Pick a year, and Andre Ward has been a celebrity.
In 2001, he won the U.S. amateur middleweight championship at age 17. In 2004, a year after claiming boxing’s Under-19 National Championship, he took gold as a light heavyweight in the Olympics. In 2009, he became a repeat super middleweight champion. In 2011, he was named Fighter of the Year. In 2017, he retired with a 32-0-0 record as the consensus top pound-for-pound boxer in the world.
In 2018, he’s still as renowned as ever — an actor, an analyst and the new host of “The Contender,” a reboot of the boxing reality TV show once presented by Tony Danza, Sylvester Stallone and “Sugar” Ray Leonard.
In between a busy schedule promoting the show, which premieres Friday, and working on ESPN’s boxing crew, Ward caught up with Sports Spectrum in a phone call about his life beyond the ring, his role in this fall’s “Creed II,” his new TV gig, the faith behind his trademark humility and more:
Sports Spectrum: In just a couple years’ time, you’ve gone from being one of the world’s top-ranked boxers to a face of boxing in the entertainment industry. What’s that transition been like?
Andre Ward: I didn’t plan on all of these different things happening, but I did plan on life after boxing. I had been broadcasting, and I’d been working on some things because I had the end in mind even during the journey. Internally, boxing was always something that I did, but I never wanted to make it who I was, because I knew the end would come some day. A lot of guys don’t think about that, and that’s when you see a lot of depression and stuff. It catches them off guard that it’s over, so I wanted to prepare.
SS: One of your biggest platforms now is your upcoming role on “The Contender,” in which 16 aspiring fighters live, train and fight with each other. What drew you to this show, and what makes it so appealing?
AW: I think people are going to get real, raw and uncut. You see the process, from dealing with family issues to losing a lot of weight and gaining weight and training, to dealing with fear and just the real things that we go through. EPIX was a fly on the wall, and they captured all of it. And I think the whole show, it’s not to sell people but to alert people of the real things that happen.
SS: You gave your reasons — mostly physical — for retiring in 2017, but watching these guys train and fight, does it ever give you the itch to get back in the ring?
AW: Of course. More or less, you miss it. It’s something I’d done for 23 straight years and then was abruptly over with. As for why I stopped, I hear a lot about the hits, but it’s not necessarily the hits … of course I want to be in good health for my family, my wife, but also for the state of the game. We don’t have a lot of good endings in the sport, and I’ve been very cognizant and aware of that. I wanted to be a guy who didn’t fall into that category.
Young folks, ask for help…it’s ok! As a matter of fact, it’s wise. Find the wisest ppl around you and ask as many questions as possible as often as possible. By doing this you will start to become wise beyond your years & avoid a lot of pitfalls & mistakes. It’s a game changer!
— Andre S.O.G. Ward (@andreward) July 18, 2018
SS: You’re also starring in this November’s sequel to “Creed,” which is part of the “Rocky” series. How did you first get involved with playing Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler in the first movie (2015)?
AW: Ryan Coogler is, in my opinion, the hottest director in the game right now, and he’s a friend of mine from the Bay Area. We had heard about each other around the time “Creed” was in pre-production. At first, we had mutual friends but didn’t know each other, and we finally connected, and he said, “Listen, bro, I got a role for you.” I told him, “I don’t even act,” but he said, “I got a role for you.” So I read the script, and I said, “Man, I’m on board.” That segued into doing the sequel, coming back as Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler, and the new director, Steven Caple Jr., is a good friend of Ryan’s, so it was a perfect transition. I can’t forget about Michael B. Jordan, either, because he was awesome in helping it come together.
SS: So, working with Michael B. and Sylvester Stallone, how close are they in real life to their onscreen characters?
AW: (Laughs) I would say there’s a few characteristics, but they’re just professionals. They know how to be in character and out of character. It’s like when I went on TV to box, I don’t have to pretend to be this mean guy all day. I just know how to get in the ring and do my job, and it’s like that for them.
SS: What can we expect from your character in “Creed II”?
AW: I’ll say this: The fans are going to see Andre Ward, a.k.a. Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler, in a light they’ve never seen before. You’re going to have to come out on Thanksgiving weekend.
SS: Outside of boxing and your media career, you’ve also been vocal about your faith. How did you embrace that, why is it so important to you, and how did it shape your life?
AW: Well, my father gave me a foundation in my faith. Me and my brother didn’t grow up in the Church — we didn’t really have that core church we went to. But my father was always vocal about it. He opened up the Bible with us, read the Word of God to me, shared the importance of it. And just journeying through life kept it going. My father, he battled drug addiction. My mother battled drug addiction. And at 15, 16, 17, I thought I wanted to be out there, be in the streets and live that life, but it was my faith in God and my foundation that brought me back. I knew that wasn’t right, and I knew that was not the purpose and plan that God had for me. A key for me and my wife was to get connected to a strong church family. We’re still going, with Well Christian Community in Livermore, California, and (former NFL running back) Napoleon Kaufman is our pastor. We matured, we started to bear fruit, and we’ve stayed the course.
SS: Some people might view boxing and Christianity as contradicting forces. Floyd Mayweather Jr., for example, once took issue with what he called “guys trying to hurt a man on Saturday and then going to praise the Lord on Sunday.” What do you say to that and the idea that fighting and representing God can be in conflict?
AW: I think it’s a little bit deeper-layered than just that comment by Floyd. I often hear Floyd bring up God, but you see the kind of lifestyle that Floyd lives. I think it’s a valid question if you’re genuine about hearing the answer. I can just sum it up like this: If you read the Bible, God isn’t just a god of love. God is also a god of war. You see God, when it met His purpose, God can be the lion and the lamb. So if God so chooses to touch a professional boxer with that gift, God has every right to do that. The key for the fighter is to make sure the fight game hasn’t gotten to his heart. If I get to a point where I physically want to hurt you, now I believe I went too far. Me, I go in there and do my job, and my job is to make sure you don’t beat me, and then I want to get home to my wife and kids. But I also have a strong desire for you to get home to your wife and kids as well. It’s really a different thing when I step in the ring. When the fight is over, it’s over with me.
SS: And plenty of fights ended with you on top over the course of your career. Now you’re just as visible in life post-boxing. But with all that in mind, at the end of the day, how do you want “Andre Ward” to be remembered?
AW: In a nutshell, I wold love to be known and remembered as someone who loved God, who loved his family and who loved other people.
Season 5 of “The Contender,” with Ward as host, debuts Friday on EPIX. “Creed II” hits theaters on Nov. 21.
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