Andre Ward fights to avoid a boxer’s bad ending
With the biggest bout of his career looming, he opens up about his family and his faith
Andre Ward, perhaps the best prizefighter in the world, inherited the mantle from a line of leading men. Yet his role in boxing was never descended from Muhammad Ali’s brash hero, Mike Tyson’s villain, or Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s “Money”-obsessed anti-hero.
In boxing’s family of messy, dark characters, Ward is a virtual unknown, despite his success. While others sought the limelight, he resisted it, closely guarding his privacy and a family story that could rival any of his predecessors for pathos.
On Aug. 6, Ward will face Colombian Alexander Brand at Oracle Arena in Ward’s hometown of Oakland, California. (The arena’s star attraction, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, is a friend and occasionally accompanies him to the ring carrying his championship belts.) If he wins as expected, Ward is slated to fight Russian light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev in Las Vegas on Nov. 19, in what many believe could be professional boxing’s best fight in well over a decade. [Update: Ward easily beat Brand in a unanimous decision.]
No fighter today more skillfully solves boxing’s best crosswords in blood than Ward, who is 29-0 as a professional with 15 knockouts. He was the longtime world champion as a super middleweight, one of the most dangerous divisions in the sport. But he moved up to light heavyweight last year so he could face Kovalev, a fearsome puncher, who is 30-0-1 with 26 knockouts and in 2011 beat an opponent so badly that he died shortly after the bout.
Every prizefighter crosses his own Rubicon before he climbs half-naked between the ropes and steps foot on an illuminated canvas. In the short term, they’re only one punch away from permanent injury or death. Staying too long can lead to other ominous destinations: dementia, slurred speech, detached retinas, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Parkinson’s disease. Joe Louis was left a coked-out wreck. Ali was silenced and imprisoned in his body. Tyson plunged into economic and existential free fall. Only a few have performed boxing’s ultimate magic trick: returning safely with their faculties, money and legacy intact.
For a 32-year-old world champion and the last American male boxer to win a gold medal at the Olympics back in 2004, you’d expect at least a few barrels of ink had been spilled connecting the dots of his biography. But beyond a perfunctory interview here and there, it’s slim pickings.
“I’ve never talked about my story before,” Ward said. “I didn’t feel like I had to. I didn’t want people to grab a hold of that and just run with the typical African-American who came from the ghetto.”
When I visited Oakland in May, his longtime publicist gave me his gym’s address and warned, “There’s no signage anywhere, but don’t think you are in the wrong place when you arrive.”
Ward trains at Virgil Hunter’s Hayward, California, gym, next to the San Mateo Bridge. There’s a strange metaphor at work as you pull a third U-turn, trying to distinguish one anonymous beige cluster of office buildings and warehouses from the others, all moated with nearly vacant parking lots. Ward’s identity to those outside his private circle has been just as elusive as where he trains. The symmetry is apparent in the difficulty his opponents have had in trying to penetrate his defenses.
I finally spotted a mural of Ward on the side of a van parked behind a warehouse. On the other side was Ward’s white, custom-built truck, the license plate reading “SOG” (son of God).
Ward was inside, being stretched into a pretzel by his strength and conditioning coach. Every stitch of clothing he was wearing was from his Michael Jordan clothing line, a sponsor since he turned professional after the Olympic gold. Indeed, he looked less like a stereotypical boxer than an MTV heartthrob or an Abercrombie & Fitch model.
There’s charm in his smile and a warm handshake. But he also has the poised glance of a master croupier, giving away nothing while sizing up and processing all available data.
He cut to the chase within 20 seconds.
“I’m not really sure what your agenda is,” he said. “I don’t play the game of me pouring my heart out for 30 minutes and then some writer has his narrative in place and just wants a few of my quotes to validate his story.”
I reply that I believe he’s the best boxer in the world. But I’ve never cheered for or against him. How can he be that good while still being a cipher?
Ward turned this over for a second. Then he grinned and began nodding. “I can work with that.”
As Ward finished his workout, he offered to drive me around Oakland to the many homes where he lived growing up. But he paused after putting his key in the ignition.
“I’ve never talked about my parents before and some of their struggles. I always wanted to protect their names and protect who they were. I didn’t want my story to be reduced to just another cliché, rags-to-riches, kid from the ghetto and all that. For the most part, I grew up middle-class. I know I’m very guarded. How do you think I survived? Guarded is what got me by. But I want people to know what I’ve come through and overcome because maybe that can inspire somebody.”
Along with his older half-brother, Jonathan, Ward was raised by his white father in Hayward and North Oakland. His African-American mother was rarely present, battling an addiction to crack cocaine and living on the streets of San Francisco for most of 20 years.
“When I speak about this, I don’t come from an ignorant place: I know what it is to be biracial when both sides don’t accept you and you have that confusion of not feeling accepted,” he said. “You’re left asking, ‘Who am I?’ ”
Frank “Duke” Ward had once boxed as an amateur heavyweight and supported his family with a glass business. Ward told me he grew up always thinking of his hulking father as Superman. Frank Ward, the son of an alcoholic, never touched a drop.
But gradually his son discovered the old man had his own kryptonite: He had secretly battled addiction to heroin since before Ward was born. Ward remembered seeing his father retire to his room after work and transform himself into a glassy-eyed, entirely different person. “I thought he was taking sleeping pills. He’d be fired up and then be a zombie.” When Ward was 12, he found a needle in his father’s room and naively brought it to him asking where it might have come from. Frank Ward told his son he’d found it in the street and didn’t want anyone to find it. Ward shook his head, smiling. “I never wrapped my head around the heroin thing until I was a lot older.”
His father remained a functional addict for years, but as his illness worsened the family home was lost. Frank Ward would seek treatment to get clean. And then he’d relapse. This pattern was repeated for many years over the course of Ward’s adolescence.
Understanding that past brings perspective. “Boxing is just a season,” Ward said. “This isn’t my life. It’s what I do, it’s not who I am. Which doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. I give it everything I have.”
Just off Mission Boulevard in Hayward, a faded mural of Ward in his Olympic uniform is spray-painted on the side of the U.S. Karate and Boxing Gym where Hunter was working at the time. At 9, Ward was hoisted on his daddy’s shoulders to peek in the window. One day later, Frank Ward signed both his sons into the gym. Ward still has a copy of the sign-up sheet.
As Ward’s parents descended into addiction, domestic violence, financial ruin, bouts of homelessness, and repeated stints in rehab, Hunter would become not only Ward’s trainer, but soon his godfather and temporary guardian.
A year after meeting Hunter in 1994, Ward began an illustrious amateur career. Like Joe Louis, he lost his first amateur contest. But he went on to fight 119 times in all as an amateur and lost only four more bouts. Past the age of 10, Ward has been routinely considered one of the best fighters in the world for his age. Indeed, he has not lost a fight since 1998, when he was 13. He lost that fight in a judge’s decision that –– like the other four –– he playfully questions the legitimacy of to this day.
“Kovalev is a defining moment,” Ward said softly. “But I’ve had many. He’s a man. And a man can be broken. I respect him as a champion. It’s a dangerous fight.”
“He’s killed a man in the ring,” I add.
“I know. But it’s a dangerous fight for him too. Every time I step in the ring, my legacy is on the line. Every single time. Every time I step in a ring to spar with a young fighter trying to prove something or make a name for themselves. There’s only a few guys that are all-time greats in the sport,” he said. “I want to end up in that category.”
Ward is not a brawler, despite all those knockouts. Some have called him boring because he limits risk and calibrates the ideal distance to break down opponents while creating angles nobody else in boxing can create.
“After Kovalev, some will give me my just due, others will say I just outboxed him. I’ve had that over and over again my whole career. They did that to Roy Jones his whole career. They did it to Floyd, too. My job is to make it where they can’t argue. That’s my motivation. How many times did they bet against Floyd? After a while they couldn’t bet against him, so instead they criticized his style.
“I’ve boxed for over 20 years. I’ve taken a lot of punishment. It may not be the kind of punishment my critics expect me to have taken, lying on the canvas unconscious. But I’ve taken punishment. Every time I spar or take big shots in my fights, I may not show it, but I’ve taken some punishment. My wife sees it. She sees the aftermath. When it’s hard to get out of bed two or three days after a fight and she has to help me? What’s that?
“I’m on a mission. If I seem standoffish, forgive me. I’m chasing greatness. If I seem like I’m guarded, I probably am. I also have a lot of reason to be. I know the great ones that have gone before me who said some of the same things I’m saying and didn’t finish strong. I’m trying to avoid those same demons. I’m trying to shake those ghosts.”
That night is the first game of the Western Conference Finals for the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. Ward wants to cheer on his friend Curry. He shows up in a white Porsche a little after tipoff with his wife, Tiffany. Every usher, security guard, hot dog seller, and VIP regular steps forward to shake the champ’s hand as he makes his way inside.
Soaking in the response, Ward shook his head. “I could never leave Oakland.”
“They always say you change after you get famous,” he said the next day. “They don’t tell you that really it’s everyone else around you that changes. I think I’m the same shy guy I’ve been all my life.”
Even before Ward hit his teens, Hunter teased that he’d always be a one-woman guy. True to his trainer’s prophesy, Ward married his first high school sweetheart. But there was a twist. At 16, on the night he lost his virginity, she got pregnant. He and Tiffany now have four children, Andre Jr., 15; Malachi, 13; Amira, 7, their only girl; and Mika, 3.
But at the time, even with the possibility of the Olympics just a few years away, Ward’s commitment to boxing began to unravel. “I’d given my whole life to boxing and I was burned out,” he recalled. “I wanted to be a kid. I wanted to not care about anything. I was just teetering. I was numb. No relationship with God.”
On Aug. 26, 2002, Ward suffered the biggest blow of his life. His dad died suddenly of a heart attack. “But he didn’t die with a needle in his arm,” Ward quickly added. “Like everyone in my family, he was a fighter until the end.”
Ward plunged into depression, substance abuse, and a search for anything that could numb the pain. “I was angry at God. The main person in my life was gone. The worst-case scenario in my world happened. My dad was gone. No warning. I wanted to stay numb in this completely surreal way. So I just began spiraling out of control in a way I know a lot of people never come back from.”
Staying in control, it’s abundantly apparent, is one of the fundamental obsessions of his life.
“In that two- or three-year span I could have lost it all. It hurt me so bad my dad was taken like that. I easily could have been one of those guys people say, ‘He could have been something.’ I remember the day he died very clearly. I was getting ready for the Under 19s [amateur tournament]. Dad was picking me up for a run like he always did. He’d follow alongside me in his truck. He called and asked if he could take the day off because he wasn’t feeling well. The next day I got the call from my cousin saying my daddy was dead. I rushed to the hospital and had to see him lying on that cold slab.
“I whispered in his ear, ‘I’m going to finish what we started. I’m going to win a gold medal and be a great man one day.’ But to see how cold and hard his body was, it’s something you can never forget.”
Faith was a crucial part of his road back. He recalled Hunter telling him, “I don’t know who you rolling with, but I know this, God’s got his hand on you, son. You ain’t gonna get away with anything.” His pastor, former NFL running back Napoleon Kaufman, has played one of the biggest roles in Ward’s life since he got his life back on track after his father’s death.
Ward’s brother, Jonathan, he confessed, never recovered from their father’s death. He dreads receiving another call like the one he received about his dad. But after years of struggle, his mother, Madeline Arvie Taylor, is clean now. “Over the last four or five years, she’s come back into my life and my children’s life.”
Did he feel like his DNA was cursed?
“The statistics I was faced with? I shouldn’t have made it,” he said. “With the grace of God I did.”
We visit the house where his father died and then drive to 2656 Pepper Place Street. It’s in a cul-de-sac on a quiet, narrow street. There’s a For Sale sign out front.
“These streets seem so small now,” Ward said, almost in a whisper. “When I was a kid, the hill nearby and these streets seemed huge. This was where I first understood my dad’s struggles with heroin. We were probably here for three or four years. I never had one home where I grew up. My parents were there, but not there. In boxing, I was so dominant, but everywhere else there was such bitter sweetness. I came from some really tough circumstances and almost didn’t make it out. Statistically, I shouldn’t have made it out.”
The house is empty and Ward cautiously walked around the side to the backyard. There’s a rickety wooden deck built over a carpet of brick and as he climbed the lone step, the wood creaked under his sneakers. Ward recalled that the first violent confrontations between his parents began around the time he moved here. His mother would return from the streets looking for money. When his father would refuse to give her money for drugs, Ward remembered her hitting him.
“He’d respond,” he said. “They’d get into a knock-down, drag-out fight. I remember once she stabbed him. There was blood everywhere, on the walls and the floor. I’ll never forget that day. And it continued to happen on and off for the next few years.”
Ward pointed up at his bedroom window. “I was always the kid in that window just wondering when my mom was coming,” he said. “Because she’d promise and promise and promise and never show. I’d see kids in school and that was the void that I had. A lot of inner-city kids don’t have their father. I was different. It was my mother who was gone. Dad lost the house when he went to get treatment when I was 11 or 12. That’s when Virgil took me in. He lived with his wife nearby.”
“Why didn’t you move in with any of your relatives?” I ask.
“Nobody raised their hands,” Ward said.
The same year Ward’s father died, he met his boxing hero, Roy Jones Jr., for the first time. Ward had been a fan of his since the mid-’90s.
“He had the tuxedo robe. Mr. Jones. Ducktail on the back. Everyone said he did everything wrong, but he got away with it,” he said. “I wanted to be like that. I loved the swag, the way he dressed, the country accent, what he said, the way he did it his way. There was nobody out there like him.”
Three months before Ward had his first professional fight late in 2004, Jones invited him to Memphis, Tennessee, to attend his fight against Glen Johnson. Jones asked Ward’s permission to wear his Olympic gold medal into the ring.
“I saw him in the locker room,” Ward remembered. “He looked good. He put my medal on. I sat down to watch him in the third row. He wasn’t looking too hot, but I was sure he’d figure it out. He’s Roy! But he never did. He went down. His little boys were sitting there close to me and they went crazy.
“I couldn’t believe it. He was out cold. Later that night I was walking around downtown Memphis feeling depressed. Just pacing around. Really down. I was walking back to the hotel where everybody was staying and I saw a Rolls-Royce. Somebody in the car recognized me and opened the door and Roy was inside. He was totally groggy and out of it. I told him I loved him. I said he’d be all right, but he was out of it,” Ward recalled.
In an interview with Jones last fall, he told me he was still fighting despite his age because it was God’s will. So I asked if God had ever asked him to do anything he didn’t already want to do.
“That’s a great question every God-fearing person needs to ask,” Ward said. “Has God ever told you no? God’s not a genie. God’s told me plenty of times no. That’s a defense mechanism … That’s how he survived so long. But I can’t say I agree with it.”
“Do you imagine your last day?” I ask Ward.
“Every day,” Ward said. “There’s a math equation very few people have solved. Having your legacy, finances, and faculties intact. How many people walk away with all three? I think about that all the time. I gotta figure that out.”
Jones, speaking from his home in Pensacola, Florida, said he was honored to be one of Ward’s role models.
“He may not be as flashy as I was, but I wasn’t as flashy as Ali was when I came up either,” Jones said. “After he beats Kovalev, if he’s still hungry, he can stick around. But that’s enough to walk away and be happy. After I won the heavyweight title [in 2003 against John Ruiz], I was just fighting just because. That’s a dangerous place to be. Punching a clock.”
Despite this confession, Jones, 47, has now fought more than 13 years since that match.
“To me,” Jones went on, “Ward’s been the model student, person, and citizen in the sport that I always expected him to be. That I was able to be an inspiration to him on the way up is something I’ve always felt honored about.”
Sharing Jones’ words with Ward almost has him blushing as he drove us to meet with his dad’s sister, Sandy Boos, to look over old photos from his childhood. His aunt talked about Andre’s grandfather being a World War II veteran and the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner moment when Frank brought his African-American wife to the family dinner table. “Our father came from Oklahoma and he was a racist. I remember Andre and his brother going to swimming pools in Carson City with Frank and there was nearly always a fistfight with Frank defending his children from the comments from white kids at the pool. You remember that, Andre?” Before we left, as Ward stood up to say goodbye, his aunt brought out some gloves for her nephew to sign. Ward noticeably stiffened, but signed the merchandise before kissing his aunt on the cheek.
On my final night with Ward, he had two places to show me before we parted ways. One was the church he attends for Bible study, but the other was a surprise. “We’ve spent enough time on the past,” Ward said. “I’m going to give you a glimpse into boxing’s future.”
Two steps inside the Lightning Boxing Club, it was if Ward’s unannounced arrival tripped a silent alarm, freezing all the boxers who were working out there. Yet one face stood out. A green-eyed, 85-pound 12-year-old named Dave Lopez was glaring from behind the ropes of an elevated ring at the center of the gym. Standing shirtless in Superman emblazoned trunks, Dave was sneering at Ward.
“What you waiting for?” Dave hollered, the voice –– like his physique –– still untouched by puberty. “Get in here!”
“See?” Ward said and laughed. “Didn’t I warn you? This kid reminds me a lot of myself.”
Dave’s father Kris, the owner of the boxing club, came over to greet Ward.
“You gonna get in here or what?” the boy yelled.
Ward looked at Lopez and tried to keep a straight face. “He’s the best fighter in the world under 13,” Ward said and calmly approached the ring, eyeing a pair of gloves on a nearby table. “I’m comin’,” Ward said under his breath, while doffing his shirt.
At that point, nearly everyone in the gym flooded toward the ring. Lopez climbed onto the apron with some headgear for his son and stood on a rope for Ward to climb inside.
“I just came to visit, Dave!” Ward shrugged. “I just came to say hello.”
They circled one another for a few moments, exchanging smack until a buzzer sounded and Dave’s father called out, “Time!”
For the next 45 minutes, boxing’s future went at boxing’s present with a fury that quickly sapped Ward of any illusions that he could safely toy with this young savant. Ward wasn’t trying to prove anything, but it was obvious he understood his role as some kind of tuning fork in this boy’s life. Ward knew better than anyone what greatness required. Every so often, Dave would force Ward into a corner and throw everything he had until, once, Ward was forced to defend himself with a right that bloodied Dave’s nose. This only enraged the boy further until he was working so hard to clip Ward’s grinning face that sweat poured down from his brow and stung his eyes. “Had enough?” Ward hollered. Dave pressed harder and a few light shots from Ward stamped the sweat into his eyes and produced tears.
Dave’s father was beaming with approval. “This is the first time in his life he’s been inside the ring with somebody where he couldn’t do exactly what he wanted to,” Lopez said. “He’s going to remember this for the rest of his life.”
A minute later, Ward finally called a halt to the sparring session and Dave mocked him for being a quitter. “I didn’t hear no bell!” he yelled. “Where you going? I ain’t done with you yet!”
Ward stepped out of the ring shaking his head and sat down on the stairs leading up to the ring. “In three years I won’t be able to do that with him again,” he said. “He’s that good.”
Dave’s father was hugging his son in the ring and helping him with his bloody nose. They came over and Ward threw his arm around Dave. Some kids rushed over and joined father and son and Ward to pose for photos against the ring. Dave was the only person who refused to smile.
“When we gonna do it again, Dre?” Dave prodded Ward, as his father laughed.
“In a few years I won’t want any part of you. But I’ll be long gone by then,” he said and grinned.
It was a magician’s grin and it stayed with me a long time after it vanished from his face.
Of course Ward, like all conjurers, has been challenged to reveal his secrets. Maybe Ward has one more profound trick up his sleeve: rising to the top of his craft and claiming a happy ending, not just as his reward, but as a central part of his legacy.
Then again, all of boxing’s greats who came before Ward had the same plan. His last task and final opponent may be breaking free from that bitter inheritance.