Any list of candidates for Fighter of the Decade—the Boxing Writers Association’s annual award—is usually whittled down to four names: Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez and Andre Ward.
And believe me: There is a heated debate out there among boxing scribes as to who is the most deserving one.
Let’s start with Mayweather, the clear cut star of the decade. Mayweather was already a mainstream megastar in 2010, still riding high off his career-turning win over Oscar De La Hoya in 2007. He signed a lucrative deal with Showtime in 2013, broke pay per view records against Manny Pacquiao in ‘15 and made nine figures fighting an MMA fighter with no chance to beat him in ‘17.
The resume, though … it’s just missing something, isn’t it? Mayweather fought Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto, but both were on the back end of stellar Hall of Fame careers. He fought Canelo Alvarez before Canelo started on a path that will eventually end in Canastota. He beat Pacquiao when Pacquiao was well past his prime.
And let’s not forget: Mayweather’s boxing career effectively ended in 2015.
The Conor McGregor (mis)match … that really doesn’t count.
And how about Pacquiao? He, too, has a resume that lacks a certain sizzle. The 2000’s Fighter of the Decade—and can we pause here to acknowledge that the fighter of the last decade is not only a candidate in the next one, but in 2020 is still going strong?—picked up two losses early (a debatable decision defeat to Tim Bradley and a knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez) and another late, to Jeff Horn. He experienced a remarkable revival in 2019, knocking off Adrien Broner and Keith Thurman, but it just doesn’t feel like enough.
Alvarez could easily be the fighter of the half decade. He defeated Erislandy Lara in 2014, outpointed Cotto in ’15 and dethroned Gennadiy Golovkin in 2018. He padded his resume nicely last year, with wins over Daniel Jacobs and Sergey Kovalev, but his run began a little too late.
Which brings us to Ward. Ward’s resume isn’t sexy. Nobody searches for highlights of Ward’s win over Sakio Bika … or remembers the decision defeat of Arthur Abraham … or tells tales of how he beat Carl Froch. But those were three high-level super middleweights, along with Allan Green, who Ward knocked off to win the Super Six tournament, which established Ward as the top 168-pound fighter in the world.
Ward’s next fight was against Chad Dawson, and for the purposes of this discussion try to think beyond the shell of a fighter Dawson has become. In 2012, Dawson was arguably the top light heavyweight in the world, fresh off a win over Bernard Hopkins. For 10 rounds Ward battered Dawson—who came down to super middleweight for the fight—forcing Dawson to a knee in the closing seconds of the 10th, making him quit.
If the Super Six defined Ward as a top super middleweight, beating Dawson established him as a legitimate pound-for-pound star.
There was a lull in Ward’s career mid-decade—we’ll address that in a moment—but Ward closed it in spectacular style. When Ward stepped in the ring against Kovalev, in 2016, Kovalev was the unquestioned king of the light heavyweight division, an undefeated knockout artist.
Ward, in just his third fight as a full-fledged light heavyweight, scored a narrow decision win.
A year later, Ward knocked Kovalev out.
The argument against Ward is his inactivity in the middle part of the decade, when he fought just once in 2 ½ years, wasting years of his prime in a promotional dispute. He never fought Lucian Bute, the only champion who didn’t participate in the Super Six. He let the Kovalev negotiations drag on a little longer than most liked. And he never shared the ring with Golovkin, though the reasons why are hotly contested.
Still: Ward fought significant, meaningful fights early in the decade, and won them all. He fought one of the biggest punchers in boxing, a top-10 pound-for-pound talent and beat him, twice. He showed skill in outclassing opponents and surprising power against the better ones.
For that, Ward is Sports Illustrated’s Fighter of the Decade.
The results of the BWAA voting will be interesting. Expect a lot of support for Mayweather for his string of high profile fights. Canelo, too, will get consideration, fresh of a consensus Fighter of the Year campaign and his status as boxing’s biggest star.
Ward was never boxing’s biggest star, and only after Mayweather retired did Ward find himself atop the pound-for-pound lists. But this award is for best fighter, not best known, for a 10-year stretch of accomplishments, not little more than half that. Ward’s decade wasn’t perfect, but it says here it was better than anyone else.