Andre Ward has the biggest fight of his career this Saturday (November 19) when he faces light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev. Even at 32 years old with numerous titles and a 30-0 record, it’s clear from talking with him that Ward still feels he has a lot to prove. After years of legal setback, 2016 has been his most active in-ring year since 2009. He headlines his first pay-per-view with the stakes not just being financial, but the chance to be universally recognized as the best Pound 4 Pound fighter in the world (a title some would say he’s never lost despite inactivity).
In this candid interview, Ward gives insight into his personal views on Kovalev, Black Lives Matter and the role of boxers, and the fine line between chasing greatness and sound business decisions.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: About your role in Creed, I wanted to get your stance on gym politics. In the movie, you knocked out the Creed character on a gym bet and got to keep his car. With so many cameras and media people around these days, is it a violation for the boxers involved to make something like that public?
Andre Ward: Personally, I come from the old school where what happens in the gym is supposed to stay there. It’s not like that anymore — it’s too many cameras and phones out there. People can’t wait to bust out the door and say something happened.
I like the old set of rules because things happen in the gym. You may have a bad day and not look good. That’s not something 20 people should know about. You get knocked down, things happen. Unfortunately, it’s a different era.
Speaking of it being a different era, the politics of boxing have prevented a few big matchups from going down this year. This is perhaps the one superfight in 2016 where we didn’t have a lot of back and forth in the media. Do you feel this fight has more significance in carrying the sport because so many great fights have fallen through?
Ward: Not really. Of course, I want to do my part to contribute to great fights, but I don’t get caught up in what fights didn’t happen. Boxing is here to stay. We may have a slow year, but next year is looking like a great year in the first quarter. I don’t put too much stake in that.
At super-middleweight, you were able to overwhelm a lot of guys with your physicality on the inside. At 175, I’ve noticed your game has become more about timing and finesse and picking your spots on slower guys. How much of that can be attributed to age and facing naturally bigger men?
Ward: I think it depends on the opponent and what’s needed that night. Just because fans don’t regularly see a particular style or nuance in my game doesn’t mean I’m not still working on it. It just means I wasn’t able to pull it off like I wanted or it wasn’t needed. That’s what makes a great fighter, someone who can show something different every time out. And even remind people of what they haven’t seen in a few years or show some new wrinkles out there.
Going back to this being a different era, I noticed Muhammad Ali is the background of your Twitter page. In his time, he fought tough fights regularly. In this era, Floyd Mayweather had the leverage to be selective in when he took a challenging fight because he controlled the business aspect. With you being the premiere athlete now, how does a boxer go about balancing greatness with financial smartness?
Ward: That’s a great question. It’s definitely up to the individual fighter and their team on what legacy means to them. Is it important to just make money or have a strong resume? It is such a fine line and there is no blueprint on how many tough fights you should have or tune-ups. It’s very tricky.
For me, I have a great team in my lawyer Josh Dubin, my manager James Prince, my promotional team, and trainer. Collectively we come together and make these decisions based on where I’m at, where I want to get to, and how much longer I want to be in the game.
The fine line comes if you continue to take tough fight after tough fight and guys are getting beat up, you’ll be criticized for not being smart. But if you’re real selective, you’ll get criticized for that too. You just have to do the best you can to make sound decisions.
Give me the science behind your jab. Most fighters get countered when they try to repeatedly jab to the body. But I can’t recall you ever getting caught consistently with that punch.
Ward: I definitely get countered from time to time, but I was once told that if you want to be a good fighter, don’t jab. If you want to be a great fighter, learn to use that jab. But it has to be an “educated jab.” Like you said, you go upstairs and downstairs, you fient with it. The jab will save you from a lot [of punishment], you can survive when you’re hurt. You can hide your big shots behind it.
It’s one of those things where it’s easy to get away from it because everyone wants to be a two-fisted fighter. That’s cool but all the greats that I’ve seen, they had a great jab and I want to be great.
A lot of attention is being given to athletes and the role of social protest in sports. Where do you feel your role is as a boxer? Since boxing is not a team sport, there hasn’t been a lot of talk about what boxers can or should be doing to push the discussion forward.
Ward: That’s tough. I’m a man who tries to be lead in whatever he does. I try not to make knee-jerk reactions to get press off of things. I’m also a man of inspiration. If I feel inspired and sought counsel on something, I’ll do it regardless of the backlash I’ll get.
It’s tough with the current things going on because obviously I have an opinion on it I want to share publicly. I think about it all the time. I’m African-American. My children are African-American. There are things they will have to face and deal with. I think before you speak, you need to educate yourself and have a plan with it so you’ll be respected in whatever you feel lead to do.
Having watched you interacting with fans, you’re very personable and friendly. That is contrary to how some portray you in the media. Do you think this fight has or will do a lot to dispel some of the claims of you being standoffish and hard to deal with?
Ward: I think I’ve always been who I am. People have to realize the boxing media is not very big. It’s very small and incestuous; this guy knows that guy and this guy. Unfortuntely, one person may have a personal vendetta for whatever reason. They spew out venom without the facts or coming to get to know a person. Other writers will follow up and do the same thing.
When I was younger, it used to bother me because I felt it was wrong and unjust. But as I get older and matured, I’m confident if an individual gets to meet me, they are going to get the person they’re supposed to get. And that is a person who’s appreciative, thankful and somebody who cares about people. So I don’t worry about that no more because the cream always rises to the top. The key is to continously be me.
A few months ago, we talked briefly about the alleged racist comments Sergey Kovalev had made back in 2013 and the Adonis Stevenson “monkey” incident. Recently, he also made a sexist comment to Claressa Shields about needing her to be in the kitchen. Although he said he was joking, do personal incidents like that give you more motivation going into a fight?
Ward: At the end of the day, I can’t bring his personal shortcomings, views on race, and life into the ring. The boxing ring is a very delicate place. I just make a mental note on the type of individual I’m dealing with.
When we get in the ring, we understand a fighter’s struggle, where they come from and their triumphs. We understand that so we can know who we’re truly dealing with. So when those things are said, we add them to the chalkboard to dissect the opponent we’re facing.
What’s your Hip-Hop playlist looking like these days?
Ward: I don’t listent to overall Hip-Hop anymore, but I do listen to gospel rap. There’s some hittas out there, man. Lecrae is one of my favorites. You have Tagoshi, Trip Lee, Transparent, Black Knight; the list goes on and on. These are guys that love God, have a positive message, bangin’ beats and a ton of talent. People definitely need to check those guys out.
Even though you’re not near retirement, when you talk I can sometimes tell you can see your life after boxing. After Kovalev, win or lose, do you feel this will be the climax of your career?
Ward: I feel I have a lot left in the tank. I speak to a lot of guys who are retired, and they tell me “you’ll know.” At the same time, I’ve seen a lack of preparation from athletes. When we’re young and doing good, we feel like it’ll last forever. Mentally, we don’t set ourselves up for the end. I’ve made sure that mentally I’ve prepared for it in every single way.
Andre Ward vs. Sergey Kovalev airs live on HBO pay-per-view Saturday November 19. Friday’s weigh-in will be streamed live on BeatsBoxingMayhem.