Tuesday 17 September 2019

'The one thing about boxing, you aren't judged on what you are' - Joe Ward talks to Ewan MacKenna as he prepares to turn pro

Boxer Joe Ward poses for a portrait earlier this month after a Times Square Boxing Co. press conference where the Moate native signed his first professional contract at The Westbury Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Boxer Joe Ward poses for a portrait earlier this month after a Times Square Boxing Co. press conference where the Moate native signed his first professional contract at The Westbury Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

One night. Two moments.

The first is from inside the National Stadium during the senior finals. It’s the big one and Joe Ward heads for the ring with his shoulders hunched like an ox.

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Making it to the canvas, he strides with a calm authority as if a farmer getting ready for a day in the fields.

You know that opening scene from Raging Bull where there’s so much ease and focus against the chaotic background of flashing bulbs? Well that's him.

Then the first bell tolls and he explodes like a wrecking ball.

It's staggering to witness, one of those instances when you know you’re watching someone truly special.

Already a two-time champion at light-heavy, it’s not only that which belies his 19 years, for he walks through Kenny Egan's defence and his power badly beats a hero into retirement.

Joe Ward, left, exchanges punches with Ken Egan in their 81kg Light Heavyweight final in the National Elite Boxing Championship Finals at the National Stadium, Dublin on February 22 2013. Photo: David Maher/SPORTSFILE
What future awaits this freak of nature?

The second comes a little later, across the parking spaces and on into the Ringside Club.

At one end of a table there, a member of Ward’s entourage wakes for just long enough to slurp down a part of a pint before drifting back off into a slumber as the liquid runs from his mouth and onto his soaking shirt.

To the side a younger guy has gotten hold of and is wearing Ward’s coveted 81-kilo belt but, swaying to whatever made-up music plays in his mind, he fails to realise his rhythmic movement has seen his tracksuit bottoms slowly slide to somewhere near his knees.

Next to such comedy there’s an air of uncontrolled anger simmering as if water in a saucepan and, soon, after Ward leaves, it belches over as thousands of damage is done to the place, much more is done to reputations, and an event that started off about sport becomes a news story.

What future awaits that freak of nurture?

22 February, 2013. One night. Two moments.  

Doubts flutter and fly about a prodigy that can be whatever he wants to be.

* * *

Earlier this month, Joe Ward went pro and on Thursday his opening bout was announced.

He’ll debut in October in Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Gennady Golovkin-Sergiy Derevyanchenko, meaning he’ll venture in his very first outing to where many a career has been spent trying to get to.

Yet, for an athlete with a record few if any in our sport has ever attained, we know so little about him. 

His interviews are gloves up, pawing away questions about anything beyond his art. 

The archives are full of safe answers that stick to that dreaded straight and narrow. 

"Why is that," I wonder?

"I keep my life as private as I can," he explains. "I wouldn't be a big fan of social media and things like that.

"I’ve been on a few radio shows and stuff but I like to keep my head down and don’t like getting involved in controversy.

"I just want to stay grounded and work hard in the gym and get on with my life. That might seem boring to people but that’s just me and the way I am. I simply want to fulfill my potential."

Getting to know you. It can be as hard as trying to box him. 

With that Ward starts talking about the bright lights in his future when behind it there are always darker and harder memories from the past.

That's what makes a man. That's what makes a champion. That's what we want to learn more about.

Joe Ward looks on as his son Jerry, then aged 3 lifts up his Silver medal at Dublin Airport after Team Ireland's return from the AIBA World Boxing Championships back in September 2017. Photo: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile
What we already know? Ward comes from fighting stock. His earliest memories are of collecting his talented uncles in Moate boxing club.

There he got wandering about with a child's curiosity and, today, one of the photos taking pride of place in his house is when aged six with a pair of gloves bigger than him.

It wasn’t just boxing in the ring that was nearby though. For example his grandfather is Joe Joyce who you’ll likely know.

He’s the guy from the documentary 'Knuckle', about the glove-less format of the game and the star of many a YouTube video calling out this and that rival in angry and oft cartoonish tones.

Ward smiles at that version of Joyce for there’s a very different person there that’s guided him. "He’s very important, he’s been in that bare-knuckle scene and does what it takes to be successful and to be a well-known guy," he says.

"He's pretty famous. He's always advising me to do the right things, always supporting me in my amateur career. He’s spoken very openly to me about what I need to do.”

"Your mother Theresa too," I say as a prompt.

"She's played a massive role," he beams. "Gave me opportunities to go places and she’d bring me to different tournaments and the high performance unit since 12. She kept me going.

"Still does. Sometimes she plays too much of a role like all mams but she always wanted the best."

There’s another reason to mention her however, as an introduction to a part of Ward he hasn’t opened up about.

Back in a 2012 interview, a much younger version of himself was asked about his father and said he'd rather not go there. But being crucial to who he is, it crops up again.

"I understand why you're asking," he says.

"It's just one of these issues. My Mom and Dad got married young, they were divorced when I was two.

"He went off to England to live his life and had more kids over there. As I say my Mam is very strong, we grew up together, just me and her.

"A very strong woman and gave me the best opportunities in life with school and to follow my dreams in boxing."

"Do you know him," I continue?

"I do, but I don't have any interest in… We've nothing in common at all. That's the way it is. That's all there is to it."

It's a sign of his strength and resilience. Not only for making the most of himself against longer odds and extra excuses but for beginning to make the most of others as well.

That's because by 17, he himself was a father. Physically he may have been beating older men, mentally he was dealing with a weight many older men struggle to carry.

There was a first son in his life, there was a boxing career to maintain and there was the pressure of all those whispers that hinted at what he could be some day if he kept at it.

"It was fine, I was very mature," he adds. "I always had my head screwed on. Young guys that age might be thinking about partying but I was thinking about where I could go if I did the right things."

It brings us to a word on a sheet of paper with a line underneath. TRAVELLER. It's not jotted down in order to ask him about being one, for that's jaded by now and it’s time we move on.

Instead it's meant in terms of many still viewing him through that shallow prism.

Ireland's Joe Ward with his gold medal at Dublin Airport as Team Ireland arrive home from the European Championships at Dublin Airport back in June 2017. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
He shrugs. "The one thing about boxing, you aren't judged on what you are. Thankfully I've never been in any bad situations or had any abuse because of it," he says.

"I never had to suffer it. I’d imagine maybe some of my family members had to endure it but thankfully I didn’t. I'm proud but it's just a small part of me."

With that he's back to being edgy. His boxing might be for public consumption but his life is his own.

Granted, his lack of wanting to go deep is as unusual as it is insightful in itself.

Then suddenly with an assurance that's lacking when talking about himself out of the ring, he boasts and rightly so about what he's done in it. 

"I never lost an amateur fight in Ireland," he blurts out. "Had my first when I was 11 and was never ever beaten. Fourteen years. Some going." 

* * *

The sporting sphere is full of stories of those who had too much, too soon. 

That was the danger with Joe Ward and that 2013 night in the National Stadium showed what the pitfalls were.

Others around were indulging in his success and were wanting him to join them. But if it raised questions, he has given back the most pleasing and perhaps unlikely of answers.

Consider this as a rebuttal to those who doubted his determination to push past the obstacles.

2013. World Championships Bronze.
2015. World Championship Silver. European Championship Gold.
2017. World Championship Silver. European Championship Gold.

Not that it hasn’t tested him along the way for there's one glaring omission.

In 2012 a home-town decision in Turkey saw him miss out on the Olympics.

Yet by 2016, out of a star-studded Irish team, he more than any other was expected to medal. His opener was a give-me against Carlos Mina of Ecuador.

A nobody when beside him, Ward was docked points twice.

There's a photo of him standing, staring and stunned at the referee as his opponent’s hand is raised.

Carlos Andres Mina of Ecuador is declared victorious over Joe Ward of Ireland during their Light-Heavyweight preliminary round of 16 bout at the Riocentro Pavillion 6 Arena during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil back in August 2016. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
But while tears fell from Katie Taylor and a rant raged from Michael Conlan in Rio de Janeiro, note his take on the greatest disappointment and biggest failure he'd ever known.

"Look it, you spend most of your life working and thinking about going to the Games and then it becomes the reality. I probably didn't do the right things leading up to it," he said.

"There's so much going on that you lose focus and get dragged away from that. But overall I think the fight itself, I didn't do what I could do and I still deserved to win. Disappointing. I went to the dressing room and it was either going to make me or break me. 

"I said to myself don’t make any rash decisions. ‘Go home, relax, and see what you want to do.’ Sure I was mad, but I could have jumped into the pros straight away only I didn’t want to leave on sore terms, I wanted to achieve something before I went.

"Especially with so many boxers going professional straight away afterwards, and I'd the chance to lead the Irish team and I was grateful for that. Three years of that made me proud."

Such composure around such temptations.

For instance a while back, Eddie Hearn came along with an offer of €500,000 and with plans to have Matthew Macklin as his manager and to have Ward on the Katie Taylor-Rose Volante bill.

Part of it was a 12-fight promise but, having talked to those closest to him, Ward insisted it be only the nine fights and Hearn tore up the cheque.

Sources say he avoided a hype and a spotlight that wouldn't have suited his personality.

They add that his current deal, while worth less, will take him further as it involves the steady hands of Lou Di Bella, hall of famer Buddy McGirt, coach Jimmy Payne, and lead-singer of Dropkick Murphys Ken Casey. It'll also see Ward based in New York.

Joe Ward, in the company of promoter Lou DiBella, signs his professional contract during a Times Square Boxing Co. press conference at The Westbury Hotel in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
"People need to understand for me," Ward stresses.

"It was never about money, it was about getting the right team, having a great career and enjoying every moment of it. They might wonder too why I left a year out from an Olympics but I spent eight years as an amateur at the top, one of the most successful ever to lace up gloves.

"This was the time. It was a gut feeling and it felt like everything fell into place. At this point I'm genuinely excited and it makes me wonder if I keep doing what I've always done and keep my head down, what sort of legacy I can leave."

To think ahead and not reflect takes a special mind given all else he's done.

At 23 he became the first Irish male boxer to win three European gold medals. In world championships, as a nation, we've won 13 medals since the competition started in 1974 and three are his.

Yet one more stat jumps out as he's only ever been nominated for the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year once.

It's not everything, but it's an insight into our lack of appreciation.

"You probably don’t get the recognition if you're not loud and mad into your social media," he replies.

"They want you in controversial situations and without that you are below the radar.

"But I chose that lifestyle, I didn’t want the limelight. I was grateful for my success and the rest was out of my control. If people don’t recognise it, that’s their choice. I know what I can do and know what I have to do."

Maybe this is the person and there is no veil over the rest. 

Or maybe he's a reminder and a lesson in enjoying the fighter and not needing to know the person in an era of warts-and-all. 

Either way, to think there were once doubts about the boy. Now as he goes pro, it's hard not to be confident about the man he's become.

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