Andre Ward leaps atop super middleweight division
Yet he also realizes life will never be the same after what he did to WBA champion Mikkel Kessler on Saturday night in a victory that turned the super middleweight division on its head.
"I think I'm the most underestimated fighter in the game," Ward said, before adding quickly: "I don't know about after tonight."
Ward's unanimous technical decision shook a division packed with talented fighters who all thought they were chasing Kessler (42-2), the power-punching Dane who had reigned for most of the past five years. Instead, Kessler was overwhelmed by Ward (21-0), whose speed and discipline reduced the division's dominant fighter to an excuse-making sore loser.
Ward's victory in front of a rollicking hometown crowd also injected a new wave of energy into the Super Six tournament, which began last month with two victories by European fighters over Americans. With this seismic shift, Ward (21-0) has finally broken onto the international stage five years after winning Olympic gold in Athens.
Ever the cool-headed calculator, Ward already had considered how his career would change with this win.
"This is the more dangerous place to be than being at the bottom of the mountain," Ward said. "There's a lot more coming at you. Just stay focused, that's the key."
The innovative, Showtime-backed Super Six tournament takes on a whole new tenor when it continues early next year with Andre Dirrell's bout against Arthur Abraham. Ward is expected to fight Jermain Taylor in March, likely in Oakland.
"This is going to put a lot of steam into the Super Six tournament," said Ward's promoter, Dan Goossen. "Andre is like a boulder rolling downhill right now. We've got a lot of believers after this, and he's just going to get bigger and bigger."
Until Saturday, the two main knocks against Ward were his seemingly unimpressive level of competition and his ability to take a punch. He firmly answered both questions by trouncing the best 168-pounder around and barely even getting hit in the process.
Ward and Virgil Hunter, his longtime trainer and mentor, both acknowledged feeling some redemption after the criticism of Ward's deliberate pro path since the Athens games.
"They minimize my style, they minimize me, and then when they get in there, they think, 'This is not what I signed up for,"' Ward said. "Up to now, that's been an advantage for me. By the time they figure it out, it's too late."
Kessler's excuses, including complaints about Ward's head-butting and holding, held no water with a crowd of more than 10,000 gathered to watch Ward's first major title shot. Kessler's utter ineffectiveness seemed to be due more to Ward's elusiveness and power, which put Kessler firmly on the defensive nearly every minute after the first three rounds.
Ward deflected the praise for his victory onto Hunter, the architect of yet another clever game plan against an opponent taking Ward lightly. Hunter felt Kessler started to quit midway through the fight when it became apparent Ward wouldn't wilt under his pressure, saying he saw a similar quitting instinct in Kessler's only previous loss to Joe Calzaghe.
"When you fight like that, year in and year out, you can't change," Hunter said. "Pressure is going to really make it come out. When (Kessler) is on top, when he's pushing the issue, he's a great fighter, but I knew it would change when he started getting hit with punches he's never been hit with before. I give Calzaghe all the respect in the world, but he's a slapper. I knew (Kessler) had never been cracked."
After a second major success in Oakland, Goossen plans to keep a hometown advantage. The promoter expects Taylor to travel to the Bay Area in March for another Oracle Arena bout, with Goossen hoping to open the capacious arena's upper deck this time.
Taylor's brutal knockout loss to Abraham last month had some wondering whether he would continue in the tournament at all, but Taylor apparently already is in training, according to his Twitter feed. Ward welcomed the challenge, saying, "I don't think they can make Jermain exit out of the tournament, so it's his decision."
The trip to California also changed the mindset of Kessler, who accepted the villain's role for a big payday, only to emerge feeling burned by the home-state referee.
Kessler said he wouldn't agree to fight Carl Froch in England for his next tournament bout, as many had expected, instead insisting on fighting back home in Denmark.
"I think this will make the tournament more exciting," Kessler said. "I don't want to be the favorite."