Andre Ward’s hometown: Pleasant surprises and a mean streak
By Bart Barry
OAKLAND, Calif. – Last week’s fight headquarters were at Marriott City Center in the middle of this recovering town. Friday night Andre Ward sat in its lobby area, his back to the window, a white baseball cap pulled over his eyes. His face was darker than it appears on television, and meaner too. It was the first glimpse of a Ward that any unknowing stranger would avoid out of instinct. Ward wasn’t that playful chap taking his kids to school for HBO’s camera; he was a man concentrated on the manifestation of another’s pain.
In that lobby, with his dark and oblivious scowl, Ward was severed entirely from the dot-com millionaires who once made Porsches more ubiquitous than Hondas, 50 miles south of here. Ward was not, either, a delicate San Francisco artisan returned from complementing an hour in the SFMOMA collection with a crabmeat salad at Fisherman’s Wharf. He was not Silicon Valley or Bay Area. He wasn’t even East Bay. Ward was Oakland.
That portended the very worst for Connecticut’s “Bad” Chad Dawson, a unified light heavyweight world champion who fought Ward for his unified super middleweight championship Saturday at Oracle Arena. Whatever violence Dawson saw as a youth in New Haven, Conn., it was qualitatively different from the Oakland brand Ward showed him Saturday. Dawson, discomfited from the moment Ward’s short left hook dropped him in round 3, succumbed entirely at 2:45 of round 10 – when he rose from a spot on the mat Ward’s left hand put him, and gave referee Steve Smoger tacit approval for a TKO stoppage.
Ward and Smoger were and are a lovely combination, the one most likely to lead Ward, with his mauling and grappling and pressuring, into pleasing aesthetic spectacles. Another ref would have broken Ward and Dawson endlessly, Saturday, and it would have set a precedent that ruined everything – for when a fighter knows every clinch brings an officious ref leaping to the rescue, he does more of it, because even for a prizefighter not-fighting is easier than fighting. And this brings obvious choices whose consequences do not get tabulated till the next morning when that fighter reads about what a dullard he was, in Sunday’s paper.
Ward churns his feet in a clinch. That is his secret. He does not merely push and pull with his upper body, content only to throw a completely open punch at a completely open chin, as so many fighters today do. Ward continues to dig and bend, pivot and tilt, certain that waxed human flesh licked with perspiration is too slippery to hold still for long. He frees his hands with his legs. He sincerely wishes to sink knuckles in flesh, too, making the volume-puncher’s compact: I will hit you anywhere you let me, and let the art critics go to hell.
Writing of which, and continuing a theme of this city’s pleasant surprises – including a number-five placing on The New York Times’ “45 Places to Go in 2012” list – downtown Oakland plays host to the Bay Area’s most surprising art collection: Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). Located atop a history floor and another dedicated to science, OCMA’s paint collection features works by or about Californians. It is exhaustive and fantastic. It is not quite the de Young Fine Art Museum but is at least good, and in every way more accessible, as San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The less-artful compact Ward made with Dawson Saturday saw Ward follow every landed right cross with a chopping left hand. It was an ugly, barely legal punch that offended Dawson’s sense of decorum. It also took his balance and ruined him in the 10th round.
Poor Chad Dawson; he simply has no mean streak. He’s a superb athlete. But were he in the NFL, he’d play wide receiver, not tight end; in the NBA he’d swish gorgeous fall-away jumpers but never drive the lane; if hockey were his game, he’d be a perennial contender for the Lady Byng. There were numerous exchanges Saturday that told this tale: Dawson is an athlete who makes money fighting, but Ward is a prizefighter. Dawson was longer, taller, and ostensibly the harder puncher. And yet, when he hit Ward he got lunged at, and when he got hit by Ward he took a step backwards and showed Oracle Arena a look that said: “It’s cool, guys, I know he hit me, but we quashed all that and things are good between us now.”
Nobody in Oakland respected Dawson’s nonbelligerent stand. Frankly, they wanted to see him beaten for it. Attendance was announced at 8,500 but felt like more – with some local newspaper scribes estimating 10,000 or even 12,000. Imagine, an announced boxing gate that felt underestimated! Knockouts are louder, though, because they bring persons leaping upwards at once. Standing, shouting, high-fiving, fist-pumping men bring a force of feeling disproportionate to their number. There were plenty such men, and women too, Saturday, and the audience was darker-complected than most major boxing crowds. A splendid thing, that, and one that speaks to the authentic, and therefore sustainable, fanbase Ward is building in his hometown.
Andre Ward is becoming a professional sports franchise in Oakland, this pleasantly surprising place with a mean streak. Nobody has trod a fairer path to local acclaim than Ward. No prizefighter deserves acclaim more. And so, on nights like Saturday, in the roiling bodies and noise, for an hour at least boxing can feel like a meritocracy.
Bart Barry can be reached at bart.barrys.email (at) gmail.com