Is super middleweight champion Andre Ward one of boxing's most underrated fighters?
Well, the USA's last Olympic boxing gold medalist thinks so. Ward's longtime trainer, Virgil Hunter, thinks so, too, and Hunter figures he knows why.
Ward (23-0, 13 KOs) will put his considerable boxing skills on display Saturday night when he takes on former middleweight champion Arthur Abraham (32-2. 26 KOs) in the semifinals of the Super Six World Boxing Classic (Showtime, 10 ET/PT) in Carson, Calif. The winner moves on to the finals of the long-running, oft-troubled tournament vs. the winner of next month's Carl Froch-Glen Johnson bout.
Ward, 27, the WBA titlist, is favored to win the 168-pound tournament after impressive wins vs. Mikkel Kessler and Allan Green. The 2004 Olympic light heavyweight champ also won a hard-fought non-tourney fight against Sakio Bika in November.
The Ward the boxing public sees is not a knockout artist, he doesn't stand toe-to-toe with his opponents and slug it out, and he and Hunter work hard to make sure the fighter gets hit as little as possible. Maybe fans don't want to see scientific boxing — it is called "The Sweet Science," after all — but that's because, in Hunter's words, it's not their son or father taking the beating in the ring.
"He's grossly underestimated, not only by the writers but by his opponents," Hunter says. "After they fight him it's a different story. He's underestimated because in boxing right now, the consensus is, if you're not going toe-to-toe, and I'm not bloody and you're not bloody, it's not a good fight.
"In the end, I couldn't count myself as a trainer — I mean I'm putting some mother's son or woman's husband or a child's father into the ring — I'm doing him a disservice if I can't teach him the science of this sport (to hit and not get hit). I don't think it's a credit to a trainer's ability if you're getting these guys beat up. In the long run, the damage is incredible, and it's the family that has to live with it."
Ward, who has been knocked down once, early in his career, has no misgivings about being in the tournament — "because the best are in the tournament, with the possible exception of (undefeated) Lucien Bute" — but thinks he needs more work than the tourney affords, about two fights a year.
"Three to four times a year would be great," Ward said by phone this week. "Even if two of them aren't championship fights. It's important to stay busy and sharp. I don't need as much rest between these fights, especially without taking much serious punishment, which I haven't."
Because Ward has only had 23 pro fights, Hunter, 57, the only trainer Ward has ever had, feels he's at only 70% of his abilities.
"Kessler or Abraham, they've had twice as many fights as him," Hunter says. "He's a young champion. You can get a more accurate assessment of him after 32 or 33 fights. And only the fights can bring that. Not the training, not the gym time."
Abraham, 31, an Armenian living in Germany, has lost his last two fights, the first after he was disqualified for knocking Andre Dirrell unconscious after he was down. Dirrell, a good friend and Olympic teammate of Ward's, hasn't fought since.
Ward says he's not angry at Abraham for hurting his friend 14 months ago, but "it just reminds you to protect yourself at all times. I'm not going to call him a dirty fighter, but that was a dirty move."
Ward insists he's not looking past the tournament but thinks the winner should fight Bute (28-0, 23 KOs), who was not invited into the Super Six. "Some people would argue that the Super Six winner is the best; some would argue that Bute wasn't there so they're not the best," Ward says. "As a competitor, you want to face the best. He's the main guy out there, so you want to go right at him."