Sam Gordon: Faith helped ‘Son of God’ Andre Ward reach boxing’s pinnacle

Tribune Content Agency

LAS VEGAS — The chants of “S-O-G” followed Andre Ward from Oakland, Calif., to T-Mobile Arena the night of Nov. 19, 2016, rhythmically reverberating throughout the venue during the biggest fight of his life.

He long hoped to fight in Las Vegas and was welcomed warmly when he did.

Nicknamed “Son of God,” Ward would rise from the canvas that night to beat unified light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev via unanimous decision — and solidify his status as a generational great.

Victory in the rematch at Mandalay Bay was equally satisfying.

“That’s just the way my story was supposed to be written,” said Ward, now a boxing analyst for ESPN. “You’re going to finish here. You’re going to have two great fights to solidify your legacy, and you’re going to ride off into the sunset.

“That’s just the way it was written.”

Ward’s victories over Kovalev all but conclude the story he tells in “S.O.G.: The Book of Ward” which premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

Produced by Showtime Sports and LeBron James’ media company Uninterrupted, the documentary chronicles the way Ward (32-0, 16 knockouts) persevered through an arduous childhood in Oakland to become an Olympic gold medalist, an unbeaten two-weight unified world champion and a 2021 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

‘A story to tell’

“I knew I had a story to tell. It wasn’t just my story, though,” said the 39-year-old Ward, who doubled as an executive producer and drives the documentary with compelling, candid commentary about his life.

Other interviewees include Michael Jordan, Marshawn Lynch and Roy Jones Jr.

“It just got to a point where it was selfish for me not to tell it,” Ward added. “You’ve got to know when to put it out there. And it just felt right.”

First he would need the blessing of his mother, Madeline Arvie Taylor, who descended into drug abuse during his childhood like his late father, Frank.

Ward said his father would have approved of the documentary’s production.

He died of a heart attack when Ward was 18.

What endured, though, was the love of boxing he instilled in his son, who began as a 9-year-old at the U.S. School of Karate Arts and Boxing in nearby Hayward, Calif., wanting only to emulate his father, a heavyweight in high school.

“I was like, ‘You did it. I want to do it.’ I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into,” Ward said. “I fell in love. It was love at first sight.”

The love nearly left Ward when Frank passed, leaving him rudderless amid his mother’s drug use. He went to live with Virgil Hunter, his trusted trainer turned godfather turned father figure. Ward dabbled in drug dealing before refocusing on boxing, developing deeply the faith that still fuels him to this day.

Additional support from his high school sweetheart and wife, Tiffany, helped buoy Ward during his pursuit of an Olympic gold medal.

He remains the last male American boxer to capture one, winning in 2004 as a light heavyweight.

“That was my first major, major, major goal,” Ward said.

‘I didn’t give up’

But it certainly wouldn’t be the last for Ward, who debuted that December as a professional. A rugged, refined, malleable style helped him conquer the super middleweight division. He has signature victories over Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch and Chad Dawson, among others.

Promotional problems kept Ward inactive for nearly two years before his return in 2015 as a light heavyweight.

Two fights later, he’d meet Kovalev in Las Vegas. He called the fight “a full circle moment.”

Ward retired after the rematch in 2017 at the age of 33, resisting the occasional urge to return to the ring — and unknowingly ensuring “The Book of Ward” the perfect ending.

“I’m grateful that I didn’t give up, that I was able to take certain stances and do what I needed to do … because I’m benefiting from that today,” Ward said. “I just hope that everyone can pull something from this (documentary).”

There’s plenty to pull.