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Andre Ward after his victory over Kovalev, again

I met him for the first time eight years ago at an old and creaky gym in Oakland, CA., that still had a certain style and atmosphere.

A boxing ring, surrounded by heavy bags, sat near the back wall, fight posters from an earlier time plastered everywhere.

The man I interviewed that day was hardly a relic. He was 25, a recent recipient of the gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. As we spoke, I immediately noticed there was an edge about him, a hunger, desire–and a chip on his shoulder.

I soon understood that one of the reasons for his bitterness was that he felt he hadn’t received his due for winning the gold. I agreed. I remember how revered George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Oscar de la Hoya, were after they won gold.

Andre Ward?

He got a wink, a nod, and a “good job.” He got a day in his honor. Hell, the mayor of Oakland even gave him the key to the city. But did anyone rave about his boxing prowess? Not that I ever read. Did anyone predict that he would be a great fighter?

No.

When he started his professional boxing career, Ward had a lot of question marks around after his name. His management team brought him along slowly. When he entered the Super-Six World Boxing Classic in 2009, many experts shook their heads. Recognized fighters like Carl Froch, Arthur Abraham, and WBA super middleweight titleholder Mikkel Kessler, were considered the favorites to win the tournament.

And Ward? Many considered him an afterthought, a cocky upstart. He entered the ring against Kessler a decided underdog. At the weigh-in the day before the fight, a number of Kessler’s fans screamed that he would be knocked out in the opening round. They laughed and mocked him as a phony fighter. Ward paid them no mind. He looked straight ahead. He didn’t smile.

A minute into the fight, Ward demonstrated his superiority. Kessler looked for answers but ate punches for 11 rounds until the fight was stopped due to a bad cut over his right eye. Some said Ward was a dirty fighter, that he used his elbows. A dirty fighter? No. A rough fighter? Yes.

Ward would go on to easily defeat Sakia Bika, Allan Green, and Abraham. He met Froch for the Super-Six trophy in Atlantic City, NJ. in 2011. Ward boxed circles around the Nottingham battler, winning a 12-round decision. It was later revealed that Ward had fought Froch with a fractured left hand.

Finally some credit came his way, but it was the begrudging kind, filled with excuses for other fighters. In little over two years, Ward had risen to the heights of his profession. After a layoff of 10 months, Ward squared off against the light heavyweight champion of the world, Chad Dawson.

Dawson was so confident that he could beat Ward that he came down in weight–roughly seven pounds for their match. Ward dominated and stopped Dawson in 10 rounds. Many said that Dawson was weak after dropping down a division.

Another injury shut Ward down for close to a year.  He defeated Edwin Rodriguez, and then took on his promoter, the late Dan Goossen. Ward wanted out of his contract. He sued twice, and lost. He was so frustrated that he considered hanging up the gloves.

When he finally returned to the ring in 2015, after a layoff of nearly two years, some boxing insiders said his performances were mediocre. He had lost a step. They weren’t totally wrong. He did look a tad slower, but his mind was as sharp as ever.

His comeback victories set up a showdown with the monster of the light heavyweight division, undisputed champion, Sergey Kovalev, on November 19, 2016, in Las Vegas, NV.

Kovalev knocked out 16 of his first 18 opponents—culminating in his winning the light heavyweight championship of the world by pummeling Nathan Cleverly in four dominant rounds. His most impressive victories have been over future Hall of Famer Bernard Hopkins, who was expected to tame the man dubbed “Krusher,” and former champion, Jean Pascal, whom Kovalev sent to Dreamland twice.

Ward as at ringside to witness the Pascal beatdown. Kovalev is a not flashy fighter. He’s the hitman waiting in the shadows to strike. He can knock out a guy with either hand, but his right hand is like dynamite. Many said he was unbeatable.

Kovalev got off to a blazing start last November, flooring Ward with a wicked right hand to the mouth. Ward got up with a smile, and proceeded to rally, capturing a razor-close, and debatable, 12-round decision. The bout was competitive and edgy. Kovalev’s great start was chilled by Ward’s grittiness.

To come back, Ward needed to take chances. He did, digging shots to the body. Kovalev hung tough and fought on. The rounds were close–Kovalev’s raw power against Ward’s boxing artistry.

I’ve watched the fight three times. Twice I had Kovalev winning by a point. The third time it was Ward. Close, but hardly a robbery.

Kovalev rightfully demanded a rematch. Ward made Kovalev wait. He talked retirement while Kovalev steamed.

Finally, the sequel, coined, “No Excuses,” was announced. I attended Ward’s media day two weeks before fight two went down. Ward exuded confidence. He smiled easily, unlike the guy I had interviewed eight years before. He looked content, and ready to go. Kovalev had been talking for months about ending his career. Did he really think he could scare Ward? Not likely. Ward has been through a lot in his life. Both his parents had drug problems. He ran with a gang—did some things he regretted. But he made it back, all the way to the mountain top.

Fight two was similar to fight one, except Kovalev didn’t floor Ward. He never came close. Kovalev used his long jab effectively. Each round was close. Ward had the edge heading into round eight. But there was something else going on.

Kovalev looked tired. Ward’s grittiness was sapping his strength. Kovalev had come to the realization that Ward wasn’t going anywhere. Unlike so many of his other opponents, he couldn’t knock him out.

Ward was Kovalev’s personal kryptonite.

A huge right hand by Ward in round eight shook Kovalev badly. His legs went all rubbery. Ward attacked. Did a few punches stray below the belt? Yes, especially the last punch, but make no mistake about it, the fight was essentially over after Ward’s right hand connected.

Ward had taken the rematch out of the hands of the judges. He had stopped the once-invincible Kovalev, but it wasn’t enough.

No excuses became more excuses.

Ward is not a pretty fighter like Sugar Ray Robinson was. He doesn’t “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” like Ali. He’s a talented boxer, but his grit is his greatest strength. Many perceive him as arrogant. He doesn’t sell out arenas. His pay-per-view numbers are poor. Is he to blame?

He stepped up in weight and defeated one of the most feared fighters twice. Instead of being applauded for this, many in the boxing community complained.

What else does he need to do to be recognized for the great fighter that he is?

John J. Raspanti is chief lead writer for www.maxboxing.com and co-author with Dennis Taylor of Intimate Warfare: The True Story of The Arturo Gatti vs. Micky Ward Boxing Trilogy, currently on Amazon’s Bestsellers list. He’s also an occasional co-host and regular on The Ringside Boxing Show on thegruelingtruth.net.