Calling the shots: Andre Ward interview
After his second victory against Sergey Kovalev and before his recent announcement that he is retiring from the ring, Andre Ward spoke to Boxing Monthly's Paul Zanon...
Andre Ward is now widely considered the world’s best fighter at any weight after
stopping Sergey Kovalev in their 17 June rematch. Yet three months after winning a very close decision over Kovalev in their first fight, in November 2016, Ward said he had considered retirement.
“Basically, you know, after each fight I have to assess myself, physically and emotionally,” Ward told Boxing Monthly. “I’ve got an injury history. I’ve been in the sport a long time, but people look at my age and think: ‘He’s only 33 and probably has about three or four years left.’ But they don’t count the early years.
“Starting as I did at nine years of age, I’ve got a lot of miles on the [road], a lot of rounds, a lot of everything. After each fight, I go through that process and sit down with my wife and have some quality time with her and I have to search myself and say: ‘Where are we?’ All we did was just talk openly about it. What you guys heard was a process I do after every fight and every training camp. I just shared it with the world. So I think that’s what took a lot of people by surprise.”
Ward feels vindicated after stopping Kovalev. “I answered any questions out there and removed all doubt,” he said. “Kovalev is a great fighter and I think he beats most of the guys, if not all the guys, in that division. He’s a quality fighter, I’m not taking anything away from him.
“I had to bring my A-game, both times, but I had to be better the second time around. The fight happened, just the way we said it was going to happen — in stages. We wanted to take his mind away from him, frustrate him and set a fast pace. Just let him know we were always there. And then slow him to the body and break him down.”
Ward realised that he had to up his game for the rematch. Detailed analysis and introspection followed. “I tweaked things,” he said. “Physically not a lot — just different things. Less of this and more of that, and mentally, that’s where it all started.
“When I watched the tape [of the first Kovalev fight], I knew I was better than that. I was pleased with the way we finished, but obviously not with the start. But again, credit to Kovalev, not taking nothing away from him, he dominated the early rounds.
“I got off to a slow start and while I’m thinking, he’s punching. He came out real strong, but we answered the call on the second half of the fight. I took those few things that I saw; I didn’t have that spring in my legs and didn’t have the flavour, the movement as you saw in the second fight. Mentally, that’s what I worked on from day one in sparring. The last bit was to translate it into the fight and execute it, and we did that.”
The strategy to outmanoeuvre his opponent worked perfectly second time round. “I think it happened the first time, but it just didn’t happen as early as it should have,” Ward said.
“It was the first time he and I had ever shared a ring together and you obviously gain a lot by watching film, but you can’t gauge distance and range and how long a guy’s arms are, how he likes to punch.
“Those types of things you only get from sharing a ring and one gift that I have is computing what’s going on very quickly and being able to make adjustments.
“That’s why you may see me get hit with a punch, but it’s rare that I’ll continue to get hit by that same punch and that same combination. That said, the second half of the first fight was where we wanted to be and where we needed to be.
“Basically, I wanted it to be a better version of the second half of the first fight, to start a fast pace, because I know that Kovalev would never have had to fight at a pace like we’d set. A pace that most light-heavyweights don’t fight at. Mid-range and inside was key, and just letting him know I was there.
“I knew he was going to land some shots, but the key was answering the shots and that’s what I meant when I said we had to take his mind first. Those little things like, getting off the stool first before him, getting to the centre of the ring first, throwing the first punch. If you watch the first round I ran out to the centre of the ring. Those little things, which people think are nothing, go a long way and start to play with a guy’s psyche, especially someone like him.”
Although not in total control, Ward felt confident at the half-way point. “I thought I was maybe four to two up, something like that. You could even argue three and three. It was a nip-and-tuck kind of fight. Everybody’s jockeying for position. He’s not trying to give up anything, I’m not trying to give up anything. But, the first six rounds weren’t my concern, it was the second half. That’s when the fight really started.”
Although Ward landed a big right hand in the eighth round, it wasn’t something he and trainer Virgil Hunter had worked on specifically. Ward saw the opportunity and seized the moment. “He happened to be in an awkward position,” Ward said. “Sometimes he’ll take his back leg, which is his right leg, and lean forward and do this thing where he leans and tries to shoot a right hand, which he’s really good at. But I kind of caught him out of position, and he pawed, almost as if he was a southpaw. When he tried to get back into a stance, I got low, pawed with the jab and caught him with the right.”
Ward dismisses the low-blow controversy. “Virgil was really upset after the fight about me not jumping on him,” Ward said, “but I knew he was looking for a way out. Any time a fighter starts to turn, especially when you have a guy who has a tough exterior and persona like him, you don’t concede like that.
“You may say: ‘Hey ref, he hit me low.’ I did it several times when I got hit with several rabbit punches, but that moment passes and it’s back to business. He was looking for a way out and they love to use the word ‘controversy’ when I fight, but I’m cognisant of that.
“If I leapt in there with a left hook and he fell down and started rolling around on the canvas, imagine what they would have said. I didn’t want to take that chance [of losing on a disqualification]. I had plenty of time to get another good shot in there, so that’s why I did not jump in there.
“I’m looking at the referee [Tony Weeks] and he’s looking at me, then back at Kovalev. It was unclear what the deal was. Finally, the ref says: ‘Fight. It’s a legal blow.’ So then, I moved back in.
“In terms of the finish, a couple of shots landed on the belt line, which was legal. It wasn’t intentional [referring to the final low blow]. I didn’t need to. I’d just hurt him with a head shot maybe 30 seconds before. I think it was just the position he was in, him being crouched over and having a high cup and high shorts, that’s just where it landed.
“He was done and didn’t want to fight any more. I sit back and laugh at individuals who can’t put the words together to say: ‘Man. He put on a great performance, did what he had to do.’ But hey, such is life, we move on.”
Ward bears no ill will towards Kovalev’s promoter Kathy Duva, who protested at the post-fight press conference that her fighter was hit low and argued that Ward should have been disqualified. “God bless Kathy Duva,” Ward said. “That’s her flagship, her guy. I get it, she’s not happy. She’s got to regroup. I think she never imagined that [the stoppage] would happen.
“Again, it’s easier to find an excuse why something happened than to sit up there with class and say: ‘He was the better man tonight. We need to regroup, but he was the better man.’ She lost it a little bit, which was unfortunate. It’s not a good look for her and her company.
“There was no controversy. It makes good headlines and gives something for people to talk about, but the reality of the situation, which is where I try and stay focused on, is that there is no controversy. The [Nevada State Athletic] commission has already spoken and I’m moving on.
“The only way a trilogy would make sense [is] if he goes and fights [Adonis] Stevenson and a year from now he’s looking good, I’m looking good, and people want it. Honestly, there’s no reason for a third fight. He had about 20 rounds to do what he needed to do. How many do you need to show what you have?”
The next best option would seem to be a unification bout with Stevenson. “He’s the odd man out right now,” Ward said. “It’s amazing how all of a sudden he wants to unify the titles, but he’s had about two and a half years to do that and he’s publicly refused to do it.
“How is it that a super middleweight has fought Kovalev twice and the natural light-heavyweight hasn’t even fought him once? I just pause and step back and say: ‘He’s going to have to wait.’ Let’s see what my team brings to the table. I haven’t ducked anybody my whole career.
“I didn’t go to Stevenson, I went straight to the number one guy [Kovalev] because I felt that was the right thing to do. For now, I’m going to rest and my team’s going to put some stuff together.”
Despite potentially enticing fights against the new breed of contenders from eastern Europe — Dmitry Bivol and Artur Beterbiev from Russia and Ukraine’s Oleksandr Gvozdyk — Ward can afford to be selective. “It’s all about the package and opportunity that my team brings,” he said. “I think I’ve earned the right to not just fight just to be fighting.
“As I’ve said, it takes a lot to get ready for these fights and it’s a major toll on my body, but a lot of people aren’t privy to that. I think you’d be shocked if you knew what I went through the first time for the Kovalev fight. That could have been on the verge of being postponed several times, because of the physical aspect.
“My team rallied together, took rest days and figured it out and this camp was a lot better, but it wasn’t without issues. My job is to assess my body and see where I’m at physically, see if I can continue. My team’s job is to bring the opportunities, and I’m not going to turn anything down, but it has to make sense. I want big opportunities, big challenges, or nothing at all.”
One of the most interesting of Ward’s post-fight comments was his apparent interest in moving up the weight divisions. Ward laughs. “That’s a conversation that has always been there, believe it or not,” he said. “We’ve talked about that for years, probably before Roy [Jones Jr] did what he did [moving up to heavyweight against John Ruiz in 2003 and winning the WBA title].
“I’ve always been more comfortable fighting bigger guys. Throughout the amateurs and then at the Olympics, I was 165 and moved up to 178 pounds at the time and I was fighting giants, night in, night out.
“Obviously it’s a process we need to go through. I turned pro at middleweight and then moved up to 168 and now I’m at light-heavyweight. I don’t think moving up again is out of the question. I know it sounds crazy to a lot of people, but that’s what daring to be great is all about.
“But it has to be the right situation. I’m not interested in campaigning up there. Those guys are really, really big and there’s a lot of risk. It’s dangerous. They pack a big punch and they’re physically bigger men. I’m not turning anything down or calling anyone out, but it’s not out of the question.”
One of the first fighters to respond to those comments was Britain’s very own Tony Bellew, a man who knows all about moving up from light-heavyweight to cruiser and latterly heavyweight.
Ward has a lot of respect for the affable Liverpudlian. “Tony is somebody I consider a friend in the business,” he said. “We’re not like best friends or anything, but we’ve got a lot of respect for each other. We were both on the set of Creed and that’s when we met and started to talk. I respect his game and he’s a family man. We’re fighters and if he’s willing to do it, and the situation is right, I’d be willing to do it.
“To become cruiserweight champion, after starting at middleweight, those are the kind of things you train for. The big risk, the high stakes. If you’re going to put your body through what you put it through to get ready, why not do it and take the ultimate risk and fight the best in the business? It’s definitely an option.”
Ward isn’t even dismissing a showdown with heavyweight king Anthony Joshua. “Hey — nothing is off the table!” he said, laughing. “I know — it sounds crazy. First things first. We’re gonna have to get through the cruiserweight situation and then maybe look to heavyweight — and who knows if it’s Joshua or somebody else?
“I’ve got a lot of respect for fighters in general and I respect Joshua. He’s a great talent, a great asset to the sport. It’s something the fans can talk about and, who knows? If I was able to move to cruiserweight and be successful, naturally people are going to start talking about a heavyweight fight and we’ll just have to see.
“I have a healthy respect for guys. I didn’t go into the Kovalev, [Carl] Froch and [Chad] Dawson fights with this untamed arrogance. I have a healthy respect. But over the years, just the way I was conditioned, mentally, from my father and from Virgil, he’s [the opponent] a man, like you’re a man. You can’t lose sight of what you bring to the table, skill wise, ability wise, because this guy’s a decorated fighter and has a reputation.
“We kind of see guys for who they are. The eye in the sky doesn’t lie. When I watch a guy on film, or see him in person, I have to be honest about their abilities. I give them respect — but not too much respect. If you’re gonna beat me, I want you to earn it. I never want to be in a situation where I get beat before I get into the ring.”