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There are two traditionally accepted paths to becoming a marketable star in boxing: either lose your head in front of the cameras or be willing to use it as a piñata in the ring. Floyd Mayweather Jr. didn't become Money Mayweather until HBO's 24/7 transmitted footage into our living rooms of him waving around stacks of cash and going on expletive-laced tirades; Manny Pacquiao became a million-pay-per-view-buys baby by being willing to absorb two shots to deliver one.
Mayweather, 35, and Pacquiao, 33, will be gone soon enough, leaving a vacuum at the top of the sport. On paper Andre Ward is in prime position to fill it. The 28-year-old Bay Area native is a 2004 Olympic gold medalist with an unblemished (25--0) professional record and a pair of super middleweight title belts around his waist. He's a chameleon in the ring, intelligent, precise, capable of dismantling aggressive opponents (Carl Froch, Sakio Bika) and tactical ones (Mikkel Kessler) alike. Since he turned pro in 2004, no one has sniffed a win against Ward, well, ever.
The problem? Ward, who is a committed Christian, doesn't fit into either of the aforementioned models. He's not crass. He doesn't curse. He won't take pictures with ring card girls or anyone holding a beer. His nickname is Son of God. It's not an act for the cameras, either: Ward's wife, Tiffiney, says Ward is so squeaky clean that he refuses to speed up at a yellow light because, he says, "we all have to follow the laws of the land."
He doesn't fight wars in the ring because, frankly, he doesn't have to. Why stand toe-to-toe with an opponent when you can systematically pick him apart? When Ward was in the amateurs, his trainer, Virgil Hunter, told him he never wanted him to come home from a tournament with the award for best bout. "That means he got beat up," says Hunter. Similarly, as a pro Ward has no interest in Fight of the Year. "No general is going to instruct his troops to jump out of the foxhole and run full steam ahead into fire," says Hunter. "You strategize, you win and you stay alive."
Ward could change, of course. It doesn't take a genius to call an opponent a bleeping bleepity bleep, and Ward can get into a slugfest simply by choosing not to duck. Except he's not wired that way. Ward cares about how he carries himself. He has plans for the future. In May he interned at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, and he has been an analyst on ESPN, HBO and Showtime. "I want to create a legacy," says Ward.
Why shouldn't that be enough? Wake up, America: A boxer shouldn't have to live every line in a Jay-Z album or put his head on the proverbial chopping block to be appealing. Ward is to boxing what Roger Federer is to tennis, what Greg Maddux was to baseball; his marketability, his draw, rests solely and solidly upon his sheer excellence.
Some are already starting to believe in it. HBO signed Ward to a multifight deal, beginning with Saturday night's showdown with light heavyweight kingpin Chad Dawson, and is putting all of its resources behind him. In a battle of tacticians, no one is expecting Ward-Dawson to be a war. "But," says veteran trainer Emanuel Steward, "an impressive win will get the attention and the respect of the boxing public. The hardcore fans aren't crazy about Ward. But if he dominates, he will get recognition. Then, maybe, he can be another Mayweather."
Soon, Ward will likely supplant Mayweather and Pacquiao atop the pound-for-pound list. He will be hailed as the best boxer on the planet, and for him that will be enough. Watch, don't watch, he isn't changing. "I would rather be respected than known as an entertainer no one respects," says Ward. Hunter puts it more directly: "He might not become that mainstream superstar, but he will beat any superstar you put in front of him."