On His Terms: The Career and Retirement of Andre Ward

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By Eric Raskin

Here’s a handy name to keep in your back pocket for your next boxing trivia night: John Revish.

The associated question is, “Who’s the last boxer to defeat Andre Ward?” For 20 years now, Revish, who beat a 13-year-old Ward in the amateurs, has held that distinction, with “last” taken to mean “most recent.” Now “last” means “final.” Ward, who didn’t lose for the next seven years as an amateur or the subsequent 13 as a pro, will never lose in the ring again, period, if he holds to the retirement he announced suddenly on Thursday.

“I am leaving because my body can no longer put up with the rigors of the sport and therefore my desire to fight is no longer there,” Ward said in a statement, headlined “Mission Accomplished,” that he posted on his website. “If I cannot give my family, my team, and the fans everything that I have, then I should no longer be fighting.”

In the midst of a boxing year overflowing with high-profile retirements, Andre “S.O.G.” Ward becomes the second former U.S. Olympian in four weeks to walk away with an undefeated record and a claim to the pound-for-pound throne. The big difference between Ward and Floyd Mayweather — who really retired two years earlier and was lured back for one last too-easy-to-pass-up cash grab — is that Ward is just 33 years old, still arguably in his prime.

For countless fighters in past eras, 33 translated to over the hill, but in this age of improved medical science and lighter schedules and Mayweather fighting at 40 and Bernard Hopkins fighting past 50, 33 is young. Even Joe Calzaghe, who, like Ward, walked away undefeated after conquering the super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions while seemingly having something left in the tank and plenty of money left to earn, was 36. To go out this on top and this close to his physical peak is just about unprecedented in boxing. The pound-for-pound title in 2017 might not be the equivalent of the undisputed heavyweight title in 1955, but Ward’s retirement timing is legitimately Marciano-esque.

So how will Ward be remembered? Firstly, as a great boxer, one of the finest of his era, with the highest ring IQ of his generation. He won Olympic gold in 2004 (still the only American male boxer since 1996 to do so), turned pro on HBO, and shot to the top when he dominated the “Super Six” tournament from 2009-2011, effectively cleaning out the 168-pound division along the way. The favorites coming into that tournament were Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, and Carl Froch; Ward was unproven and something of an afterthought. He beat Kessler, Abraham, and Froch, as well as Allan Green and Sakio Bika, before the Super Six was through.

Then he came back to HBO and stopped light heavyweight champ Chad Dawson in a masterful performance (though Dawson appeared badly drained from getting down to 168 pounds) and won a pair of controversial fights over his most dangerous possible opponent, Sergey Kovalev. The first bout saw Ward get off the deck early to win an unpopular one-point decision. In the rematch, S.O.G. again started slow before pulling off an eighth-round TKO win that was both stunningly impressive and undoubtedly aided by low blows. By the time that was over, the master technician from Oakland with a record of 32-0, 16 KOs, found himself atop most pound-for-pound lists — at long last, five years after a case for ranking him there first emerged.

That long delay in Ward’s ascension is also a major part of his legacy. Between Dawson and Kovalev, Ward largely wasted four years. There was a 14-month inactivity followed by a 19-month hiatus, due to some combination of promotional and legal battles and quite possibly a flickering flame of passion for the sport. When he did fight, some of the bouts were utter wastes of his time and talent, specifically those against Paul Smith and Alexander Brand. Ward will be remembered, secondarily, as a boxer who could have done more. It’s not fair to call him an underachiever, but it is fair to say he didn’t fully maximize his potential.

Ward will be remembered as polarizing, both as an entertainer and as a personality. There are those who enjoyed his cerebral, neutralizing style and those who couldn’t stand it. There are those who admire him for being an articulate speaker and a class act and those who find him to be detached and pretentious. There are many who have hated him from the moment he dubbed himself “S.O.G,” or “Son of God.”

Andre Ward was, perhaps, too contemplative a person for the fight game. He was reportedly close to a new four-fight deal with HBO over the last couple of weeks, and a more impulsive man would scarcely pause to consider walking away with those millions of dollars dangling. But Ward thought things through. Maybe he thought a little too long sometimes. In this case, his thinking led him to consider how much more his body could give, how much risk he was taking every time he stepped between the ropes, how much desire he had deep down to keep doing this brutal, violent, exhausting thing that he’s been doing almost his whole life, and whether he really needed any more money to be comfortable. The conclusions he reached exemplify the Andre Ward we’ve come to know.

“Andre Ward ends his boxing career as he only knew how to live it — as a champion at the top,” HBO Sports Executive Vice President Peter Nelson reflected. “To watch Ward was to marvel at constant mastery of craft in the ring, to say nothing of his being the consummate role model outside it. The Hall of Fame will be lucky to have him.”

If you move the space in Ward’s name two characters to the left, you are left with the words “and reward.” Induction in the International Boxing Hall of Fame is a small part of what’s coming Ward’s way and what he has earned. Whether you rooted for him or not, you had to respect him. And if indeed he doesn’t fight again, perhaps the most enduring part of his legacy, the thing that no matter your opinion of Ward demands your respect, will be the when and the why of the way he ended his career.

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