The Square Jungle: On Andre Ward
Since scoring a debatable decision over Sergey Kovalev last November, IBF/WBA/WBO light heavyweight champion Andre Ward has publicly mulled over retirement, once again repudiated the possibility that boxing can be entertaining, embraced a ho-hum version of villainy and has bemoaned the lack of respect he has received from a motley press corps. (Sparring with the media usually means disappointment concerning a sycophancy rate of less than 100%.)
For Ward, his sourpuss attitude, combined with an ugly fighting style and a slew of recent fights against overmatched opponents (culminating in a dubious win over Kovalev in their first bout), has left him floating in a popularity vacuum.
An articulate family man with nothing but success to show throughout his career, Ward is also so overstuffed with godly delusions that, like the Greek philosopher Empedocles, he might one day leap into a volcano to prove his immortality. Considering the gauche behavior of most American prizefighters (Kovalev, of course, ranks near the top of that list), however, it seems odd that Ward may not even have the empathy vote going into the rematch.
Why has Ward, a talented, undefeated two-division titlist, been unable to click with the public after years of being a headliner? Although Ward often suggests an epigram from Jenny Holzer – “Lack of charisma can be fatal” – there are other reasons for his lack of adulation.
As strange as it may sound, Ward suffers from indiscriminate, over-the-top praise every time he goes 12 monotonous rounds with off-the-boards human sacrifices such as Alexander Brand. With each piece of pound-for-pound doggerel thumbed out on a smartphone for his benefit, with each worshipful word salad warbled out by Max Kellerman on HBO broadcasts or episodes of “The Fight Game with Jim Lampley,” Ward is diminished. After all, we are familiar with superstars in boxing and they are rarely as non-descript as Andre Ward is, most of the time, and no imaginary ranking is going to change that fact. In baseball, no one judges Clayton Kershaw or Bryce Harper based on FanDuel or Draft Kings transactions. In boxing, however, fantasy gobbledygook converges with the needs of corporate powers, in this case, HBO, which uses wayward pound-for-pound designations for its own branding purposes.
(The argument advanced, with the requisite amount of self-aggrandizement, by home ratings fetishists – that boxing suffers from clarity because of split titles and sanctioning body shenanigans – is fatally undermined by the fact that their own king-making invariably crowns an alphabet titlist.)
Indeed, Kellerman, along with Roy Jones, Jr., to an extent, was so committed to hammering home his pro-Ward agenda during the pay-per-view broadcast that he essentially knocked Jim Lampley out of his role as blow-by-blow announcer, during the first fight. After Kellerman wrapped up a soliloquy on how Ward was doing better than it appeared, an unusually cranky Lampley responded tersely, “I don’t think Ward is winning this round…but you’re the expert.” Later, Kellerman went on, pompously, about how even when missing punches, Kovalev was swaying opinion on his effectiveness, to his benefit. In response, Lampley spluttered, “He’s landing plenty!” The gap between shouts of “Greatness!” and what takes place in the ring when Ward is in it may puzzle more than it clarifies.
Of all the metrics traditionally used to gauge superstardom in boxing – box office receipts, Nielsen ratings, pay-per-view sales – Ward is undistinguished in two of them. Although his “Super Six” bout against Allan Green at the Oracle Arena, seven years ago, was nearly canceled due to poor ticket sales, Ward has since proven himself to be a fair draw in Oakland, California. His Nielsen ratings are average, at best, and his one foray into pay-per-view, after years of being labeled “pound-for-pound,” was a disaster.
While HBO and Showtime have underwritten unpopular fighters for years, Ward adds a new wrinkle to the oftentimes market-averse subsidy strategy of professional boxing: He has a promoter, RocNation Sports, willing to lose money on an athlete with limited appeal. A $5 million purse combined with fewer than 160,000 pay-per-view sales (which may or may not be a legitimate number) guaranteed RocNation Sports red ink from staging the first fight. Numbers for the rematch, which has failed to light up the buzz meter due in part to the lack of cooperation from its principals, seem likely headed in the same underwhelming direction.
(Although professionalism in prizefighting extends from the ring to peripheral events such as weigh-ins, post-fight interviews and media workouts, it is hard to blame Ward, who skipped a taping for “Face Off with Max Kellerman,” for spending as little time as possible around Kovalev before the opening bell? Who knows what Kovalev would have said or done on Face Off? Is it even worth tempting a repeat of the ugly shenanigans that marked his press conference with Jean Pascal, when Pascal used bananas as a stage prop? In that sense, perhaps it was a small mercy that Kovalev departed the press conference on Thursday in a huff.)
Ultimately, the overriding reason for indifference surrounding Ward is his style, which is heavy on spoiling and frustrating to opponents and spectators alike. The stars of the 1980s and 1990s, who were far less products of assembly-line manufacture than the marquee names of the last 15 years or so, were action fighters who dramatized themselves in the ring. Find a boring Sugar Ray Leonard fight from the moment he won his first title (against Wilfred Benitez in 1979) to the night he finally came undone against Roberto Duran in 1989. Try doing the same with Marvelous Marvin Hagler from his first title challenge against Vito Antefuermo in 1979 (which ended in a draw) to his final fight in 1987 (a split decision loss to Sugar Ray Leonard). Only his tentative points win over Roberto Duran in 1983, in front of 15,200 spectators, stands out as a routine performance. In response to the criticism he received after that bout, Hagler vowed to stop all of his future title challengers – a promise he kept until Sugar Ray bamboozled him four years later. Aaron Pryor raged inside the ring during his heyday from 1980 to 1983 and was billed as the most exciting fighter of an era that also featured Cornelius Boza-Edwards, John Mugabi, Bobby Chacon, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Thomas Hearns. Barry McGuigan was never in a dull fight on American television; only his TKO over perennial contender Bernard Taylor lacked sustained drama. Win or lose, Ray Mancini seemed incapable of monotony during his prime. From 1986, when he outpointed Dwight Muhammad Qawi in one of the most brutal slugfests of the last 35 years, to 1997, when he floored Michael Moorer five times en route to an eighth round TKO win, Evander Holyfield was probably in three or four listless fights (Larry Holmes, Alex Stewart II, Bobby Czyz) in the span of over a decade, which is remarkable enough, without adding the fact that most of these bouts took place at heavyweight. Pernell Whitaker may have had a dull southpaw style but he was a genuine virtuoso in the ring – full nelsons, collar-and-elbow tie-ups and front chanceries were not major parts of his arsenal.
In a strange twist, Ward is squaring off against a disquieting figure in Kovalev, a man who has underscored his belligerence with a general air of bigotry. A seething Kovalev has done more than enough PR damage to himself during the humdrum promotional buildup of this fight, culminating in his walkout at the final press conference, in which his remarks might have broken a record for brevity previously held by Mike Tyson. Not even an opponent as morally flawed as Kovalev can make Ward a cheering favorite.
Numberless fighters have stirred up a commotion by being despised – from Ace Hudkins to Jake LaMotta to Art Aragon to Muhammad Ali to Hector Camacho to Naseem Hamed to Floyd Mayweather Jr. Few have raised a ruckus by encouraging indifference. Ward-Kovalev I was a solid fight, not the barnburner so many would lead you to believe, in the name of infinite knowingness, but there is a good chance the rematch will not surpass it. But a clean win over Kovalev tonight – one not marred by purblind judges or Greco-Roman grappling – would go a long way to reversing a narrative arc largely sparked by apathy. And while Ward may consider himself the Saint Sebastian of prizefighting, suffering the slings and arrows of prizefight Philistines from coast to coast, his martyrdom, like the destinies of all prizefighters in the ring, is – and always has been – in his own hands.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.