In a sport dominated not only by who wins but by who makes the most noise, Andre Ward needs to bring some sound and fury into the boxing ring Saturday night.
Winning is not a problem for the 168-pounder from Oakland. He is 26-0.
Getting attention is his problem. He might be the only pro athlete in an individual sport who is generally ranked as the second-best at his craft — all classes, pound for pound — but whose name usually draws blanks from the general sports fan.
A promotion for the sport's consensus No. 1, Floyd Mayweather Jr., is all name-calling and attention-getting. The hype often overshadows the fight, but by then, both the money and the fighters' images are in the bank.
None of this is Ward's style. He is thoughtful and pensive in a sport that shouts first and thinks later. Or never.
He says things such as "My father taught me never to be a bully."
And "I'm not one of those boxing warriors. I'm mindful of the damage that can be done to you."
That may sound like he's Plato in a world of Richie Incognitos. But you would sell Ward short by not recognizing what he has achieved, not respecting the true sweet science of his skills, not paying attention to what he has left and where he is headed.
He will turn 30 in February. He has been boxing since he was 9.
"That's a lot of wear and tear," he says.
He had hundreds of amateur fights and won all but a handful. He won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in Athens in 2004. He has a wife and four children, three boys and a girl, and talks about the proper way to leave the game before the game leaves you in a wheelchair.
"You need an exit strategy," he says, "a knowledge of when enough is enough. That doesn't mean quitting after a bad loss. It means going out on top, when it is right."
To be clear, Ward is not all that near to going out. Not yet. His remaining goals include seeking a measure of the limelight — he would call it credit — that has escaped him. A prime example is that he has never fought in Las Vegas. Not as a headliner. Not ever.
His HBO fight Saturday night, against another unbeaten boxer, 28-year-old Edwin Rodriguez, will be at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. Nice place. Decent-sized venue. The crowd will be good.
But it ain't Vegas, baby. Nor Madison Square Garden. And Ward knows that.
Most of his major fights have been at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, his hometown. Again, not Vegas, baby.
"Vegas is one of my dreams, my goals," he says. "Just getting off the plane there before a fight, the electricity is there. You just know it is big."
These days, boxing is dominated by two promotion companies, Bob Arum's Top Rank and Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy. The others swim upstream against the tide of the massive resources of the big two.
From the start of his pro career, Ward's promoter has been San Fernando Valley's Dan Goossen, who once worked for Arum, but was squeezed out of the Top Rank hierarchy and went on his own. Ward and Goossen have had their heated discussions about the need for more bright lights in his career — Ward lost an attempt to escape his contract in arbitration. But Ward now says nice things about how hard Goossen has worked for him.
"Dan is doing the best job he can for me," Ward says, "and we are moving on."
There may be a Sergio Martinez or Gennady Golovkin in his immediate future, certainly fights that would turn on the bright lights. But Ward is mindful both of Rodriguez's skills and of his own need to prove some things first.
His last fight was 14 months ago, when he handled Chad Dawson. As he started to train for the next one, a marquee-level battle with Kelly Pavlik, he "felt a twinge" in his shoulder.
"It was an injury I had probably 16-17 years ago," he says. "The diagnosis then was that I was too young to have surgery, that I just needed to keep the muscles strong around it and it would be OK."
Ward says that diagnosis was wrong, and once the recent "twinge" didn't heal, even after a month of rehabbing it, he had an MRI exam, was told his rotator cuff was badly torn and surgery was the solution. The Pavlik fight was off, Pavlik retired in the meantime, and now, Ward is actually in comeback mode to begin what he hopes will be the final, and most recognizable, phase of his career.
This is his time, he says, and knows that the danger of Rodriguez is that he is in a position similar to Ward's when he won his world title by beating veteran Mikkel Kessler of Denmark in 2009.
"He had more knockouts than I had fights," Ward says. "Going into it, I was like a lot of people. I would have picked him too."
Ward says he will draw on that experience against Rodriguez. And, if successful there, he will keep taking next steps until he lands one day in a place where the bright lights point at giant billboards of him, a place where all the noise comes naturally and lots of it will be about him.Copyright © 2015, RedEye