The rags-to-riches story of a champion boxer is pretty well-worn territory. Think: Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, Sonny Liston, or just about anyone who has earned a paycheck in the ring.
Promoters actually encourage boxers to open up about their often-troubled upbringings as a way to humanize themselves with fans. Tyson, for instance, discovered boxing after beating up the bully that killed his pet pigeon in Brownsville, Brooklyn, while Muhammad Ali took up the sport after his bicycle was stolen in Louisville.
Olympic gold medalist and retired, undefeated former champion Andre Ward has such a story. He just kept it to himself.
‘That’s probably one of the knocks on me: ”He doesn’t humanize himself,”’ Ward told DailyMail.com.
Now, with the June 2 premiere of his Showtime documentary, ‘S.O.G.: The Book of Ward,’ the Hall of Famer is finally ready to address his life, his parents, and the addiction problems they battled for much of his rough upbringing in Oakland.
Ward won Olympic gold in 2004 (left) and then went undefeated in his professional career
It was Ward’s father Frank (left), a former amateur heavyweight, who introduced him to boxing
To be clear, Ward is not shaming his beloved parents, which is something he feared would happen if he discussed his childhood with reporters. To the 39-year-old retiree, his mother Madeline Arvie Taylor and his late father Frank Ward are two people who overcame addiction – not simply cautionary tales about drug use.
‘I believe they both did the best they could with what they had,’ Ward said. ‘Lot of ignorance toward drugs and the effects of them, and what that would do to individuals and their families.
‘My parents were not deadbeats,’ he continued. ‘My parents were not drug addicts. They struggled with addiction, and they overcame it. My father didn’t die an addict. My mother’s not an addict today, and I appreciate them, both of them, for their fight to get clean and remain clean, and to always be in my life.’
While Madeline struggled with crack cocaine and Frank battled a heroine addiction, Ward was raised, in part, by his godfather, Virgil Hunter, who would go on to become his lifelong trainer.
Ward’s mother Madeline Arvie Taylor is seen with two of her son’s four children
Ward is a staunch defender of his mother Madeline Arvie Taylor (left) and late father Frank
A California kid, Ward grew up rooting for the Oakland Raiders while he learned to box
Ward married his high school sweetheart Tiffiney in 2009 and the couple has four children
Ward, himself, was briefly caught up in the street life as a child, but found faith as an adult and began attending sermons given by church pastor and former Oakland Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman. (Ward’s nickname, S.O.G, stands for ‘Son of God’)
Meanwhile, Ward was establishing himself as one of the sport’s greatest talents, going 115-5 as an amateur while winning light heavyweight gold at the 2004 Athens Games.
Unfortunately for Ward, his father wasn’t there to see it, having died of a heart attack two years earlier after successfully beating his heroin addiction.
The experience of losing a parent was devastating to Ward, although fans would have no idea.
While other boxers enjoyed describing their introductions to the sport, Ward couldn’t explain that it was Frank, a former amateur heavyweight, who first introduced him to the sport. Ward didn’t want to talk about that, because he didn’t want to address Frank’s noticeable absence, or the time he found one of his father’s needles when he was 12.
‘I’m not trying to be superman, but it comes off that way, and I think the humanization of myself with this doc is really what I want one of the big takeaways to be,’ Ward said. ‘I think what makes my story unique is that I didn’t tell the story. I didn’t lead with this.’
Ward knows his reluctance to open up cost him fans and, likely, millions of dollars.
‘I believe so,’ he said when asked about the consequences of his standoffishness with reporters. ‘But again, I was never driven by that.
‘I never wanted fame.’
There was another issue too: Ward didn’t feel justified in sharing their story.
‘I didn’t feel like I had to the right to,’ he said. ‘My mother’s story is a triumphant one, but a very, very, very heavy one, and very, very difficult one, and I knew she wasn’t ready early on.
‘And my dad, I had to think long and hard about that.’
Ward quickly rose from a top amateur to one of the best super middleweights in boxing
Andre Ward sits with Jay-Z during an event at Madison Square Garden in 2015
Ward, wife Tiffiney and three of their four children are seen in this photo from 2018
Ward eventually came to change his mind about discussing his father (‘I felt like he would be happy with me telling the story’).
As for his mother, Ward ultimately decided to address Madeline’s story in this documentary, but only after showing her a sneak peak and getting her approval.
‘It’s like I want to tell the truth, I have to, I have an obligation to, but I want to tell it the right way, because I love my mom, and I know that she didn’t intentionally get on drugs,’ Ward said. ‘It’s life, it happens, but to see her smile, and for her to give me the nod of approval and say, ”I liked it.”…’
Ward didn’t finish the thought but went on to explain his goals for the documentary, which was produced in conjunction with LeBron James’ company, SpringHill, and includes commentary from none other than Michael Jordan. (Ward is one of the few boxers signed to Jordan’s personal Nike brand)
‘I just hope that there’s something that people can take from it,’ Ward said, adding: ‘It’s not a sports doc, it’s not a boxing doc, this is a doc for everyone. And if we do it right, anyone can watch this and pull something from it.’
Nowadays Ward is commentator for ESPN, but also serves as a mentor to a younger generation of fighters, including promising lightweight prospect Shakur Stevenson, whom he considers one of the top talents in the sport.
As for stepping back in the ring, Ward shut down the idea, while admitting that he still thinks about it from time to time.
‘I believe I’m definitely, definitely, definitely retired,’ Ward said, ‘but I can’t say I don’t think about it often.’
Ward on Family Feud with boxers Claressa Shields (left), Amir Khan and James Toney (right)
Ward is pictured after winning a junior amateur title in Mexico City as a 15-year-old
The idea for the Ward doc was born about a decade ago, but the project never really came to fruition until SpringHill and Showtime got on board.
But it was when Jordan lent his voice to the documentary that Ward was confident that the film would reach a wide audience.
‘Having his voice and having him weigh in was everything,’ Ward said. ‘And then, of course… nobody can believe we got Mike to do the doc. Mike doesn’t do stuff like that.’
‘S.O.G.: The Book of Ward’ premieres Friday night on Showtime at 8pm EST.