Upon his retirement aged only 33 this week, Andre Ward now represents an example of the notion that unmatched talent is sometimes not enough to force one’s way into the minds of observers as a memorable sporting hero, remembered fondly by a great number.
What his career lacked, for the most part, was a particular sense of narrative without which sport is greatly diluted of what makes it compelling. Granted, his attritional style did not aid his cause. His fights, often, did not generate an expectation of violence which is part of the reason for which many people watch combat sports or rugby for example. They want to see acceptable and organised violence and aggression and Ward did not quite scratch that itch sufficiently in a way that other fighters do.
However, numerous highly popular fighters have fought in a less exciting fashion and garnered vast support. Many would watch Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins and others because they had other compelling reasons to invest in the fighter. Unfortunately for Ward, the investment in his narrative never reached significant heights.
The reason that any fight can capture the public’s imagination and set it apart from routine contests is that we have more reason to care about what is essentially the practice of similar techniques, the same series of movements and exchanges. The punches are, for most observers, not sufficient reason to invest. We need the punches to be imbued with significance which can only be achieved through effective story telling.
Spectators have to be able to invest in the individual fighter’s fortunes and there are many elements that can evoke such investment. Canelo Alvarez, for example, fights as a self-appointed representative of the Mexican people. There is a vicarious element to his fights that make them compelling. Gennady Golovkin is a fearsome knockout puncher and has cultivated a mystique by leaving indelible images of violence just as Mike Tyson did before him. His affable and smiling personality juxtaposes a ruthless puncher in an intriguing way. These narrative elements are at the heart of the richness of combat sport and others.
The eventual technical battle and series of movements and exchanges becomes a means of resolving the suspenseful narrative in an organised and conclusive fashion. The technical fight is only then appreciated for its athletic demands, technical complexity and mental requirements. Extending such logic to other great and resonant sporting moments, the majority who watched Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis win gold at the 2012 Olympics for Great Britain would have been enjoying the shared feeling of being part of a national experience of significance, with technique seen as a vehicle to allow such drama.
It is unfortunate that he retires fresh after emerging triumphant from the most compelling fights of his career, a succession of eventful victories over the fearsome Russian light heavyweight, Sergei Kovalev. It seemed that Ward had now found a way to enhance interest. Thanks to Kovalev’s challenge, Ward’s story was given new invigoration and an injection of a threatening opponent, the first of Ward’s opponents to really challenge him. A struggle with some form of potent foe is a component of many great narratives. With fighters, it is no different. Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin’s recent fight was so exciting because of their equal skill which created doubt about the outcome and great stakes. Neither could afford to lose and credibly be known as the best of his time. In other words, the stuff of narrative.
Andre Ward ends as a great fighter but not one who was sufficiently equipped with the means of becoming a resonant figure in the memories of observers. Neither he nor the hand of circumstance is to blame it is merely one great fighter’s worthy if not altogether memorable story.