Reluctant Superstar: Andre Ward interview

Luke G. Williams
13/06/2017 9:45am

Earlier this year, undefeated light-heavyweight champion and pound-for-pound contender Andre Ward talked to Luke G. Williams about fame, being his own man and the influences that have shaped his life and career...

NB: This interview was conducted before Ward vs Kovalev 2 was confirmed and signed.

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, Andre Ward has always done things his way.

As a two-weight world champion and leading pound-for-pound contender, Ward is at the summit of his sport. Yet he has often been subject to heavy criticism. However, it is clear that the 33-year-old from Oakland, California, has now arrived at a stage in his life where he is secure in the choices he has made.

“I’ve accepted the fact that not everyone is going to like me and understand me,” Ward mused philosophically in what proved to be a wide-ranging and candid interview with Boxing Monthly

“I’m not saying I’m perfect — if I go into a fight and I stink out the joint, and someone calls me out on it, hey I’ve got to accept that,” Ward said.

“But when it’s criticism for the sake of criticising, or when someone doesn’t like me personally, so they look to tear me down… well, that’s a ‘them’ problem, not a ‘me’ problem.

“I’m a fighter by trade, so my instinct is to hit back. When I was younger I used to react and respond to everything — but I’ve learned that’s not my reality. I’m not interested in defending myself or fighting the critics. I know who I am. I’m secure in who I am and I’m a nice guy.”

Although his business decisions, career path and tactical approach have all been questioned, Ward’s most eloquent response to his critics has been his stellar career, incorporating an Olympic gold medal, an undefeated professional ledger of 31-0, unified world championships at super middle and light-heavyweight and defining victories against Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch and Sergey Kovalev.

A future Hall of Fame berth is assured yet, for a boxing superstar, Ward is remarkably grounded.

A case in point? The blustery February afternoon when this interview took place at Fitzroy Lodge boxing club, underneath the atmospheric railway arches of Lambeth Road in south London.

In England for a few days to commentate on the Eubank Jr vs Quinlan bill, Ward’s “meet and greet” at the Lodge was scheduled to last two hours, but he ended up staying far longer, charming, entertaining and inspiring in equal measure during a Q and A session before signing autographs and posing for photos.

Only when every fan request had been granted was I able to sit down and interview him face to face in the centre of one of the gym’s two training rings.

It’s clear the warmth shown by the fans at the Lodge has touched Ward deeply. “Amazing!” he said with a smile when asked to sum up his afternoon.

“To have people come up to me [today] and say ‘You’re truly an inspiration to me’, or ‘I’m in the sport because of you’, that’s unreal to me. That’s unfathomable. But it’s a reality I’m thankful for.”

In contrast to his mixed feelings about large sections of the US media, Ward expressed warm feelings about boxing coverage in the UK. “I truly appreciate the boxing scene here,” he said.

“I feel the media here covers the sport and the fighters differently [to the USA],” he added. “They approach the sport with a different reverence, a different appreciation. You also feel that from the fans, the supporters. My goal before I hang them up is to hopefully fight here one day. I just hope that becomes a reality.”

Refreshingly, no entourage followed in Ward’s slipstream, and no one was on hand with a list of instructions about what he can or can’t be asked. Instead, he was accompanied by his wife, his friend and lawyer Josh Dubin, and Geraldine Davies, who organised his schedule while he was in the UK.

During the Q and A, Ward was an animated and inspiring speaker.

Interestingly, he only referred to his Christian faith on a couple of occasions and only when prompted to do so by a direct question — he is conscious, perhaps, of not wanting to appear as if he is preaching.

It was also clear from watching Ward interact with his fans that he thrives on making the sort of personal connections that media events do not necessarily permit. Indeed, he admitted that he views fame and its trappings somewhat warily.

“I’m probably the most reluctant star you’re going to find,” he confessed. “I don’t do well with the spotlight. I’m a shy person. People don’t realise that. I know how to turn it on and do my job, but I get a lot of attention and I really don’t like that.

“I prefer personal interaction like we had today. Intimate moments where I am tangible and people can reach out and feel me. That way people think: ‘OK, he’s not just some figure who we see on TV — he’s real and we can relate [to him].’

“Ultimately I have several motivations, but I figure if I’m just winning championships and making money, then I’ve failed. My goal is to inspire and touch as many people as possible — maybe with my words or maybe with my work ethic. Even being able to show [that I learn] from my mistakes. I don’t always do things right, but I try.”

In recent years, family man Ward — he married his childhood sweetheart, Tiffiney, and is a father of four — has shed light on his troubled upbringing. His mother was absent for most of his childhood, a drug addict who lived for many years on the streets. It was left to his father, Frank, to raise Andre and his half-brother Patrick. Later it emerged that his father was engaged in a long battle with heroin addiction.

Frank Ward died before Ward’s gold medal-winning performance at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Long-time trainer Virgil Hunter, who has been in Ward’s corner since he started boxing as a youngster, helped fill the void.

“My dad passed abruptly and I don’t know where I would be without Virgil,” Ward said. “I struggled, I wandered for several years after my father’s death because I was angry — I needed answers and didn’t have them.

“My father, for most of my life, had played a dual parent role — my mother wasn’t there. So he was my mom and my dad. To take that stability away from me, I couldn’t comprehend it. I acted out.

“But I was lucky because I had someone [in Virgil] to tell me the truth, I had someone who encouraged me, I had somebody who pushed me, even when I was angry and I argued with him and fought with him.

“Virgil cared enough to say: ‘I don’t care how you feel about me today, you’ll love me later. You’ll thank me later.’

“I’m grateful, because I don’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t in my life. I could easily have missed those Olympics. I could easily have taken that one wrong turn, which I was on the road to doing. And if there’d been no Olympics, who knows?”

Ward revealed that, when he was at his lowest ebb, Hunter had to talk him out of quitting boxing ahead of the Olympics. “I remember telling him: ‘I’m done with boxing. I don’t want to box any more, I‘m tired.’ This is when I was dealing with my father’s loss.

“Virgil said: ‘Son, listen — if you let these Olympics pass you by and you see these guys who you could have beaten [winning gold], you’re never going to live it down.’ That was the beginning of me getting my life back on line.”

What advice would the Andre Ward of today give to his younger self?

“That’s a good question,” he smiled. “I would speak ‘life’. There would be a lot of encouragement in there. You know [I’d say] to young Andre: ‘No matter what you face, stay focused. Continue to work hard and better days are going to come. Tough times won’t always last, so hang in there.’

“I would also echo what my father told me as I grew up: ‘More times than not, the wrong thing to do is accompanied by a multitude of people. At some point in time, young Andre, you’re going to have to learn how to make some right decisions that aren’t always going to be popular — but that’s what’s going to get you where you need to be.

“‘Often times you’re going to have to go a separate direction to everybody else.’

“My dad used to tell me this all the whole time: ‘Everybody goes left son; you’re going to have to learn to go right. If everyone has on black, don’t be afraid to wear a white shirt if that’s the shirt you wanna wear. Don’t be a cookie cutter doing what everyone else is doing.’”

Emotion evident in his voice, Ward expanded on the importance of his father in shaping his personality.

“I didn’t always understand [my father’s advice] at the time, but it’s proved true in my life coming up as a young boy and even now as a professional. I often find myself at these crossroads, when I can do or say what everyone else is saying or I can go with my convictions and beliefs.”

Ward has previously spoken of the difficulties he faced growing up bi-racial with a black mother and white father. However, his dual identity is now something he embraces.

“The beautiful thing I have learned is this — I didn’t realise how having a white father and a black mother would enable me to understand both sides [of my identity] intimately.

“Therefore I can relate to people a lot more than maybe if I only knew one side. That has helped me immensely as I’ve grown older and my life has progressed. So I’d say [to other bi-racial children]: ‘Be proud of who you are, embrace who you are, enjoy who you are, and embrace both heritages.’”

Ward accepts that when he won a debatable decision over Sergey Kovalev, it was “100 per cent” a close fight. “But it was a close fight that I won,” he said.

“I’m proud of myself. The pride in a fighter means he never wants to be on the canvas, but I’m proud of the way I responded, and I’m proud of the way my team responded.

“Virgil had a sense of urgency in every single round, but he didn’t panic — and I didn’t panic. [Being knocked down] was the best thing that could happen to me. I was thinking a little bit too much, and when I got hit, that went out the window and I implemented the game plan and went to work.

“It was closer than I wanted it to be but I don’t think all three judges got it wrong. I won by a point on a unanimous decision. It wasn’t a majority decision or a split decision.

“Not intending any disrespect, but I honestly expected more [from Kovalev]. You’ve got to realise all the hype that was surrounding him. Outside of the knockdown, which was a flash knockdown, I didn’t get buzzed or wobbled. I didn’t take a step back from his punches. I was the one pressing, putting the pressure on him. I expected him to respond a lot better than he did.

“I didn’t see him go to another gear. That was surprising. He had one gear. It was a strong gear but he couldn’t elevate to that next level. [As for the decision] some people get it and some people don’t — but, hey, I’m a five-time world champion and the light- heavyweight champion of the world.”