Feature Story

Ward: It Wasn’t Dirty; It’s Sweet

Photo: Laura de la Torre
Photo: Laura de la Torre

By Bob Hough

Mikkel Kessler said after his 11th-round, technical-decision loss to Andre Ward that some of the head-clashes were intentional and that Ward, the new WBA super-middleweight champion was a dirty fighter—a charge Ward vehemently denied. Ward consistently out-landed the Dane and avoided his power, though the fighters’ heads collided regularly. Kessler believes the collisions weren’t all accidental.

Photos: Laura de la Torre

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“Yes, some of it was intentional,” Kessler said to Fightnews.com after the press conference, as he was engulfed by Danish journalists. “He was a dirty fighter against me.”

Ward, who was gracious throughout the press conference, said the fighters’ styles caused their heads to collide.

“It happens,” he said. “It wasn’t intentional. I am not a dirty fighter and I absolutely did not try to head-butt Mikkel Kessler. I don’t fight that way. I respect Mikkel Kessler and I respect the sport of boxing. I’m not that kind of person.”

Promoter Lou DiBella, whose fighter, Jermain Taylor, is in the Super Six World Boxing Classic along with Ward, Kessler, Carl Froch, Andre Dirrell and Arthur Abraham, was less gracious. DiBella said in a post-fight Twitter message: “Always liked Kessler, but he is whining like a bitch. Man up!”

Complaints and accusations were a team effort from team Kessler; his cornermen complained to Reiss throughout the fight; and his promoters complained afterward.

Though Kalle Sauerland, one of Kessler’s promoters, said after the fight that it wasn’t his fighter’s night , commenting at ringside, “Everyone can have a bad day at work,” he was in the ring when it was over, loudly and profanely complaining to Reiss about Ward’s tactics.

In the press conference, Sauerland’s father, Wilfried, said he didn’t want to take anything away from Ward—and said at some length that Ward used his head and elbows illegally, and held on too much. He later said of the Andre Ward vs. Andre Dirrell match set for later in the Super Six tournament, “I don’t think there will be any action at all. They both hold all the time.”

Comments from Kessler and his promoters struck Ward as having been in poor taste, much as they were understandable.

“It’s disrespectful,” said Ward, who made a quick cool-it gesture to his trainer Virgil Ward when he snarled at the Sauerlands. “This is kind of a shock to them and sometimes when things don’t go your way, you respond this way.”

Though Kessler, whose face was cut, scraped and lumpy, lost the fight and his title, he didn’t lose his sense of humor.

“Well, I think this will make the tournament more exciting,” he said with a smile. “I didn’t want to be the favorite.”

Kessler, who said the fight should have continued, felt confident after the early rounds, but he struggled with Ward’s adjustments.

“I lost the first couple rounds, which was okay and I thought I was the better fighter,” he said. “I had a good round and I thought, ‘I’ve got him now,’ and he changed tactics.”

Such was the plan, Ward said.

“It was a matter of keeping him off balance,” said Ward, who came away from the contest with light scrapes around his left eye. “He didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Ward, who had long related that he expected Kessler to box the way he had throughout his career, said he never experienced anything surprising or troubling.

“The only time I felt like he had the advantage was when I made mistakes so I felt like I just had to stay composed and careful,” he said. “There were a couple points when I got a little anxious.”

Trainer Virgil Hunter chewed on Ward after Kessler performed well in the 5th round, displeasure Ward said was appropriate.

“He had a pretty good round and there are going to be ebbs and flows in a fight, but Virgil told me to settle down and keep my focus,” Ward said. “He was right.”

It was around then that Ward sensed that things were changing.

“By the 5th or 6th round, I could sense he was still going to swing and still going to fight, but he wasn’t in it so much mentally,” he said.

The pace and intensity taxed Ward some as rounds rolled by, but he said felt strong down the stretch.

“By the 8th or 9th round, I got a little winded,” he said. “I’ve only had 21 fights so I’m still learning. I’m still learning about things like being intense, but not too intense. The key to conditioning is that you get your second wind and I caught it by the 9th or 10th. I felt great for a real strong finish.”

Ward’s performance was exactly what WBA interim super-flyweight champion Nonito Donaire, Jr., expected. Donaire, who has known Ward for years, had predicted a focused, effective effort from his fellow San Francisco Bay Area resident.

“I always thought Andre’s speed was the key and he made it happen,” said Donaire, who was standing on a chair and celebrating after the scores were announced. “He’s the smartest guy in the ring and he was able to pick him apart. He actually did better than I expected. He boxed beautifully.”

When it was official, Ward leapt around the ring and jumped up and down in a joyful moment of relief.

“I felt like a little kid,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure and before they read the scores, I thought I had it, but when I heard the scores, it felt so great to let it out. I just let it all out. I remember doing that and how great it felt.”

Ward, who said as the press conference wound down that he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep that night, was at least up ‘til the wee hours, using Twitter at around 4 a.m. to send messages of thanks.

Ward had stood in the same room weeks earlier for a pre-fight press conference. As that event came to a close, he was chatting, being light-hearted, comparing his watch to promoter Dan Goossen’s timepiece. Would he trade that watch, one he received when he turned pro and easily worth the price of a good used car, for a title?

Ward looked like he’d been asked if he wanted to continue breathing.

“What do you think?”

Having won the title, did it feel like he had ever hoped or imagined?

“Better. A million times better.”

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