Every time Andre Ward says, “In my day,” he catches himself and laughs, because he’s still a world champion and in some eyes the second-best boxer in the world, which makes it still very much his day.
But back in his day.
He was 17 years old, at his first national senior boxing championships, lacing them up against fighters who could be as old as 35. Unseeded but not unheralded – he’d been a Junior Olympic champ – he made his way through the middleweight bracket to the championship round against top-seeded Eric Kelly, who couldn’t seem to stop walking into the kid’s hook.
And so Andre Ward became a national champion.
“That just let me know I belonged – 17 years old and able to face grown men and win,” he said. “It was pivotal.”
He said this from a ringside seat at the HUB Sports Center in the Valley, watching two fighters trying to prove they belonged at the very same event – the USA Boxing Elite National Championships, which carry on through Saturday’s finals at Northern Quest Casino.
Maybe this will be the turning point for another 17-year-old, or maybe the end of somebody’s dream.
But Andre Ward isn’t in town to relive old glories. Only to keep the ongoing aspirations fully inflated.
The WBA and Ring super middleweight champ – 27-0 as a pro – and the last American male to win Olympic gold in the ring cruised through Spokane simply to see and be seen. And heard, in hopes whatever he’s done might rub off on this generation of amateurs.
“I remember a few months before the Olympics in 2004. Andrew Maynard came back to where we were training,” Ward said. “Gold medalist in Seoul (in 1988). I just remember how much strength that gave me, and not even specifically for anything he said. Just that he took the time to show up helped. I knew that guy had done what I was trying to do.”
And did, in fairly spectacular fashion. In the Athens quarterfinals, he dominated Russian world champion Evgeny Makarenko, then knocked off a pair of two-time Olympians to win the gold. This would be a stepping stone to a splendid professional career, but Ward wasn’t exactly framing his achievement in those terms.
“Frankly, just representing the United States of America was enough at that point,” he said, “even more so in 2004 when we’d just gone to war and weren’t very popular out there. I’d always been a patriotic kid and having a jersey or warmup with ‘USA’ on it means something to me.
“Yes, it’s about the gold and, yes, there’s money out there to be made from it. I think we’ve lost the simplicity of just having pride for representing your country. All this stuff in between – it should matter.”
And now there’s the problem that American boxing has become the world’s punching bag.
Ward’s gold was one of only two medals the U.S. won in 2004 – just 20 years after there were nine American gold medalists in the Eastern bloc-less Los Angeles Games. By 2008, that count would be halved, and the medal was bronze. In London, the American men were shut out altogether, with Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza saving the day in the newly created women’s brackets.
“We have the best talent in the world, I believe,” Ward insisted. “We used to be feared on the international scene. Our whole team was good and people knew, ‘Here comes the USA.’
“It’s not like that now.”
There’s an entire menu of blame – one from Column A, one from Column B – for this collective TKO, and USA Boxing has undergone considerable soul-searching and reform to address them. One of the major moves was the hiring of the respected Pedro Roque from Cuba to be the organization’s international teaching coach, but Ward isn’t sure who is as important as how long.
“We change Olympic coaches every four years,” he said. “On the Cuban team, there’s a culture. The young boxers coming know their guy. They want to impress him. They’ve heard about him and they know his standard – and seen the results and respect the results. Here, there’s a new face, a new strategy and plan every four years.”
He isn’t lobbying for the job. At 29, he’s still doing business in the ring, a November decision over Edwin Rodriguez ending a 14-month layoff because of a shoulder injury. His team is trying to put together another defense “in April or May,” and in the meantime he’ll be in HBO’s corner for the Mikey Garcia-Juan Carlos Burgos super featherweight title fight on Saturday in New York.
“But I’d like to have a bigger role at this level,” he said. “I know the look in these guys’ eyes. Because I had it.”