When Ward was 8, his first coach tried to mold him into a brawler. After a couple of workouts, Ward's father pulled him and thought about never letting his son into a ring again. As for colorful, Ward has a palpable disdain for that approach, believing it to be a disease that has become widespread throughout boxing.
"I've set out from day one to do things that I've been raised to do," Ward said. "You'd be surprised how many people outside of boxing have come up to me and said, 'Hey, I appreciate the way you carry yourself. I'm going to have my son or daughter look to you as an example.' That kind of stuff right there means a lot more to me a than gaining a few more fans, or writers saying, 'Hey, this guy is crazy and we love him.' Because if you look at a guy like Ricardo Mayorga, for example, he was a shooting star. He came in and made some noise and then he was gone."
In many ways, Ward is a test subject for a third. His skills are undeniable: He can fight going forward or moving back. He can dig to the body on the inside and use his 6-foot frame to box on the outside. He's the last U.S. boxer to win a gold medal (2004), and in seven years as a pro against some pretty good competition, Ward's record (24-0) is unblemished. Though Ward ranks seventh in SI.com's pound-for-pound ratings, veteran trainer Naazim Richardson says there are three fighters whose talent today exceeds all others: Mayweather, Pacquiao and Ward.
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But is talent enough? Ward has power (13 knockouts) but not the kind of concussive pop that will land him on highlight videos. He's good-looking and well-spoken but hardly a walking sound bite. He has the ability to dominate anyone at 168 pounds, but it won't always be in a fan-friendly fashion.
"The word star is thrown around a lot," Ward said. "I never got into the sport to become a star. I'm blessed with the talent and gift that I have. I want to win and do it with class and integrity. I want to be a great representative for this sport. It's a disservice to the sport for a fighter to have to act a certain way to get attention. I'm not going to be a buffoon or act ignorant. I'm going to be true to myself, my faith, and be who I am. I give everything I have in every fight. And to be honest, that's what people want to see."
Ward's profile has shot up lately. As an original member of Showtime's Super Six tournament -- and one of the few who has not pulled out of it -- Ward has been afforded unprecedented exposure. His last four fights have been broadcast on the network, and on Saturday he will be part of the tournament final, taking on Carl Froch (28-1) in a title unification bout at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City (9 p.m. ET, Showtime). It's the biggest fight of Ward's career and one that, if he wins, would establish him as the top dog in the 168-pound division.
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"This tournament has afforded me a lot of attention," Ward said. "Without it, the attention and the exposure would not have come as quick. I would not have been able to fight this level of competition. It's been tremendous for my career."
And it could get better. Super middleweight is suddenly flush with prospective opponents. There is Lucian Bute, another alphabet titleholder whom Showtime is desperate to match up with the winner of the Super Six. There is Kelly Pavlik, Robert Stieglitz and Andre Dirrell. Should Ward choose to move up, there are lucrative matchups with Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal waiting for him at light heavyweight.
The opportunity to jump to the next level is there, if Ward can take advantage. But will the public gravitate towards a fighter who wins, but doesn't pulverize? One who expresses confidence but doesn't ooze cockiness? Ward believes the world will see his talent and respond accordingly. Indeed, we will soon find out.