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A Boxer’s Life

by Frank Holland

Andre Ward is retired, but he isn’t finished. The 34-year-old boxing champion gets real about the sport that made him a superstar, his decision to walk away and what he’ll do next.

Dark clouds hang over the East Bay hills, broken only by thin seams of winter sun that shine white and low on the horizon. I’ve teamed up with Phil Spiegel, friend and resident NHG boxing expert, to meet Andre Ward—boxing legend, proud Bay Area native and the world’s fittest retiree—for a free-flowing conversation at Blackhawk Country Club in the shadow of Mt. Diablo.

When he arrives at the clubhouse, Ward greets us with a smile and a firm handshake. “Hi, I’m Andre,” he says. “How are you guys doing?”

I’m surprised that his hands seem…totally normal. They aren’t gigantic, or made of titanium or calloused in an unnatural way that could only be the product of beating literally hundreds of the world’s most ferocious boxers to a pulp over the past 15 years.

Dressed in a well-tailored blazer, retro Air Jordan sneakers and a stark white shirt emblazoned with his brand and nickname, “S.O.G. [Son of God]” in angular gold letters, Ward makes it difficult to recall the image of him calculating his way around the ring, dismantling Sergey Kovalev in his final professional fight to cement his legacy as one of the greatest pound-for-pound boxers of all time.

We enter a small conference room with floral-print couches and a rustic design motif that evokes a French country house. “The distressed wood is nice,” he says to no one in particular. He motions to a chair. “Would you like me to sit here?”

Raised primarily by his father, an East Bay glazier who turned his son on to boxing at the age of 9, Ward seems incapable of pretense or braggadocio. At the same time, you’ll find it difficult to elicit a canned, publicist-scrubbed response from him. He manages to exist opposite the twin poles of Johnny Manziel and Derek Jeter.

“My dad was a blue collar kind of guy and he instilled a blue collar mentality in me and my brother,” Ward explains. His father passed away nearly 15 years ago, but simple lessons still resonate. “He’d say, ‘Son, if you’re in a room and someone walks in, pull out your chair, stand up, look them in the eye and shake their hand.’ When I was a kid I didn’t understand why that was important. Now I do.”

Process—doing things the right way—is paramount to Ward, not only in his preparation for a fight, but in the way

Anytime you get hit in the face, you’ve got some decisions to make. Andre Ward

 

he handles his business interests, charitable giving and family life. Each time the conversation turns toward his many accomplishments—an Olympic gold medal, an undefeated pro record—he parries and returns to the topic of what it took to get there. When Ward does discuss his accomplishments, he seems almost incapable of accepting individual credit; his pronouns are invariably plural.

After a brief discussion about the rigors of preparation (punishing eight-week training camps), protein-rich diets (raw beef liver, banana and cherry smoothies anyone?), and his multiple surgeries (knees, shoulders, etc.), the conversation turns to the famous Mike Tyson adage that “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

“Do you remember the first time you got punched in the face?” Phil asks.

Ward doesn’t hesitate. “I was about 9 or 10 years old. It was Nonito Donaire, from San Leandro, multi-divisional world champion. He was older than me, but he was the same size and he hit extremely hard.”

Ward’s tone softens and he nods sagely, narrowing his eyes. “Anytime you get hit in the face, you’ve got some decisions to make.” I remind myself that there’s a life lesson in there, and I imagine the phrase as the caption to an inspirational poster.

Ward has said that his goal was never to become famous, but to become great. I ask him if he’s ever been afraid in the ring. “Fear is always present, but that’s what courage is, right? It’s going forward in the midst of fear.”

Now retired, Ward’s days are no longer governed by grueling training sessions and the regular consumption of highly questionable protein shakes. So, how does a world-class athlete recalibrate after reaching the mountain top?

“We’ve always wanted to retire from the sport and not let the sport retire us,” he says. Having the chance to be one of the few boxers to do so—to go out undefeated after a career-defining victory, with all of his mental, neurological and physical facilities fully intact—was appealing, but it wasn’t easy.

“It was a tough decision. There’s no manuscript or handbook on how you walk away from something you’ve done for 23 years and transition into other things. You’ve still got a lot left in the tank. There’s still opportunity. There’s still money. But beyond that, you miss the routine.”

Ward’s new routine involves a successful broadcasting career, a variety of business pursuits, lots of time with his

There’s no manuscript or handbook on how you walk away from something you’ve done for 23 years and transition into other things. Andre Ward

 

wife and four (soon to be five) kids, and maybe—just maybe—a return to the silver screen to reprise his role as Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler in Creed 2, the latest installment in the Rocky Balboa saga. On the latter note, Ward insists that nothing is official, but a gleam in his eye suggests otherwise.

Aside from his family, two things animate Ward even more than his burgeoning acting career. The first is his passion for anti-bullying efforts. “Kids often don’t even know what they’re doing, but they need to be educated and I want to get more involved in that. Bullying can be physical, verbal or on social media. I hate to see people ostracized or treated as less than normal for any reason.”

The second issue that fires Ward’s imagination seems somewhat intertwined with the first. When we ask if there’s anything about the sport that he would change now that he’s had some time and distance to reflect, he sits up a little straighter.

“The lack of any type of protection structure,” he says. “There’s no entity in place to protect the fighters. None. If you look at baseball, great union. Basketball, football—same thing. Boxing has nothing. There’s no 401(k), there’s no pension, there’s no medical, there’s no disability, there’s literally nothing.”

He’s still calm and deliberate, but you can hear the urgency rising in his voice. He leans forward and his gestures become larger, more animated. He churns through a range of issues at a breakneck pace: shady promoters, colluding managers, lack of financial planning support for fighters and an industry fiercely resistant to change.

“I start thinking about getting fighters together at every level—the up-and-comers, the contenders, the guys that come there just to lose, and the champions—and say, ‘Listen, let’s figure out a way to get something established.’ I would love to be a part of something like that in the future.”

We head out to the lakeside veranda, chatting idly about Ward’s friendships with fellow Oakland megastars Ryan Coogler and Marshawn Lynch. As we talk, I imagine reaching the apex of a profession and then leaving it all behind, an identity painstakingly crafted over 23 years receding in the rearview mirror.

“My identity is not locked up in this sport,” Ward says. “It’s what I’ve done, but it’s not who I am. Once you understand that, you get up every morning with a purpose. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m walking by faith.”

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