Andre Ward Leaves a Void at ESPN


ESPN, the self-styled “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” has been tightening its belt by laying off a significant fraction of its on-air talent. The versatile Max Kellerman, a longtime boxing commentator, got caught up in the latest round of dismissals. Andre Ward is also leaving the network, although his situation appears to be a bit different as his contract was about to expire. Ward shared the mike with Bernardo Osuna, Tim Bradley, Mark Kriegel, and Crystina Poncher on the most recent ESPN offering, last Saturday’s show in Toledo featuring heavyweight Jared Anderson in the main event. Lead announcer Joe Tessitore was on vacation.

America’s last Olympic gold medal winner in boxing, Ward turned pro in 2004 at age 20 and forged a 32-0 (16 KOs) record before leaving the sport in 2017. In his final fight, he scored an eighth-round stoppage of Sergey Kovalev. Seven months earlier, he had upended the previously undefeated Russian, rallying from a deep hole to win a unanimous but controversial decision. Ward announced his retirement four days after the rematch and was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

To say that a boxer is leaving the sport on top is a cliché, but in Andre Ward’s case it was absolutely true. At the time of his departure, he was rated #1 on the pound-for-pound list of The Ring magazine.

As a boxer, Ward was noted for his high ring IQ. He wasn’t flashy inside or outside the ropes and that kept him from transcending his sport as did, for example, Floyd Mayweather Jr. “Only in America could a boxer win an Olympic gold medal, be thoughtful, articulate, and a good family man, live his life free of scandal….be recognized as one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound, and be largely ignored by the mainstream sports media,” wrote Thomas Hauser in a story that appeared on these pages.

Ward’s announcement that he was hanging up his gloves was conjoined with the news that he was joining HBO as a boxing analyst. He pivoted to ESPN before HBO abandoned its live coverage of boxing at the end of 2018.

For whatever it’s worth, it’s been my observation that elite athletes, with a few notable exceptions, make poor talking heads.

Andre Ward is a notable exception.

I ask three things of a TV sports analyst: (1) don’t mangle the king’s English; (2) don’t over-sugarcoat it; and (3) tell me something I don’t already know. Andre Ward checked every box.

What’s next for the former two-division world title-holder who turns 40 next year? The best guess is that he will move on to a rival network. Showtime would seem to be the most logical destination. A 103-minute Showtime documentary, “S.O.G. – The Book of Ward,” premiered on June 2. And more than a few subscribers to DAZN would be elated if he turns up there.

I wouldn’t be shocked, however, if he returns to the ring. True, Andre is seemingly too level-headed for that, but to say there is a precedent for it would be a great understatement.

Sugar Ray Leonard retired and unretired five times before he had his last fight at age 42. In December of 1980, Larry Holmes, then 31 years old, vowed that he would retire after five more fights. He soldiered on for another two decades and had his last fight at age 52. I could go on and on.

“Tonight’s show was the last fight under my ESPN contract,” said Ward to his followers on Instagram before leaving Toledo. “It’s been a great ride and I’m going to miss the whole ESPN crew that I’ve worked with for the last six years. I’m excited about my future and the chance to work in new projects and endeavors. Great things are ahead.”

We don’t doubt it and we wish him well.