcho of the division after Joe Calzaghe retired. Arthur Abraham was an undefeated, tough middleweight champion moving up in weight. Carl Froch entered the tournament as an unbeaten champion and had already bested Jermain Taylor and Jean Pascal. Although Ward was not considered an afterthought in the tournament (Andre Dirrell) or cannon fodder (Taylor), he was viewed as something of a wild card, an unknown entity.

Most of Ward's fights prior to the tournament took place against lightly-regarded opposition away from the sport's biggest stages. He fought in San Jose, the desert Indian casinos of Southern California, Oregon, Saint Lucia and the Cayman Islands. His best opponent was the faded contender Edison Miranda. In addition, the memory of Ward being dropped in his seventh pro fight against Darnell Boone did not inspire confidence that the former U.S. Olympian could survive the gantlet of the tournament, facing punchers such as Abraham and Froch.

Yet Ward, who was just 21-0 prior to the Super Six, established himself as the best fighter in the tournament and demonstrated that he was one of the elite talents in the sport. He lost no more than a handful of rounds throughout the Super Six, physically dominating Kessler, outclassing Abraham and crowding Froch. After Froch's post-Super Six trouncing of Lucian Bute, there was unanimity in boxing circles that Ward was the top fighter in the division.

Throughout the tournament, Ward showcased an array of punches. He shot a solid jab from the outside, a sharp left hook, an accurate right hand and solid uppercuts with both hands. Most impressively, he displayed a range of styles, fighting as a slick boxer who relied on hand and foot speed as well as a bruising infighter.

In fact, he has become one of the best inside boxers in the sport. He uses his physicality and compact punches to grind opponents down. Even in close range, he tucks his chin very well and uses excellent head and upper body movement to avoid return fire. His balance is also exceptional.

He can be economical with his punches and place them well, but he also can swarm opponents with inside flurries. In short, he has many ways to beat opponents and his only real drawback is a lack of top-shelf power. (Since getting dropped by Boone early in his career, Ward has not seen a recurrence of any real chin problems.)

Ward excelled as an amateur fighter, winning a gold medal in 2004. As the 2012 games have just ended, think about how different amateur scoring is than in the pro game. In the amateurs, single, clean blows are rewarded, where a collection of judges need to agree that a punch lands in order to get a point. These incentives steer amateur boxers in the following ways: jabs are key because they are easy to see, body shots aren't often tabulated because of the close proximity between the fighters and uppercuts lose their importance because infighting is not easy to score in the punch counting system.

Ward mastered the amateur scoring system (the punch counting mechanism was a slightly different manifestation in the 2004 Games compared to the 2012 version, but the incentive structure was the same) but also consider how expertly he has adapted to the professional circuit. He understands that the pro game is about imposing one's will and inflicting damage. He has become a rugged, physical fighter – qualities which are not necessarily meaningful in the amateur ranks. He has mastered beating opponents at close range and removing their willingness to engage. His metamorphosis in the pro game has added dimensions to his ring style, creating only foggy scenarios where opponents might be competitive with him, let alone best him.

For his next opponent, he has selected perhaps the most difficult challenge of his professional career. Surveying the super middleweight landscape, Ward didn't see any real threats. Instead, he corralled Chad Dawson, the top light heavyweight in the world, for his next ring appearance. In Dawson, Ward has found a tough, elusive and versatile fighter who presents real matchup challenges. Dawson also doesn't have top power, but he has accuracy, physicality, an array of punches and great footwork.

Ward's choice of Dawson provides ample evidence of his goals in boxing. Given Ward's status in the division and his rough slate of opponents during the Super Six, it would have been completely understandable if he had selected a softer touch for his ring return, especially coming off of a hand injury. Instead, he picked one of the top dozen or so fighters in the sport; he wants to continue to challenge himself against the best.

It's clear from Ward's success in the amateur and professional ranks that he has tremendous boxing aptitude, ring intelligence and athleticism, but he's after something more. Ward has veered away from boxing orthodoxy by refusing to milk his name and fight for easy paydays. He's most interested in taking on the best that the sport has to offer. It's not enough for him to be considered the top super middleweight; he wants to be the best in the entire sport. His ambition is singular, and it's refreshing. He believes in the quaint notion that to become the best, you must beat the best. The concept is very simple and yet remains rare in the modern boxing landscape of umpteen title belts and numerous weight classes.

Ward has refused the path of least resistance and he should be commended for that. He fights Dawson not out of necessity but because of his competitive drive and his understanding of what greatness requires in boxing – not merely exemplary skills, but the desire to accept risk. More Wards please.

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