America needs a new star in boxing.
Out in Oakland, Calif., Andre Ward is waving his arms, trying to get noticed.
Ward (23-0, 13 KOs) has the credentials: He's a 2004 Olympic gold medalist and reigning WBA super middleweight champion. He has a strong following in Oakland -- crowds of 8,000-plus have flocked to his recent fights -- and a rugged, everyman personality that's easy to identify with.
So why isn't he more popular?
His style, for starters. Most of the popular champions -- Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Lucian Bute -- are risk-takers, fighters willing to expose themselves to a heavy shot if it means creating an opening to deliver one of their own.
That's not Ward's game. He prefers precision punching over power shots. There's some pop in his gloves -- 13 of his 23 wins have ended in a knockout -- but Ward is content to win lopsided decisions rather than mix it up in pursuit of a knockout.
"I appreciate everyone who attends the fights, but it comes down to going home and kissing my wife and kids, keeping my title and moving on with my career," Ward said. "I think I take the risks I'm supposed to take. I think I do what I'm supposed to, but if you get enough people saying one thing, people start to believe it."
They do believe it, which is why Ward's rapid rise over the last two years -- highlighted by his first major world title and wins over top contenders Mikkel Kessler, Sakio Bika and Allan Green -- has not generated much attention. While highly regarded prospects like James Kirkland, David Lemieux and Andre Berto get knocked off, Ward's ascent has been relatively anonymous.
"Sugar Ray Leonard came from a totally different time," Ward said. "Fighting on the network that he fought on [ABC], having Howard Cosell, it was just a totally different ballgame. Oscar De La Hoya had the Hispanic community and different things like that, so you have to look at those situations because I'm in a different time. It might be a little bit harder to get the exposure and the just due."
Ward will have another opportunity to showcase his talents on Saturday, when he defends his title against Arthur Abraham (32-2, 26 KOs) in the semifinals of the Super Six tournament (10 p.m. ET, Showtime) in Las Vegas. Dominant at middleweight, Abraham has not been the same fighter since moving up to the 168-pound division. He knocked out Jermain Taylor in the opening round of the tournament but followed it up with one-sided losses to Andre Dirrell and Carl Froch. What's worse, Abraham has fought defensively, a style that has made him easy to beat but difficult to look good against.
This is Ward's challenge. A win will keep the title around his waist and advance him to the finals, where a potential lucrative payday awaits. An impressive win -- one that ends with, say, Abraham flat on his back for the first time in his career -- could attract a few more fans, too.
Ward has done his homework on Abraham. He disputes the notion that Abraham is a shot fighter, citing a few heavy shots he noticed Abraham land on Dirrell and Froch. But he sees plenty of ways to beat him. Ward says he noticed how Dirrell was able to effectively put together combinations against Abraham and how the constant pressure applied by Froch kept Abraham from loading up for too many big shots.
"He's still a strong super middleweight," Ward said. "People have made it sound like he quit against Dirrell and Froch. I didn't see that. I see a guy that is still very dangerous."
Ward is a heavy favorite, but that's a word he's not interested in hearing. The Super Six has had a few favorites since the tournament began in 2009: Kessler, Abraham and Froch have all worn the label. Which is why despite the press anointing him as the man to beat in the tournament's final stages, Ward has endeavored to maintain an underdog mentality.
"We don't talk about it, don't think about, don't let it cross our minds," Ward said. "There is too much work still to be done. That word,