Andre Ward: The Silver Lining

By Gordon Marino on September 6, 2012
Andre Ward: The Silver Lining
"Hardly anyone knows the fighters before they get to the games," says Emanuel Steward.

The U.S. men’s boxing team used to be one of the Olympic dream teams. But the U.S. men have only won three boxing medals in the last 12 years.

With that in mind, Andre Ward is a walking silver lining for American boxing alumni. The Bay Area native went from winning a gold medal as a light heavyweight in the 2004 Athens Games to becoming the current super middleweight world champion and the 2011 Boxing Writers Association of America’s Fighter of the Year.

The undefeated Ward, who is 25-0 with 13 knockouts, faces his stiffest challenge Saturday when he defends his belt against light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson (31-1, 17 knockouts). And Ward, amazingly the last U.S. male fighter to earn Olympic gold, appreciates just how much fighting for dollars differs dramatically from slugging for medals.

“For the whole decade I fought, it was either three or four two-minute rounds and then the scoring system came into play,” he said. “We didn’t even want a person to touch me or look like they were hitting me because we didn’t know what would make the judges push the button” to award points to his opponent. Ward added that the rounds and bouts are much longer in the pros. He recalled: “So I had to work on settling down and taking my time more than as an amateur.”

Ward’s post-amateur success was hardly preordained. Floyd Mayweather left Atlanta with just a bronze in 1996. Hall-of-Famer Shane Mosley failed to make the 1992 U.S. team, and the indomitable world champion Aaron Pryor was only an alternate in 1976. (And of course plenty of talented fighters, Manny Pacquiao and Dawson included, skipped the Olympic rout all together.)

It isn’t that gold in the Olympics never translates into a pot of gold in the pros. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya can attest to that. “The Olympics was the top of the slide for me,” says George Foreman, who at 19 won the gold in the heavyweight division. “My whole life changed after that.”

The difference, Foreman and others say, is that in the past, boxers used to be household names by the time they got to the Olympics, thanks to televised trials and international meets. “It isn’t the same anymore,” says Emanuel Steward. “Hardly anyone knows the fighters before they get to the games.”

Steward says the two best Olympians he ever saw were Howard Davis and Leonard. Those two were members of the 1976 boxing “dream team” that, going up against a stacked Cuban squad, nabbed a remarkable five gold medals, plus a silver and bronze. “Davis was so fast and boxed so well that the next thing you know, all the European coaches were copying Davis’s style,” Steward said.

“Howard was so quick,” Leonard said. “He would hit you with five shots before you knew it. We sparred a couple of times and it was always a chess match.”

Still, Davis’s pro career never amounted to much. It was Leonard who went on to earn millions. Asked why there is such a discrepancy, Leonard insisted that the main lesson Olympians have to learn is one Ward knows well: patience. In the amateurs, bouts are only three rounds, so all that matters is how many clean blows you land.

“In the Olympics, you have a tendency to build up a lead and try and sit on it,” said trainer Freddie Roach, the adviser to this year’s U.S. Olympic team. “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like them to display scores during the bouts. The fighters get too up or too down.”

Roach believes that there are at least two Olympians who will easily adjust to the demand for excitement in professional arena: lightweight Jose Ramirez and welterweight Errol Spence, though neither won a medal in London. “Those guys are both volume punchers who don’t care about the score,” Roach said. “If they are ahead, they will still take risks.”

A professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, Gordon Marino writes on boxing for the Wall Street Journal. He is on the board and works with boxers at the Circle of Discipline in Minneapolis, as well as at the Basement Gym in Northfield, MN. You can follow him on Twitter @GordonMarino

(Special thanks to The Wall Street Journal)

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