Will Ward Sink Roc Nation?

Earlier this year, Jay-Z’s Roc Nation announced with great fanfare the signing of “S.O.G.” Andre Ward to their budding promotional outfit, and who could blame them? Despite 14 months of inactivity and counting, Ward remains the undisputed super-middleweight champion, is ranked fourth pound-for-pound by Ring Magazine, and his clean-cut image presents a nice contrast to that other great American boxer of our time. All this, together with a strong field of potential opponents around the 168-pound division, make Ward a hot commodity in boxing, one which Roc Nation hopes will help it stage big fights as it builds its name and reputation.

Unfortunately for Jay-Z, even though his goal of signing a boxing luminary to his new company is fulfilled, he now faces the equally arduous task of finding the right circumstances under which Ward can return to the ring. Word on the street is Andre, who cited a lack of say in matchmaking as part of the reason to leave his former promoter, is demanding a bit too much from his new promoter and from HBO. Ward’s declared he wants a soft touch as his comeback fight, which is understandable given his long layoff, but he’s also allegedly demanding a seven-figure salary for it, along with home-field advantage, as he’d like his return fight to take place in Oakland, California.

How long will the honeymoon last?

It remains to be seen how far Roc Nation will go to accommodate Ward’s demands, but what is clear is that “S.O.G.” is intent on milking as much as possible not only from his status in boxing, but also from his bargaining position at Roc Nation. While Ward is a recognizable name in prizefighting, Roc Nation is only getting started in the business. So far, they’ve staged only one boxing card, which received mixed reviews, and is currently experiencing some additional struggles. Less than a month after announcing the purchase of veteran promoter Gary Shaw’s promotional company, this week we’ve learned the deal is off. It was smart of Roc Nation to take on Gary Shaw and make use of his experience and contacts, not to mention his stable of prizefighters, to stage big fights in appealing events. It goes without saying that Shaw walking away from the deal  is a huge setback for Jay-Z’s company.

From a fight fan’s point of view, the return of Andre Ward will be either a joyous occasion or a non-event, and the outcome will depend on whether the champion chooses to take on the biggest challenges available or coasts through the rest of his career taking winnable fights for as much money as he can. At this moment, and despite Ward’s intention to fight as soon as March or April, it’s impossible to predict where his career will go. The potential for big fights is certainly there: a long rumoured match with HBO-darling Gennady Golovkin would be a crowd-pleaser; alternatively Ward could try his luck at light heavyweight where a bunch of talented bruisers currently steal fans’ imaginations: Sergey Kovalev, Adonis Stevenson, and Artur Beterbiev would all make for attractive fights. Even if he stayed at his own weight, a rematch with Carl Froch would certainly tempt the Brit to put off his retirement a bit longer.

So the opportunity is there for Ward to come back and make a significant impact on the sport, as he continues adding to his already impressive résumé. However, this will command of him a much more risk-taking attitude than he’s shown so far. His defense-centered style in the ring mirrors his cautious career management outside of it, as Ward has so far refused to move up or down in weight to take on new comers, or even venture too far away from his hometown of Oakland for his fights. After all this time, and given his leverage with his new promoter, it would be a surprise if he was willing to do any of this without some arm-twisting. Roc Nation’s sole leverage with Ward stems from the fact that as talented and successful as he is, Ward is still unproven as an attraction outside of his hometown.

Is GGG in Ward's future?
Is GGG in Ward’s future?

Roc Nation, for their part, have their work cut out for them in breaking into the North American boxing market. Hard as it must be to see their partnership with Gary Shaw break up before it even got started, their attention must now shift to handling Andre Ward delicately, lest the Olympian decide he’s once again being mistreated by his promoter. It is in the interest of Roc Nation to match Andre Ward in appealing fights that arouse fight fans’ excitement and leave them wanting more. But if his track record is anything to go by, Andre Ward will only risk his undefeated record and elite status if he gets paid handsomely.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, since Ward is only looking after himself just like any rational human being. However, for a young enterprise just getting its feet wet in the treacherous waters of professional boxing, the way Roc Nation handles Ward’s career in the short term might very well end up deciding its long term fate. Should they coddle Ward too much, they won’t get a return on their investment anytime soon; should they push him hard, they run the risk of Ward feeling mistreated once again, which can result in either lackluster performances or, even worse, another legal mess.

For Roc Nation and Ward to become a successful team, one that puts “S.O.G.” back at the top, earns him new fans, and propels Roc Nation to new heights, it will be imperative for both of them to make concessions and make a genuine effort to work together. This will necessarily involve Ward facing the best competition available. The good news is “S.O.G.” claims his time away from the roped square has not diminished his competitive hunger, but on the contrary, has intensified it, after very seriously considering retiring last year. For the good of his career and Roc Nation’s fortunes, we sincerely hope he’s ready to prove just that.

–Rafael Garcia

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