- George Willis
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It was an unusual Father's Day for Andre Ward. Instead of spending time at his home in Oakland, Calif., with his three children (including brand-new daughter, Amira Lecian), Ward was what seemed like a zillion miles away in the Cayman Islands preparing for his next step toward a world title.
"This is the hardest part of what I do," Ward told ESPN.com. "The physical aspect can be grueling and demanding, but leaving my family, that's the hard part of my job, especially under the circumstances."
Ward, who has two boys, was there to witness the arrival of his first daughter on June 12. Less than 48 hours later, he was on a plane to Georgetown in the Cayman Islands where he will face Jerson Ravelo Friday night. Showtime will televise at 11 p.m. ET/PT.
It's the first title fight of any kind for Ward, who has been in boxing's spotlight since winning a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. While he clearly misses being with his family, Ward (15-0, 10 KOs) is channeling those emotions toward a good performance against Ravelo (18-2, 12 KOs).
"I got to see my daughter one day and I had to go," Ward said. "When you deal with things like that I just have to accept it. It's the will of God for me to do what I do, but it does affect you and I'm going to allow it to affect me in a positive way."
Positive is a word you hear often about Ward. A committed Christian whose fight nickname is "Son of God," Ward is one of those focused athletes filled with dedication and ambition.
"I'd put him up against any athlete that's ever faced the public," said Ward's co-promoter Dan Goossen. "The man is someone you'd want as a role model for your kids. He's real about it. There's no fake with Andre Ward. Outside the ropes, the sky's the limit."
The same can be said for inside the ropes, too, though Ward's development as been a steady climb. The first gold medal winner in eight years hasn't rocketed to fame like some of his predecessors.
It took time for Ward to make the adjustment from fighting an amateur style where the volume of punches took precedent over the quality and impact of punches that defines the pro style. It wasn't easy to change old habits.
"It took some time to get acclimated to the pro ranks where you're more concerned with effective punching than continual punching," Goossen said. "But from a slow start, we've got the pedal to the metal now."
Ward admitted, "I'm still going through that transition. Hopefully, you're always evolving until you hang up the gloves. The initial process took some time and the process is still underway. You go to the pros and they want to see it over night and it just doesn't happen like that. My goal is to keep focused on what we feel we need to do to keep getting better."
Ward, 24, has already endured his share of adversity. He was dropped in the fourth round of a fight against Darnell Boone in 2005, and was sidelined seven months by a thumb injury suffered in 2006. But since moving up from 160 to 168, he has been devastating, winning five straight fights by knockout.
"I don't have to go through any extremes to make weight," Ward said. "When I fought in the Olympics at 178 pounds, I was really about 170, 171 on a good day. Making the shift from 170 to 160 wasn't a big deal initially and I felt pretty good for a while. But it got to the point when I was 170, I didn't have any fat on me."
His last fight at 160 was against Derrick Findley in November 2006 and though Ward won a six-round decision, he didn't feel strong and powerful. "I didn't feel that extra pop that makes you feel like I can knock you out," Ward said. "We made a decision to move up and it was the right move. I'm sure I'll be moving up in the future. I'm just 24 and I'm still filling out and still growing. Time will tell, but I feel great."
Friday's bout is Ward's first scheduled for 12 rounds, a sign he's preparing himself for a title fight perhaps sometime late next year. "By his 20th fight he'll be fighting for a world title," said co-promoter Antonio Leonard. "I don't care who it's against. He's like a Floyd Mayweather. The more he fights, the more he understands boxing."
Ward is a Jekyll and Hyde sort, mild-mannered outside of the ring and viciously determined inside of it. He's not shy about expressing his spirituality, nor is he shy about giving his opponents a beat down.
"It boils down to me being a fierce competitor," Ward said. "If I was a basketball player or whatever sport it might be, it's what's inside of me that makes me want to be the best at whatever I play. I've always been like this. My family will tell you how competitive I am whatever it is, basketball or card games, I want to win. That's something God has given me from birth. It's inside me."
This will be Ward's second fight on an exotic island. He stopped Roger Cantrell in five rounds last November in St. Lucia. It's a nice change from the hotels, casinos and arenas that normally host bouts.
"What's beautiful about doing it in the Cayman Islands is you're bringing the sport to a whole new country of fans," Goossen said. "The excitement is just astounding."
With boxing off the major networks and not getting the Olympic coverage it once did, Ward hasn't had the springboard that other gold medalists like Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya enjoyed. But Goossen is confident Ward's time will come. Of the 19 U.S. Olympic gold medalists in history, 12 have won world titles. Ward is hoping to become the 13th.
"What's going to carry him to stardom is what he does in the professional ranks," Goossen said. "We're very excited about his future. The dedication he's got to this business is going to elevate him to superstar status."
George Willis is the boxing columnist for The New York Post.
Despite winning a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, Andre Ward's development has been a steady climb. Has the promising Olympian made a full transition from the amateur ranks?