Promoters live for the future but that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes long for the past. You couldn’t blame Dan Goossen if he’s one of them.
If Andre Ward had won Olympic gold in 1976 or 1984 or even in 1992, Goossen’s job as his chief tub thumper would be a lot easier than it is today. If the American public had watched Ward grow up on terrestrial television, learning about the depth of his faith, cleanliness of his life, love for his family, loyalty to his first trainer and level of his skills, today he would be what he is not yet. He would be a household name.
Instead Ward is the undefeated (24-0, 13 KO) WBA super middleweight champion no one knows, a guy who stands one victory away from winning SHOWTIME’s three-year long 168-pound tournament without having yet fought in prize fighting’s mecca, Las Vegas.
That says more about the state of boxing in America than it does about Ward but it also speaks to how times have changed and not always for the better.
“A lot of things were better 15 or 20 years ago,’’ Goossen said. “We had boxing on free TV and we had “Gunsmoke’’ instead of “The Kardashians.’’ But I don’t care what era it is, Andre Ward’s ability will transcend the lack of coverage.
“He really is a special individual from the standpoint of his viciousness inside the ring that belies his behavior outside the ring. It may be a little tougher to sell class in today’s world but it will win out in the long run.
“It’s a lot easier informing the public about a guy if he has a gun go off in a nightclub. If you’re not in those clubs and you’re going to church like Andre it doesn’t get too much news but eventually people will tell the story. Eventually people will realize what we respect in Andre. This is a guy you could bring home to your parents or bring to a brawl and be better off in either place.’’
The 27-year-old product of King’s Gym in Oakland was introduced not only to the sport but to what would become his trademark style at the age of nine when Virgil Hunter, his lifelong trainer, first explained to him that boxing is the art of hitting without being hit. Although being hit is an unavoidable requirement of the job Ward doesn’t run from, he is in every way a boxer rather than a brawler.
He is a guy who puts the “sweet’’ in A.J. Liebling’s Sweet Science, as he did last weekend by schooling former middleweight champion Arthur Abraham over 12 one-sided rounds on his way to winning one of the SHOWTIME tournament semi-finals, thus setting him up for a fall showdown with either England’s Carl Froch or aging road warrior Glen Johnson, who was a late addition who has found his way into a final Goossen and most everyone in boxing hopes he won’t win.
That’s no knock on Johnson, it is just that a match against the tough-talking Brit who holds the WBC version of the title and is 27-1 with 20 knockouts is a far easier sell to the larger public than Johnson, even though Johnson has greater name recognition in the U.S. In fact, Froch-Ward has the makings of the kind of fight Goossen and his young charge have been pursuing since Ward turned professional following the Athens Olympics in 2004.
That day Ward had no idea he’d be the last American boxer to win a gold medal but that is the declining state of amateur boxing in America. Once Olympic gold was the highway to a big signing bonus and instant recognition but those days, like “Gunsmoke,’’ have faded. The new normal is what Ward is fighting as enthusiastically as he does guys like Abraham and, hopefully, Froch.
“Floyd (Mayweather) and Manny (Pacquiao) didn’t sell out arenas until later in their careers,’’ Goossen said. “Andre is only 27. In the next 12 months we expect him to break through. Everyone wants it now, as we do. The bubble will explode shortly.’’
From a boxing standpoint the explosions began when he upset then super middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler in his first tournament fight. That he knocked off Abraham in his most recent gives him a near sweep of the European contingent originally favored to win a tournament designed to create a universally accepted champion.
Whoever emerges will not yet have that because outside the tournament awaits Lucian Bute, the undefeated (28-0) IBF champion who much of the world now sees as a force in the division. SHOWTIME recently signed him to a multi-fight deal with the further plan of matching him with its champion, likely next year. If that turns out to be Ward they’ll have no trouble making the match.
“After this tournament, if they say that Lucian Bute is the best, then so be it,” Wad said. “Lucian Bute after the tournament's over. That's the only guy that I can think of off of the top of my head.”
Goossen agrees and quickly points out nothing he or Ward have done since entering the tournament indicates an interest in shying away from such a fight. In part that may be because being The Last Olympic Gold Medalist doesn’t pay as well as it used to but regardless of the reason, Ward’s future all seems laid out before him if he can just keep winning.
“Andre has been able to show his skills against very solid champions, very solid fighters,’’ Goossen said. “For many decades this is how it was done. We got rid of the easy fights between the competitive fights. As you can see, so far it’s been one big fight after another. We’re not looking to veer off of that course.’’
Froch disputes that, claiming he has walked the harder tournament road while Ward has been free to fight not far from home and against an easier draw.
“There’s an argument that Ward’s had it all in his favor and he’s had it very easy,’’ Froch told England’s Boxing News. “That’s just the way it’s worked out. He’s not travelled away and jumped on an airplane like I have three times. It’s not ideal for me. With me being champion maybe we should have slipped something into the contract that when you’re champion you get the option to fight at home. It’s not happened but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.
“I’d rather have had Ward’s run. He boxed Kessler when he was out of the ring for ten months and had one comeback fight, which was like a sparring session. Kessler had to travel over there with his belt and fight Ward in his back yard and he got away with murder Ward did. He head butted and cut him up and Kessler was never able to get going.
“Ward has had an easy run in terms of not being out of his comfort zone but it’s my job to take him out of his comfort zone when I fight him – put him on his back foot, hit him hard and often and let him realize he’s in a fight – and that fight’s not going to be in California, no chance.”
Froch may have a point but Ward was the underdog against Kessler in many people’s opinion because of his lack of experience and many felt the same way about Abraham. In the end he overwhelmed both, not simply winning but schooling them in the dark art taught to him by Hunter.
Now he awaits Froch, hoping that fight will be the one that finally gets him into a Las Vegas boxing ring. If it happens, it’s been a long time coming but maybe, just maybe, he’s right on time.
“There's a great reward for the man who is the last man standing, and I'm going to be the last man standing,” Ward said with the quiet confidence he often keeps to himself until he’s surrounded by four strands of rope and with only one man between himself and victory.
“Carl Froch said that he wants to bring the trophy back to Great Britain. The only problem with that is that I think the trophy should stay here in the United States, so we have a problem. I think that a fight between myself and Carl Froch would be great, with me being from America and him coming from Great Britain.
“I think a fight between us would be a perfect fit for a venue like this (the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas) but we can't just wish it, we've got to make it happen. If we both do that, then it's all good. Then, we could have the final that everybody's talking about.
“He seems to have a lot to say about me and about my fights before they happen. And he seems to have a lot of negative things to say about my fights after they happen. He seems to be the one who wants to get in there. I think that would be a real interesting fight for fans, and that’s something I’m looking forward to, because I might give my opinion but I don’t run off at the mouth about anybody. He seems to do that a lot. I think he wants to fight me. I’ll be happy about that.
“I wasn’t the favorite from Day One. I know what I felt like when this tournament first started. These guys, you know, Arthur Abraham, Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch, in the beginning, they were the favorites The way that we were treated, the way that Arthur was walking around, and the way that Mikkel walked around, me and Andre Dirrell were looked at as two young guys who had talent but who were just supposed to spice things up and not make any noise.
“I saw all of that and I've never forgotten that. So regardless of what people say, that's where I'm at. Once a favorite, always a favorite. Once an underdog, always an underdog. That's my philosophy.”