Andre Ward and the Uneasy Politics of Boxing

Photo by Naoki Fukada

In boxing stars are born, but who births them?

It’s a question worth asking when you consider a fighter like Andre Ward who despite being ranked the second best pound-for-pound fighter, has yet to become a household name.

If you search for news on Ward at the moment, the negative seems to outweigh the positive.

First, there is the well-documented drama between him and his promoter Dan Goossen, who is also the focus of a lawsuit that Ward recently filed in Federal court.

In addition to Ward’s inactivity the boxing blogosphere has also been talking about his next opponent. A few names have been thrown out here and there, including Gennady “GGG” Golovkin and Mikkel Kessler–whom Ward convincingly beat once already.

While all the rumored negotiations and on-the-record/off-the-record comments from fighters’ camps make for exciting headlines, they haven’t amounted to a set date for Ward to fight.

Then, there are Ward’s critics. Some of them have called his situation “curious,” a euphemistic take on his status in the boxing world compared to others that have less delicately claimed Ward’s star is falling.

Boxing fans know Ward and his undeniable talent, but his biggest criticism is his apparent “lack” of super stardom—a sentiment echoed throughout the boxing community, in blogs and articles alike.

But is this really Ward’s deficiency or the boxing industry’s?

Let’s be clear, “super stardom” in boxing has less to do with the fighter’s actual talents than it does their commercial success. If talent was the most influential factor, Ward would be selling out arenas and doing record-breaking pay-per-view numbers.

Talent aside, even the way Ward conducts himself outside the ring gives him the appeal of a superstar.

He was nominated for an ESPY this year for the Best Fighter Award. His Instagram account documents his continued training, Jordan Brand endorsements, appearances at Sports Authority to do meet-and-greets with fans and an interview with mainstream publication, Complex magazine, among many things.

This doesn’t sound like the life of an athlete whose career is on the decline.

In boxing we’ve seen how embodying the “bad guy” persona has worked to the advantage of fighters like Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Unlike Mayweather though, Ward is very likeable—a quality that would be valuable in any other mainstream American sport. You can’t really say anything bad about Ward, which makes the status of his commercial success all the more puzzling.

When it comes down to it, Ward is just an individual within a disorganized organization. I believe the way that boxing births superstars is complicated, and it reflects the public’s perception of the sport and the industry’s disorganization at the highest levels.

I see parallels between how boxing is packaged and sold to consumers and how fighters successfully or unsuccessfully navigate the business.

A great deal of a fighter’s commercial success is left in the hands of casual fans that significantly outnumber the population of real boxing fans.

Because they are simply the majority, casual fans have the most buying power when it comes to purchasing tickets and PPV fights.

As an industry, the product sold to the masses is not boxing as a science, but as violent, aggressive entertainment. This in conjunction with excitement is the most accessible experience for the casual fan that is looking to be entertained rather than learn the game.

So we arrive at someone like Ward, who impressively won the Super Six World Boxing Classic just a few years ago before Showtime became hot, and went on to face tough competition, only to be criticized for not being “exciting” enough to sell fights.

Truthfully speaking, casual fans do not know what they are watching when it comes to boxing, which is why a fighter can put on a clinic but be considered boring.

Not to mention, there is generally a lack of respect for boxing as a science. And since it’s not appreciated as such by the masses, there isn’t much respect for the technique and skill it requires to be a great boxer—at least not enough to turn a decent profit.

There is also the fact that boxing is a terribly disorganized sport.

Boxing is not a league with pre-scheduled fights and tournaments. Instead there are “Cold Wars” between promotion companies that want to monopolize, network wars, belts stripped from some fighters and not others, etc.

As a consequence, we don’t get to see the fights that should be made, and many fighters do not get the credit they deserve.

Unfortunately and ironically, Ward is located in an industry whose platform does not make it easy for fighters with exceptional talent to become superstars.

How well a fighter and his team are able to navigate the uneasy politics of boxing ultimately determines how commercially successful he becomes in the sport.

This can be very tough though, as there is no exact formula to do so and the climate of boxing changes often.

Some divisions draw more attention than others for certain periods of time, while so many other variables, like network competition and promotional company disagreements, make the boxing business difficult to navigate.

All in all, Ward doesn’t seem bitter about anything. He has stated on several occasions that if he were to retire from boxing, he would be satisfied with what he’s accomplished.

Hopefully this is isn’t the case, as I strongly believe Ward’s time is not up, and he has more to offer the sport.

If there’s anything we can learn from Ward, it’s that fighters do not easily reach superstardom, not because they don’t have the talent or drive, but because boxing doesn’t always permit them to.

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