From the archives: Darnell Boone and the Education of Andre Ward
In Boxing Monthly magazine back in 2012, Mark Ortega examined the night when Andre Ward's career was nearly derailed against journeyman Darnell Boone in 2005. With Ward's showdown against Sergey Kovalev fast approaching, we thought it was an opportune moment to re-publish Mark's in-depth and fascinating feature online ...
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From beginning to end, the groundbreaking Showtime Super Six World Boxing Classic has spanned two years.
The tournament pitted against each other six of the best super middleweights from both sides of the pond in a truncated round robin format.
For Andre Ward, it culminated in a career-defining victory over Englishman Carl Froch in Atlantic City, New Jersey this past December, earning him the Super Six trophy, the vacant Ring Magazine 168-pound title, as well as the WBC title to go along with the WBA title he claimed in the opening round of the tournament with a dominating performance over Mikkel Kessler, who at the time was one of the favourites to win the tournament.
Having emerged from the difficult schedule of fights with his unbeaten record intact, Ward has cemented himself as one of the sport’s truly great young fighters to expect big things from in the coming decade.
For Ward, it was a journey that could have come to an abrupt halt in November of 2005 - had there been more than 25 seconds left in round four of his sixth pro bout against an unheralded opponent.
In that round, Ward was caught with a right hand, followed by a wicked right uppercut that sent him to the canvas in a heap. The 2004 Olympic Gold medallist was in trouble - and lucky there remained little time for his 6-2-1 opponent to follow through.
On less than sturdy legs, Ward ultimately survived the fourth and soldiered through the final two rounds en route to a unanimous decision victory.
The embarrassment of being dropped by a perceived journeyman would shadow him later in his career; heavy-handed opponents would often refer to that incident to bolster the theory that Ward lacked a chin.
Ward has since proven critics wrong, taking shots from fearsome punchers like Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Edison Miranda, and Allan Green without so much as flinching.
Had he not endured that difficult fight , Ward's career might have taken a very different turn.
And the man responsible for the hypothetical detour? Youngstown, Ohio's Darnell Boone. It was not the first time in his career that Boone scared a touted prospect, and it certainly wouldn't be the last.
Always available on short notice and ironically, an easy sort to work with, Boone has carved out a niche as being perhaps the sport's most difficult gatekeeper.
Though his 19-18-3 record would unlikely elicit a double-take, those familiar with his accomplishments appreciate that he is a tough out.
Boone's resume reads like a who's who of prospects, contenders, and could-have-beens from 160 to 175 pounds, Ward topping this illustrious list.
Tough competition has not been exclusive to Boone's pro career - his first sparring partner was a future undisputed middleweight champion of the world.
“My younger brother was boxing and we didn't know it. He came home crying because nobody wanted to take him to practice. I decided to take him to practice the next day,” explains Boone.
“I told the trainer to put me in the ring with somebody and he kept telling me no. I told him I could fight and he said he was tired of people coming in here all the time and trying to jump in the ring. I kept bugging him about getting in the ring with somebody and he finally gave me my chance. I ended up fighting Kelly Pavlik. I didn't know he was the best in the gym at the time but he was my first sparring partner.”
Jack Loew, Pavlik's longtime trainer and owner of Youngstown's Southside Boxing Gym, recalls the moment fondly.
“He walked into our old gym on Eerie Street,” recounts Loew. “Darnell had a reputation as being a bad ass on the streets. He used to run around with a real bad crowd. He said give me the toughest kid you got in here. After a bit of back and forth I turned to Kelly and said, 'Alright Kelly, lace them up.' He hit Darnell with some shots that would have taken out a mule. I didn't think we'd ever see Darnell again, but he was back the next day.”
Heading into the Ward bout, Boone's pro record was an unimpressive 6-2-1, having given up a few wins to up-and-comers on their respective home turfs. Ward, under the tutelage of Dan Goossen of Goossen-Tutor Promotions, had yet to see a loss in six bouts. Boone was considered a significant test by the seasoned promoter.
“We always took the approach of trying to prepare our fighters for their future confrontations with fighters that aren't just going to get hit on the chin and lay down,” said Goossen.
“We just felt that was the best description to preparation and success for our fighters. When you ask me if Darnell Boone was our first choice, he was certainly the type of fighter we were looking for.”
“He was one that had fought undefeated fighters before, one that had given undefeated fighters tough fights, one that had beaten fighters who were considered up and comers. So we knew it would be a fight that Andre would have to work at to get a victory.”
Ward had to work much harder than Goossen would have liked.
After cruising for close to four full rounds, the former gold medallist was sent to the canvas by an overhand right, followed by a right uppercut.
“I'd rather have Andre go down against Darnell in his seventh fight rather than a more world class fighter in his 20th fight where he is tasting the canvas for the first time,” said Goossen. “All of this was done for experience. We were fighting real fighters at that time and the whole key of this was to prepare him for the different styles and scenarios that can happen in a fight, including getting knocked down.”
The bout was again brought to Ward's attention by adversary Carl Froch in 'Staredown,' a studio show designed to heighten anticipation among the boxing public.
“I don't have any shame with the Darnell situation because that's what makes a fighter. I got dropped, and I got back up, and I found a way to get the win,” said Ward.
In an interview with this writer dating to more than a year ago, Ward tipped his hat to the worthy opponent.
“To Darnell's credit, after our fight we saw how good he really was,” proclaimed Ward. “Obviously he's not a world beater and he'll probably never be a world champion but I think he can give anyone problems on any given night, which is unfortunate because we were one of the first ones to find that out.”
“I believe that he probably had three or four good wins right after losing to Andre,” mused Goossen. “If I remember correctly, two of them were fairly respected young kids. It is kind of a testament to Darnell. He has been a fighter who is someone who had the ability to beat the up and coming guys and turn the tables. If he beats the gold medallist it is a whole different world. In this case he put Andre down but Andre still controlled the fight after getting up.”
Following the Ward defeat, Boone proceeded to win four consecutive bouts against fighters with a combined record of 45-5, two of said opponents undefeated.
Though an incarceration in 2007 kept Boone out of the ring for over a year, he has gone 15-9-2 since that 2006 win streak.
Except for a questionable majority decision loss to Fernando Zuniga, none of those defeats have come against a fighter with more than two losses. In fact, the combined record of opponents who have managed wins against Boone is an astonishing 241-16-4. Eight of those losses were Zuniga's.
Boone's own losses have come at the hands of the sport's brightest young talent between 160 and 175: Jean Pascal, Erislandy Lara, Edwin Rodriguez, Brandon Gonzales, Craig McEwan, Marco Antonio Periban, Dyah Davis. All have gotten past Boone, albeit with problems aplenty.
Despite the illustrious laundry list of opposition, the largest purse Darnell has earned to date was $12,500 to fight Anthony Thompson in a ten-round ShoBox headliner in 2006. He usually averages between $4,000 and $5,000 per fight.
Of Boone's 19 wins and 3 draws, eight were earned against unbeaten fighters. In the past two years, Boone has scored wins over the highly-regarded Adonis Stevenson and Willie Monroe Jr. - neither of whom has looked to avenge their loss.
The catch-22 of Boone's position has always been this: when he bests a young up-and-comer with a shiny, perfect record and heavy money behind him, it doesn't so much validate Darnell's pugilistic chops as it casts doubt upon those who have met their demise against him.
“Instead of giving Darnell the credit they say Darnell exposed this kid and he wasn't really that good,” agreed Jack Loew.
“Even being at the stage I am at, I'm still a name out there. If you can beat me, then you're worth something. If you can't, then you're not worth something,” explains Boone.
“He really feels given the right break he could win the world title,” says Loew.
“I'd put him against Daniel Jacobs any day of the week, giving us time. I think he's definitely as good as a lot of guys out there. If he had a chance to make a run, it would have to be now, time is catching up with him.”
“Freddie Pendleton did it, Glen Johnson did it, why can't I?” proclaimed Boone.
“I mean, I know in my heart these guys can't beat me. As long as I get time, and I train hard, and do what I am supposed to do, it is always a possibility I am going to win. Just give me the time. That has been the whole problem I have never really had time to prepare.”
Freddie Pendleton is the last American with a less than stellar record to earn a world title, and this feat was achieved almost twenty years ago. In today's landscape, a great number of early losses constitutes an even steeper uphill battle.
“It's because of the TV. It's not the promoter,” suggests Loew. “I'd say there are a lot of promoters out there who would say 'Hey this kid can fight.' But the network comes back with, 'No you're not putting a kid that is .500 on HBO.'”
Though a world title seems a dim prospect, when Boone's career concludes, those in the know will look back with commensurate respect and acknowledgement.
“I am very appreciative of guys in the media that tell the truth about my career. I don't have a promoter, I don't have a manager. Y'all are my voice out there. When I see y'all write good things about me, it shows there are people out there that actually see what I've been able to do.”
“If it weren't for boxing, who knows where I would be? It took me on a different path from what I was used to. I was doing it just to stay out of trouble and stay off the streets. So I was looking for something to change my life around.”
“Who is to say, if I had a promoter, maybe I'd be undefeated. They would have known the fights to pick. I don't regret none of it, I don't regret the road I took. If you gotta beat the best you gotta fight the best.”
Against the best, Darnell Boone has done as well as anybody, given the circumstances. And that is something to be proud of.
What happened next ...
Darnell Boone is now 23-23-4. He was defeated twice by Sergey Kovalev, once on points in 2010 and once in two rounds in June 2012. Boone also lost a rematch to Adonis Stevenson in 2013. His most recent bout was a decision loss to Schiller Hyppolite in March 2016.
Andre Ward is now 30-0 but has fought just five times since beating Carl Froch, winning every time and moving up to light heavyweight in the process. He faces Sergey Kovalev this Saturday in an eagerly awaited showdown.