It’s fair to say that Andre Ward is not every fight fan’s cup of tea. In fact, it would be more accurate to say the reaction his name elicits online tends to be fairly scathing. Whether it is vitriol directed at the judges’ verdict awarded to him over Sergey Kovalev, or scorn heaped on his “diva-ish” behaviour at the negotiating table, it seems few people have a positive word to say about the man these days. So with the news that he failed to show up for a planned HBO Face Off segment opposite his Russian rival this past weekend, it did not take long for the critics to once again come out in force.
Main Events, Kovalev’s promoter, got the ball rolling by tweeting a picture of their smiling fighter captioned with the words: “We regret to inform you that there will be no Face Off for #WardKovalev2. The coward @AndreWard left Las Vegas to avoid @KrusherKovalev!”
— Main Events (@Main_Events) May 7, 2017
The precise reason for his departure is not entirely clear, though a report on RingTV.com suggests that Ward took umbrage with the fact that Kovalev had failed to show up to HBO’s Canelo-Chavez Jr. broadcast alongside him on Saturday evening. Apparently, he then decided to return the favour the following day – with the obvious difference being that the Face Off filming was entirely dependent on both fighters attending, whereas the Canelo-Chavez Jr. telecast was not.
The move is not likely to win Andre Ward any new fans and will only galvanize the opinions of those who think he acts like a spoiled brat. And while rising to his defence is equally unlikely to endear me to fellow fight friends and colleagues, in my opinion too many people with access to a keyboard are too eager to jump at the chance for a bit of “Ward Bashing”.
The unified light heavyweight champion is a confident and articulate individual who draws on unflinching mental strength as one of his greatest assets. But the same fortitude that serves him so well in competition also manifests itself outside of the ring as a fierce stubbornness in his business dealings, as well as a demeanour that alienates members of the press. As Chris Mannix describes it, “S.O.G.’s” attitude involves “denial,” “entitlement,” and a “disconnect with reality,” all of which helps explain how Ward rubs so many boxing folk the wrong way.
Far less easy to understand, however, is why fans are so quick to question Ward’s fighting integrity after all he’s achieved in the ring. He is, it should be noted, hardly the first fighter with an acerbic attitude and inflated sense of self. Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. were similarly uncompromising, unlikeable, and at times even more abrasive during their primes. Jones was notoriously difficult to deal with; Mayweather sometimes impossible, and Hopkins was never shy about complaining to anyone who’d listen that the whole world was colluding against him. This did not, as I recall, lead to any of them being labelled as “cowards” after securing their biggest victories, or attract the kind of general hostility that permeates so much of the debate surrounding Andre Ward.
Much of the grievance, it seems to me, is simply a hangover from his paltry run of four ring appearances in the four years following his victory over Chad Dawson in late 2012. At that time, Ward was widely regarded as the best fighter in the sport not-named Floyd Mayweather, but he then chose to stall his career rather than back down in a promotional dispute with Dan Goosen. Understandably, many fans grew tired of waiting for the super middleweight king to just get on with boxing, and after four years without a meaningful contest, for many the frustration boiled over into open revulsion. Names like “Andre CoWard” and “Andre Fraud” were regularly bandied about on social media, and it was commonly argued that he was “ducking” middleweight Gennady Golovkin.
To his credit, Andre Ward simply did one better: he moved up a division and signed to fight boxing’s undefeated danger man, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev. Far from running away from the GGG challenge, Ward shut the critics up by taking on a bigger, stronger, and more formidable opponent. Then, having scaled the heights of boxing as an both an Olympic gold medalist and a two-weight, undefeated world champion, and having defeated a man many predicted he would never dare step foot in the ring with, he was incredibly called “a coward” again for merely floating the possibility that he might retire rather than grant the Russian an immediate rematch.
As the weeks ticked by, the new champion let it be known that he would not put pen to contract according to anyone else’s schedule. Team Kovalev’s exasperation grew louder, and the perception that Ward was now “scared” to fight the Russian also gathered momentum. It is a strange form of logic that labels somebody who has just gone 12 rounds with the most dangerous man in the sport “scared to fight,” but then this is boxing; logic is sometimes in short supply when tribal emotion can just as easily take its place.
In a February interview published on IFL TV, Andre Ward responded to the accusation directly: “It’s funny to me just seeing the different opinions, [like] ‘oh Ward’s scared!’ Man I’ve been boxing my whole life – I’m not gonna start being scared now. And do y’all realize that I chose him? He didn’t choose me?”
These hardly sounded like the words of a man who was quaking in his boots and, sure enough, weeks later the rematch was announced. However, even for those who were begrudgingly willing to admit that Ward deserved some credit, his “diva-ish” behaviour in dragging out the negotiations left a sour taste that they could not, or simply refused, to shake off. Less reasonably, some of the more hardened haters desperately clung to the notion that he was still a coward because he was “forced” into taking a rematch he never wanted.
In fact, Ward had willingly agreed to the contracted rematch clause in the first place and knew exactly what he was getting himself into. Kathy Duva, of all people, openly praised him for being so eager to sign, stating in a July 2016 interview that, “from the very beginning for me it was obvious that Ward really wants to fight with Sergey… It was that type of negotiation where both sides are very eager to agree and sign a contract.”
Were the retirement threats or negotiating delays really worthy of so much disdain? “I’m taking my ball home with me if you won’t play nice” is certainly not a good look for a newly crowned champion, to be sure. That being said, I find it difficult to begrudge any fighter the right to go off into the sunset with his health, faculties, and finances intact after dedicating two decades to the hardest sport in the world. Like it or not, Andre Ward had earned that right.
More reasonably, several scribes questioned why we should praise a fighter merely for doing something “he should do anyway” – i.e. take on the best available competition. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: the best don’t always fight the best anymore. I know, I know, it’s annoying, and it was better back when men were men, and champs fought five times a week and twice on Sunday. But most of us weren’t even born then, and it’s been 30 years or more since the Four Kings were doing their thing.
Sadly, these days, whether it is down to the proliferation of title belts, promotional rivalries, or the counter-productive strategy of “marinating” fights, the reality is that we do not see the best boxers square off as a matter of course (though thankfully, 2017 has been a notable exception to the trend). Even when the best do meet, the process is often preceded by several years of bickering over social media. Such is the world we live in.
That being the case, when boxers do show a consistent willingness to take on the best, I like to give them their due. I give Lomachenko immense credit for his “get me the best name available” attitude; I give Terrence Crawford credit for fighting any name they throw out; and I give Andre Ward credit for stepping up a division and taking on one of the most formidable punchers in the sport, twice in a row. And, having been repeatedly labelled “a coward” by swaths of fans, I give him credit for rubbishing those jibes so emphatically.
— Sergey Kovalev (@KrusherKovalev) April 19, 2017
This does not mean, of course, that we ought to prostrate ourselves in front of the man who calls himself “Son of God” and bow to his holy greatness. It doesn’t mean that you have to like his personality, or even that you have to stop criticizing his attitude towards the media. But it does mean that, if you are assessing his career with a modicum of intellectual honesty, you have to be willing to nod in appreciation and say “fair play” to the guy for doing something many believed he could not, and others argued he would not even dare try.
So while it might seem childish of Andre Ward to skip the HBO Face Off, it’s also worth remembering that his obstinate refusal to cede an inch in the pre-fight gamesmanship with Team Kovalev emanates from the same competitive drive that allowed him to climb off the canvas last November and eke out a unanimous decision victory over one of the most formidable battlers in the game today. And it may yet serve him just as well in the rematch. — Matt O’Brien