Andre Ward: Injury Comeback or Catastrophe?
By Tyson Bruce
They say that the shoulders are one of man’s most poorly designed muscles. Add to the fact that boxers make a repetitive motion from the rotator cuff over and over again—heavy bag, speed bag, hand pads, sparring, clinching, competition—the risk for serious injury is enormous.
The undisputed ‘pound for pound’ number two fighter in the world Andre Ward will attempt to come back from a debilitating shoulder injury that could have potentially career altering effects on his ability in the ring.
His comeback, after more than a year absence from the ring, will come against Edwin Rodriguez, who is probably the best available challenger that Ward has yet to conquer. He is a guy with an accomplished skill set, fight changing punching power, and a frame that is big enough to support a light heavyweight. Certainly no soft touch, so it will be interesting to see how Ward handles such a pronounced physical challenge.
The accumulation of wear and tear on a boxer’s body over a long career in the ring, both as amateurs and professionals, is an age-old problem and one that many prominent boxers have handled with varying degrees of success. Although modern sports medicine has made what could have been career-ending injuries just a decade ago nothing more than a speed bump (running back Adrian Peterson comes to mind), for boxers the recovery process is intensified. The ability to overcome injury is as much a mental hurdle as it is a physical one. The old boxing cliché boxing is not a sport it’s a lifestyle is true and a year away from the ring can do funny things to a guy’s mental makeup.
A guy who knows a thing or two about shoulder injuries is Floyd Mayweather, who’s patented shoulder-roll defense has probably seen him deflect several thousand punches over his long career. In the lone bout of his career where he came even close to losing against Jose Luis Castillo, he went into the fight with a torn rotator cuff on his left shoulder. The effects were obvious as Mayweather was unable to keep Castillo at bay with his left jab. In fact, Mayweather has had to overcome a multitude of serious injuries over the course of his career including sever hand problems and rumored knee troubles.
Some of these injuries occurred mid-fight, and to his never ending credit Mayweather has always been able to overcome them because of his ability to outthink his opponent and stay calm under pressure. His official explanation for his retirement in 2007 was that he simply had nothing left to prove in boxing, but it is strongly suspected that his two-year absence from the ring was to rehab his many debilitating injuries. That could also explain the prolonged gaps between his fights. Regardless, Ward would be wise to use Mayweather as a blue print for how to deal with injuries and remain on top.
Not all boxers with serious injuries have the same fortune as Mayweather. Perhaps the greatest example of an injury altering the history of a boxing career is Vitali Klitschko. After becoming a boxing pariah for pulling out of a fight he was dominating against Chris Byrd because of injury, Klitschko redeemed himself in epic fashion by going at it ‘rock-em-sock-em’ style with Lennox Lewis for seven rounds only to have the fight stopped by the ring doctor because of a massive gash over his eye. He protested with vehement emotion, which earned him a newfound respect amongst fans and critics alike. After the bout Lewis retired and Klitschko would establish himself as the new face of the division by pounding Danny Williams, harpooning Kirk Johnson, and avenging his brother’s humiliating loss to Corrie Sanders by stoppage. He seemed poised to become histories next great heavyweight champion.
However, while preparing for a showdown with Hasim Rahman he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament knee injury, something that takes over a year if ever to fully heal, and the reign was over just like that. While he has made a successful comeback, it is his younger (and sadly less entertaining) brother Wladimir that has gone on to become the defining champion of the generation. Had it not been for all those nagging injury problems it could very well have been Wlad who was playing second fiddle to Vitali and not the other way around.
After his absolute demolition job of Chad Dawson, a world-class fighter himself, Andre Ward was the cat’s meow of the boxing world. It looked like only a matter of time before he supplanted Mayweather as the new P4P king. HBO was ready to reward him with a human sacrifice by throwing Kelly Pavlik in the ring with him, in what surely would have been an ace showcase fight against an over-the-hill but still popular fighter. However, a serious shoulder injury ruined the best-laid plans and over a year later the rhetoric has definitely changed.
Prior to his yearlong absence from the ring, Ward was treated with a universal respect and admiration that is almost unheard-of in the boxing world. However, in order to keep his name in circulation HBO made Ward a color commentator for Boxing After Dark, which, to say the least, has been met with a mixed reaction. I’ve heard him referred to as things he was never accused of being before, such as a douche, arrogant, and, perhaps more justifiably, the rectum–kissing he regularly receives from his co-hosts Jim Lampley and Max Kellerman has been napalmed on twitter relentlessly. Personally, I believe these are simply inevitable consequences of having an active fighter doing commentary. In any case, his image has definitely taken a hit.
Since his absence from the ring Ward has had to watch old rival Carl Froch score resounding wins over Lucian Bute and Mikkel Kessler and observe the rise of fighters in and around his weight class like Adonis Stevenson, Sergie Kovalev, and Gennady Golovkin, garner international attention by scoring rousing KO’s on HBO. It remains to be determined whether this has disillusioned Ward and made him secretly hate boxing or whether it has merely strengthened his resolve to reclaim his rightful place at the top.
As a boxing fan I sincerely hope that the time away from the sport has only served to heal and motivate Ward because regardless of what you think of him, personally or professionally, he is an outstanding talent. Something tells me that Ward, who hasn’t lost a boxing match since he was a twelve-year boy, doesn’t require anyone’s hope to achieve victory. If anyone can recover from an injury it is probably Andre Ward because all this guy has ever done in his life is win. And if he does, a super fight with Gennady Golovkin seems destined to happen. Count me in on that one.