Time away from the ring has brought reflection and recovery for super middleweight champion Andre Ward. What his 14-month layoff that included January shoulder surgery hasn't done, however, is remove any of the fire in his belly, fire that has carried him to an unbeaten record and universal acclaim as the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Ward (26-0, 14 KOs) will return to defend his title against also-unbeaten Edwin Rodriguez (24-0, 16 KOs) on Saturday (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif. The 2004 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, whom we last saw in the ring in September 2012, when he bested then-light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson by 10th-round TKO, recently talked to ESPN.com about his recovery.
You've mentioned in recent weeks that your right shoulder feels stronger today, after surgery, than it has at any other point in your career. How long had it been bothering you?
People don't realize, I tore my rotator cuff when I was 12 or 13. At that time, being so young, we decided just to not have surgery. And doing all this research leading into the surgery in January, I realized finally I should have gotten surgery back then. The doc said, "It's a miracle you've dealt with this as long as you have and been able to compete with this torn." We went ahead and got it fixed, and what I mean when I say that is, I didn't have the pop, the strength, the power in the right hand that I have now. In order to feel this, consistently, is exciting.
Does that added power give you even more confidence in yourself entering Saturday's fight?
Absolutely. I think what we had to do over the years was try and get the shoulder as strong as possible, but I had to kind of let the right hand have a mind of its own. I was predominantly a left-handed fighter. If you look at the Chad Dawson fight, it's probably 70/30 with the ratio between using the left and right hand. I could use it when I needed it, but now I can use it when I want to use it because it's strong and it's powerful.
What was the hardest part about being out of the ring for the past 14 months?
Just the unexpected news. It's one thing to have a tweak -- as I originally thought it was -- in a normal sparring session. I just felt a tweak in the shoulder and stopped. I started getting some light rehab, nothing too serious. I'm thinking it's not a big deal, and to go from that to four months later sitting in a doctor's office and hearing "surgery," it's just mind-boggling. That's what you don't want to hear, especially where I was in my career coming off the Chad Dawson victory. Just having to deal with the shock of that, the concern about doing surgery.
Your time away from the ring provided more opportunities for you as a broadcaster. How has that experience and unique perspective helped you as a fighter?
Obviously, you can see how the business is run from the inside and out. That's very interesting. I had the best seat in the house, with a great broadcast team that I work with. It has made me hungrier, and it has also given me a greater appreciation to be around this sport but not able to participate. That is tough to be around the game, that close and that personal, and there's nothing I can do about it and can't come back. That's very humbling. It just makes me appreciate. I remember Instagramming a picture when I first went back to the gym saying that I missed this place. You really don't hear that when you talk about a boxing gym, but I did. I'm just happy to be back.
There has been plenty of talk that you preferred a softer touch in your first fight back but that you were forced into this matchup by HBO. How much of that was true?
I don't think at this point in my career that I or my team is going to allow me to be forced into anything. I think that we weren't looking at Rodriguez. This wasn't a guy where I was saying, "I want to fight him." We had other guys on the list, but, for one reason or another, those fights weren't made and Rodriguez's name kept coming up. I wasn't looking at it as a situation where I was being forced. I looked at it as, "OK, if this is what the network is really pushing for, let's do it." I remember as clear as day giving my whole team -- James Prince, Antonio Leonard and Dan Goossen -- the green light to say, "Make the fight. Let's do it. Let's stop the back-and-forth with the media." And then the fight started to come together slowly.
What was your reaction to how easily Rodriguez disposed of Denis Grachev during his first-round TKO in July?
I think you have to respect it, for sure. It was a tremendous offensive onslaught. But I think being a fighter and being a guy who is going up against him, you have to put it in perspective. Take nothing away from the guy who he beat. I look at the good and acknowledge it. He did his thing. It was a great victory. But then I look at the guy he fought and the type of style he had. Who did that guy beat leading up to this fight, and what type of fighter was he? Then I look that [Grachev] took 20 or 30 punches before he finally hit the ground, so I kind of look at it a little different. I acknowledge the good but look at the holes and put it all into perspective.
What do you identify as Rodriguez's greatest strengths and weaknesses?
I think it's similar to when I fought Froch. His greatest strength is eagerness and willingness to be a great fighter. He's eager in the ring and confident, but that's also going to be his downfall. He doesn't mind his defense as much as he should, and that's going to catch up with him in this fight, I believe. It's something you have to respect because it lets you know he's hungry and he's not coming here feeling like an opponent, but it also gets him in trouble because he's going to be really anxious, and the way he responds to it in the ring is fighting harder. I just think, at this level, that works to a certain level, but, at another level, you have to think and you have to be aggressive. I don't think he thinks sometimes, he just reacts. And that will be his downfall.
The name that keeps coming up when potential opponents for you are discussed is Gennady Golovkin. What's your take on his recent rise, and do you believe he's for real?
I think the kid has got a good punch, for sure. I don't think that's in question. I think he put up a great performance against [Curtis] Stevens, who is a friend of mine. I don't know. It's hard because I look at it from an objective standpoint. I'm not a media member, so I look at it where I acknowledge the good, but I personally see holes, which I'm sure they see when they see me fight. I'm not making him out to be this invincible individual because that person doesn't exist. He's a good fighter and he's got a good punch, but it takes a lot more than just that sometimes to reign for a long time. If we meet paths, or whenever we cross paths, I think it will be a great fight.
How much longer do you intend to compete at 168 pounds before making the move to light heavyweight?
I'm definitely a super middleweight right now. I don't walk around at 200 or 190 like so many guys. Me and [trainer] Virgil [Hunter] talked about this a lot two years ago. I wanted to move up just for the sake of doing it, and Virgil was like, "No, it's not time. Your time will come, and we will know together when that time is right." So, I'm just trying to follow his lead right now, but being a multidivisional champion is something I want to accomplish and have always wanted to do.
Does it excite you that business has picked up in the light heavyweight division thanks to the rise of big punchers Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev, both of whom could prove to be future opponents for you?
Absolutely. Under me at 160, in my weight class and also at light heavyweight, there's always movement, and the excitement is a good thing for everybody involved. But, at the same time, I know those guys are not who I'm fighting now. They are not my next fight. So it's a situation where I'm just kind of locked in. I'm aware of the noise and aware of the hype. I'm watching these guys, and I'm sure they are watching me. I tend to lock in on a guy when it becomes a reality, and right now those guys are not a reality, although they very well could be in the future.
You are two years removed from effectively cleaning out the super middleweight division and have fought only once in the past 23 months. How active do you want to be moving forward, and do you feel compelled to make up for any lost time?
Not really make up, but I definitely want to get busy. Virgil has always said that, when you get into a groove, that's when things are going to come and you are going to see a fight that you didn't know existed. It's just the way it is. You don't have to have these long training camps or anything like that because you're fighting often. If I could get in the ring two to three times a year, I think that's enough to get me into a nice groove, and it's going to start [Saturday] against Edwin Rodriguez.