As I entered KINGS GYM in Oakland on my way to interview super middleweight contender Andre Ward I couldn’t help but scan the gym and smile at what I see. All around me and taped on the walls are various pictures of former great fighters and old time fight posters. The gym is a little dark and dusky, it groans with age and experience. It’s perfect I think. This is the kind of place that reminds you of where you started. No getting a big head around here, sure it’s a little on the old side but like the gentleman I nodded at sitting on a bench near the ring you can feel it’s strength and character. The sounds are there too, with the rat a tat tat of gloves on a bag and the consistent scrapings of a fighter jumping rope, it definitely has the feel of something unique and history making. That is what Andre Ward is trying to do again…make some history. He did it once at the 2004 Olympic Games by winning the gold medal, where he wasn’t even considered a favorite by most of the boxing community. He’s certainly not the favorite now as he prepares for his upcoming showdown with WBA champion Mikkel Kessler. He knows all this but it doesn’t bother him. He’s used to being underestimated and in a way he thrives on it.
But…is it smart to underestimate him?
I ask a guy standing near me where Andre is. He points me towards the back part of the ring where I spot Andre sitting by himself. He seems to be staring at something only he can see. As I approach and nod he smiles, we shake hands and go find a place to sit down and talk. As our eyes meet I can sense the edge he has, that hunger and the drive that it takes to win a championship.
Will it happen on November 21st?
Over the next number of minutes we discussed many things…how his career started…his determination…his favorite fighter growing up…his spiritualism…his kids…his gold medal and of course his father.
JR: The fight is getting close, how are you feeling?
AW: I’m feeling great ready to fight.
JR: How do you taper down…chill out a bit?
AW: Physically we have our days where we backup…but mentally...it’s going to be a mental grind until it’s over…everyday it’s on your mind…that doesn’t stop until the fight is over.
JR: So many boxers come from humble beginnings. You grew up in a middle class family in Hayward and excelled in football. What made you turn to boxing?
AW: Actually my first love was baseball. I played little league baseball. But my dad…he raised me along with my brother…he would tell me stories of when he boxed. He was 15-0 as an amateur…he kept telling me stories of his rivals and how he prepared…and that was enough for me. I started showing an interest towards the sport…I told my dad I wanted to do it, I wanted to give it a shot. He said…this is what we are going to do…we are going to stick with it. That’s the kind of father he was…you do something your going to give It all you have…that was his mindset. We eventually met Virgil (Andre’s trainer) My dad liked Virgil’s philosophy of hit and not be hit…and…we’ve been together ever since. That’s where the journey started. I still played football.
JR: Was your family supportive of your decision to become a boxer?
AW: My dad was supportive of the boxing but not the football…he’d always tell me one play and you’ll snap your neck. Ironically enough he allowed me to box…his father…obviously my grandfather also boxed…but he wouldn’t let my dad play football for the same reason…but yeah my father was supportive.
JR: Does he come to your fights?
AW: My father passed in 2002.
JR: I’m sorry
AW: I’m dedicating this fight to him…obviously he invested a lot of time in me when I was a young man…he’s definitely someone I’m carrying with me going into this fight.
JR: It must have been very difficult after you won the gold metal and your father wasn’t there…
AW: Unbelievable…It was a unbelievable feeling…the bitter sweetness of it…I was like wow…I’m happy…I’m excited with the accomplishment of winning and to this day it still feels surreal…your in the history books and nobody can take that from you…but as you just mentioned my father wasn’t there…so…that’s what put a damper on things…but…that’s life.
JR: When you were growing up did you have a favorite fighter?
AW: Growing it was Roy Jones Jr. I loved the way he obviously took care of his business inside the ring…but I loved the way he was his own man outside the ring. He did things his own way…started hi sown promotional company…he went against the grain…fighting guys in the fairgrounds. He just did it his own way and I really admired that about him…because that’s the type of individual I feel I am and also want to be. I want to shoot for the stars and Roy did that in every aspect.
JR: You’re married with two sons and a daughter. Would you support one of your sons if he wanted to follow in your footsteps?
AW: You know I would but I’m going to really discourage it. This is a tough business and it’s especially tough when you’re coming behind your father. Right now my wife and I are introducing them to every other sport…they can know this is what dad Is doing for this season of his life but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to jump into it…so I’m going to discourage it.
JR: Have you always been a spiritual person?
AW: My father ingrained that in me…he raised me a Christian my brother and I…absolutely that’s my all and all. I like to say that I’m a Christian who just happens to be an athlete…not an athlete who happens to be a Christian…My personal relationship with Jesus Christ…that’s everything to me.
JR: The list of boxers who won the gold medal at the Olympics Games reads like a who’s who of the sport. Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, Spinks, Whitaker, De la hoya…did you feel you received enough credit for being the first American to win the gold in 8 years?
AW: You know it’s a tough question because I’m not somebody who looks for that. It’s tough to ask me that…it’s a very logical question…but…I don’t really give it much thought…I’m aware that I didn’t get a lot of hoopla or attention like the 76 team and 84 team got…or even the money…there’s some good reasons for that…they went right on TV and fought on The Wide World Of Sports…people said “Oh yeah that’s the guy who won the gold medal” And…we fought at 2 or 3 in the morning on a network that nobody knew about it…and even when somebody like Sugar Ray Leonard turned professional he got to fight on CBS…times are different…But I don’t want to make it seem like I got short changed. I felt like I got what God wanted me to get…I’m fine with it but…I do see the disparity yeah.
JR: Did you know pretty early in your career that you had the talent to become a professional champion?
AW: I was told that by my father and Virgil.
JR: But you felt it inside like…I can do this?
AW: I did, I think I had an unusual drive for a young man… unbelievably competitive.
JR: Ok…I can relate to that.
AW: Everything I do I got to win…play poker…I’ll skin my knee’s whatever…I have to win…so I just knew that I loved to compete…I thought I had talent but I was always raised to be humble so I was never one to take that too far but I always felt like…you said…there’s something here…
JR: How would you describe your style?
AW: Formless…You know I said it before…I don’t really have a style…Kessler you can describe his style…Edison Miranda you can describe his style…the closest they come with me is…he’s a boxer…but I don’t really think that’s accurate because I don’t really get the credit for my physicality…my toughness…people see a thinking mans fighter and they think he’s just a boxer…I don’t know if you can put a finger on my style.
JR: I’d say a boxer-puncher…when I was watching the Miranda fight you were aggressive…he backed you up a little bit…but you were firing…you were in the pocket and you were letting him know that you were there…that was impressive.
AW: I appreciate that…that’s what we want to be…ideally you want to hit and not be hit…but the thing was…my dad and Virg…they never wanted to make me a boxer who wasn’t physically strong…that’s why for years I’ve done the biometrics and worked to build my body up...so yes I am a thinking mans fighter…I’m very physically strong…and I think that’s something that Is very underestimated…and by the time my opponents figure how strong I am…it’s to late…that’s one thing Miranda said after our fight…”wow I thought It would be much easier”…I think they believe what a lot of people say…I got the same treatment even in the amateurs…they’d say…”He’s number one?”…I can beat this guy…he can’t do anything…and then we would get in there…I don’t know what it looks like to them…
JR: Oh yeah Miranda said you were going to run around the ring.
JR: You didn’t run around the ring…you moved a little and then you stood your ground and popped him.
AW: Yeah…boxing these days…it’s turned into blood and guts…if you don’t stand toe to toe…and if you don’t get the TV fights every time out…something’s wrong…that’s not boxing…some have said…well I don’t want to say insult me…minimize me…by saying…he’s more scientific…he’s more science then sensation…he’s this and that…but this is the sweet science…this is the sport we all say we love…one of my favorite is Salvador Sanchez…technician…the guy was a technician…he wasn’t going in there wide…with wide punches…Pernell Whitaker…technician…Hopkins…technician…Roy Jones…Mayweather…that’s what I want to be…a master boxer…that’s my ultimate goal….is to be a master of what I do.
JR: Who has been your toughest opponent so far?
AW: I would have to say the Miranda fight…that was a very physical fight.
JR: You got butted in the first round.
AW: I got butted several times…I didn’t realize until I watched the tape…your in such a zone…Miranda lead with his head several times and trust me a few days later when the adrenaline is gone…your in pain.
JR: He got you with a right hand in the first round.
AW: He caught me with some good rights…I actually got hit more then I wanted to in that fight…but mentally I was so strong…my mind has been conditioned to minimize the punches…the punches won’t bother me…you condition yourself for fighters like…Kessler…you know your going to get hit.
JR: That’s interesting because with boxing when a boxer gets hit you always think it’s more physical then mental…
AW: Taking a punch is mental…when you get buzzed…it’s like a bell has rung…you have a decision to make in that moment…do I back down or stick to my game plan…but of course you also have to be in great physical condition to take a punch
JR: Have you watched any tape of Kessler’s fights?
AW: Oh yeah…tough guy…he does A, B, C great…he doesn’t really come out of that…but yeah he’s very tough…he keeps fighting…I just have to work harder then him…that night is going to be night…but he will be there…he wants to keep his belt…I want to take it…that should make it one great fight.
JR: The Oracle Arena was rocking in May when you fought Miranda. How much does the home crowd inspire you?
AW: Man it’s tremendous…unbelievable…it’s a dream come true to be able to fight this kind of a fight at home...but it also carries a lot of weight…the crowd is going to do what they do…they will be behind me…it’s going to be interesting.
JR: Can you tell me something about Andre Ward that most people don’t know?
AW: I think I’m a very grounded…more then people think…I don’t get caught up with what’s said on the internet…I don’t get caught up with what other fighters say…I’m just very locked in on what’s at stake and what’s in front of me…I’m very realistic…you know I’m not the kind of guy who thinks he’s going to blow right through the super six…you’ll never hear me say “I’m the Man”…because I know where my strengths come from…I think it’s my mental fortitude…I’m a fierce competitor and I want to bring something different to the sport…a breath of fresh air…and…I’m doing my best to bring respect to the sport…