Army vet celebrates 75th birthday with trip to Boxing Hall of Fame, meets 2021 inductee Andre Ward

Canastota, NY – Andre Ward, one of boxing’s most decorated champions, finished his fist mold and walked over to a table full of fans who were frantically waiting to have their gloves, posters and notepads signed.

The undefeated five-time world champion signed autographs – smiling and interacting with as many people as possible – for around 15 minutes until he was taken away by security guards and escorted to a large white tent for a brief interview televised. A group of about 20 fans surrounded Ward, telling personal boxing stories, asking for photos and following him on the short walk to the tent.

“There’s only one boxer in the history of the sport that I’ve seen people come together and follow like he was Jesus,” said former boxing trainer Alfonso Smith, who watched the scene from afar.

“It was Muhammad Ali.”

Like Ali, a member of the first class of induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1999, Ward is on deck to be enshrined in the Canastota Historical Museum this weekend.

Ward won world titles in two weight classes (super middleweight and light heavyweight) and had a perfect record of 32-0, with 16 knockouts, before his shock retirement at age 33 in 2017.

The induction will be the first in three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so a megagroup of 36 inductees will be added to the Turning Stone Resort Casino on Sunday, including Floyd Mayweather (2021), Laila Ali (2021), Roy Jones Jr (2022), “Sugar” Shane Mosley (2020), Bernard Hopkins (2020), Christy Martin (2020) and Wladimir Klitschko (2021).

“It’s a lot of emotion coming back here in the Hall of Fame,” Ward told on Friday. “I don’t know if I’m more excited to be inducted or to be alongside the champions I’m inducted with. For example, it doesn’t make sense for me to be inducted with my big three – Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather.

Smith, wearing some of those same fighters on a t-shirt, complete with a black “Vietnam Veteran” hat and a gold chain of two boxing gloves, celebrated his 75th birthday on the grounds of the museum.

His son, Alfonso Jr., bought him a flight from Fayetteville, North Carolina and encouraged him to visit the Boxing Hall of Fame since he had never been there before.

Smith, an avid former boxer and trainer who coached Ali, Jones Jr., Evander Holyfield, Ray Mercer and several other world-class contenders, joined the sport during his 24-year stint in the military from 1965 to 1989 .

Smith shared that Ward, who is also an expert boxing analyst for ESPN, was in one of his fighter’s matches a few years ago, but he was never able to talk to him or thank him.

After waiting for Ward to finish the interview, Smith approached Ward and asked for a photo for his birthday. The Olympic gold medalist recognized Smith and agreed to his request, even after a security guard tried to escort Ward.

2021 Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Andre Ward (right) poses for a photo with Army veteran and former trainer Alfonso Smith, who celebrated his 75th birthday at the Boxing Hall of Fame museum boxing on Friday June 10, 2021.Mike Curtis | [email protected]

“I have so much respect for Ward,” Smith said. “All that I know of André since he started boxing is only positive. You never heard of him (domestic violence issues), or if he was drunk. It’s only positive. You saw the crowd. They were so excited to see him. This family of boxers – it’s beautiful, man.

Shortly after the interaction with Smith, Ward hopped in the driver’s seat of a golf cart for a brief interview with to discuss his thoughts on his induction, early retirement and boxing progress. with inclusivity and diversity with female fighters.

“It’s a blessing,” Ward said. “It’s also very surreal because I’m the baby here. I’m the youngest here and a lot of times we don’t see our champions going into (the Hall of Fame) young. Sometimes coming to the Hall of Fame can be bittersweet. You see the heroes you grew up watching and some of them are fine. Some of them are not. It’s like, ‘Man, what’s the cost?’ ”

Ward said he went to the Hall of Fame in 2015 as a guest and saw some things that concerned him, mainly how fights affect boxers’ long-term health. He has also heard horror stories about the lack of financial support when careers are over. Ward’s last fight was a seven-round bout against Russian boxer Sergey Kovalev in 2016. He was at the height of his career when he hung up his gloves on September 21, 2017.

“I’m trying to change that narrative and the view people have of us when we retire,” Ward said. “We don’t have to give everything we have. We give it our all in the effort, in the preparation, in the dedication, but you have to leave something for your family, man.

“So that’s what I’m trying to do. I know people, they want to see me back. They say you retired too soon. What they’re (really) saying is, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this happen before. It’s different.’ So when you do something different, it’s hard for them to accept. I have to go through this for someone coming behind me.

Sunday’s induction ceremony will mark the first time female fighters have been included. Ward’s face lit up when asked about the inclusion of women in sport over the past two classes.

“Man, I’m so happy. I love it,” Ward said. “I’m a pro-female athlete and I’m one of those people who stand on the soapbox saying, ‘Why don’t they get the recognition? Why aren’t they paid more? I don’t want to hear about grades. I understand the business side of it. I’ve been on both sides, so I understand. But we can do a better job of getting casual fans and hardcore fans, to give them a reason to watch.

“These ladies take the same amount of risk. These ladies know they have more to prove. But, I think the involvement of women in the room is long overdue. I’m super excited to be inducted with the women I’m inducted with.

Ward spoke to a group of fans for another 15 minutes, then sat in the golf cart with his family before being driven away.

Fans chased him until the golf cart reached full speed, reminding Smith of his former boxer.

“When I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s Muhammad Ali again,'” he said.

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