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June 16, 2017

Ward Skips HBO Face Off: Prima Donna or Pre-Fight Gamesmanship?

by Matt O'Brien

This article was published on on May 11th, 2017. Thanks to Michael Carbert and Zachary Alapi for their help in editing and publishing the final version:

It’s fair to say that Andre Ward is not every fight fan’s cup of tea. In fact, it would be more accurate to say the reaction his name elicits online tends to be fairly scathing. Whether it is vitriol directed at the judges’ verdict awarded to him over Sergey Kovalev or scorn heaped on his “diva-ish” behaviour at the negotiating table, it seems few people have a positive word to say about the man these days. So with the news that he failed to show up for a planned HBO Face Off segment opposite his Russian rival this past weekend, it did not take long for the critics to once again come out in force.

Main Events, Kovalev’s promoter, got the ball rolling by Tweeting a picture of their smiling fighter captioned with the words: “We regret to inform you that there will be no Face Off for #WardKovalev2. The coward @AndreWard left Las Vegas to avoid @KrusherKovalev!”

The precise reason for his departure is not entirely clear, though a report on suggested Ward took umbrage with the fact that Kovalev had failed to show up to HBO’s Canelo-Chavez Jnr. broadcast alongside him on Saturday evening. Apparently, he then decided to do likewise the following day – with the obvious difference being that the Face Off filming was entirely dependent on both fighters attending, whereas the Canelo-Chavez Jnr. telecast was not.

The move is not likely to win Ward any new fans, and will only galvanize the opinion of those who already considered him to be acting like a spoiled brat. And while riding to his defence is equally unlikely to endear me to fellow fight friends and colleagues, in my opinion too many people with access to a keyboard are far too eager to jump at the opportunity for a bit of “Ward Bashing”.

The triple 175lb champion is a confident and articulate person who draws on unflinching mental strength as one of his biggest assets. But the same fortitude that serves him so well in competition also manifests itself outside of the ring as a fierce stubbornness in his business dealings, and a demeanor that has often alienated members of the press. As one reporter described it following a recent media scrum, the problem with Ward’s attitude was, “The denial. The entitlement. The disconnect with reality”. All of which helps to explain how the American manages to rub so many boxing folk up the wrong way.

Far less easy to understand though is why fans are so quick to question his fighting integrity, after all that he has achieved in the ring. He is, after all, hardly the first fighter with an acerbic attitude and inflated sense of self. Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jnr. and Floyd Mayweather Jnr. were similarly uncompromising, unlikeable and at times even more abrasive to the media during their primes. Jones was notoriously difficult to deal with; Mayweather sometimes impossible, and Hopkins never shy about complaining to anyone who’d listen that the whole world was colluding against him. This did not, as I recall it, lead to any of them being labelled as “cowards” after securing their biggest victories, or attract the kind of general hostility that permeates so much of the debate surrounding Andre Ward.

Much of the grievance, it seems to me, is simply a hangover from his paltry run of four ring appearances in the four years following his victory over Chad Dawson, in late 2012. At that time he was widely regarded as the best fighter in the sport not-named Floyd Mayweather, before choosing to stall his career rather than back down in a promotional dispute with Dan Goosen. Understandably, many fans grew tired of waiting for the super middleweight king to just get on with his career, and after four years without a meaningful contest, for many the frustration boiled over into open revulsion. Names like “Andre CoWard” and “Andre Fraud” were regularly banded around on social media, and it was commonly argued that he was “ducking” middleweight Gennady Golovkin.

To his credit, Ward simply went one better: he moved up a division and signed to fight boxing’s undefeated danger man, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev. Far from running away from the GGG challenge, Ward shut the critics up by taking on a bigger, stronger and more formidable opponent. Then, having scaled the heights of boxing as an Olympic gold medalist, a two-weight undefeated world champion, and having defeated a man many previously swore he would never even dare step foot in the ring with, incredibly he was called “a coward” again for merely floating the possibility that he might choose to retire, rather than grant the Russian an immediate rematch.

As the weeks ticked away, the new champion continued to let it be known that he would not put pen to paper according to anyone else’s time frame. Team Kovalev’s exasperation grew louder, and the perception that Ward was now “scared” to fight the Russian also gathered pace. It is a strange form of logic that calls somebody who has just done 12 rounds with the most dangerous man in the sport “scared to fight”, but then this is boxing: logic is sometimes in short supply when tribal emotion can just as easily take its place.

In a February interview published on IFL TV, the champion responded to the accusation directly: “It’s funny to me just seeing the different opinions, [like] ‘oh Ward’s scared!’ Man I’ve been boxing my whole life – I’m not gonna start being scared now. And do y’all realize that I chose him? He didn’t choose me?”

These hardly sounded like the words of a man who was quaking in his boots and, sure enough, weeks later the signed rematch was announced. However, even for those who were begrudgingly willing to admit that Ward deserved some credit, his “diva-ish” behaviour in dragging out the negotiations had left a sour taste in their mouths that they could not, or simply didn’t want to shake off. Less reasonably, some of the more hardened haters desperately clung on to the notion that he was still a coward because he was “forced” into taking a rematch that he actually never wanted any part of.

In fact, Ward had willingly signed up to the contracted rematch clause in the first place and knew exactly what he was getting himself into. Kathy Duva, of all people, openly praised him for being so eager to sign, stating in a July 2016 interview that, “from the very beginning for me it was obvious that Ward really wants to fight with Sergey… It was that type of negotiation where both sides are very eager to agree and sign a contract.”

Were the retirement threats or negotiating delays really worthy of so much disdain? “I’m taking my ball home with me if you won’t play nice” is certainly not a good look for a newly crowned champion, to be sure. That being said, I find it difficult to begrudge any fighter the right to go off into the sunset with his health, faculties and finances intact, after dedicating twenty-plus years to the hardest sport in the world. Like it or not, he had earned that right.

More reasonably, several scribes questioned why we should praise a fighter merely for doing something “he should do anyway” – i.e. take on the best available competition. Well, Sssshh…. Come here and I’ll tell you a little secret, ‘jus tween us: the best don’t always fight the best anymore. I know, I know. It’s annoying, and it was better back when men were men, and champs fought five times a week and twice on Sunday. But most of us weren’t even born then, and it’s thirty years now since the Four Kings were doing their ‘thang.

Sadly, these days, whether it is down to the proliferation of title belts, promotional rivalries or the counter productive strategy of “marinating” contests, the reality is that we do not see the best boxers square off as a matter of course (though thankfully, 2017 has been a notable exception to the trend). Even when the best do meet, the process is often preceded by several years of bickering over social media. Such is the world we live in.

That being the case, when boxers do show a consistent willingness to take on the best, I like to give them their due. I give Lomachenko immense credit for his “get me the best name available” attitude; I give Terrence Crawford great credit for fighting any name they throw out; and I give Andre Ward credit for stepping up a division and taking on one of the most formidable punchers in the sport, twice in a row. And, having been repeatedly labelled “a coward” by large sections of fans, I give him credit for rubbishing those jibes so emphatically.

This does not mean, of course, that we ought to prostrate ourselves in front of the man who calls himself “Son of God” and bow to his holy greatness. It doesn’t mean that you have to like his personality, or even that you have to stop criticizing his attitude towards the media. But it does mean that, if you are assessing his career with a modicum of intellectual honesty, you’ll be willing to nod in appreciation and say “fair play” to the guy for doing something that many believed he could not, and others argued he would not even dare to try.

So while it might seem childish of Ward to skip the HBO Face Off, it’s also worth remembering that his obstinate refusal to cede an inch in the pre-fight gamesmanship with team Kovalev emanates from the same competitive drive that allowed him to climb off the canvas last November and eke out a unanimous victory. It may yet serve him just as well in the rematch.

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