Unanimous decision that talented boxer (who doesn't pull his punches) can go the distance
BOXING: JOE WARD: JOHNNY WATTERSONtalks to the impressive young European champion from Moate who, far from resting on his laurels, is now targeting more glory at this year's World Championships and next year's Olympic Games
On the far side of the street is the youngster who has amateur boxing palpitating. Joe Ward ambles across, furtive, unsure and imposing. Ward is 17-years-old. His jeans hanging low, his sloppy walk, his body language is deliberate, wary and cautious.
He is the teenage amateur senior champion of Europe in the light heavyweight division, the kid who has already taken the adult crown. He is the fighter who beat the Olympic silver medallist Ken Egan in the second senior fight of his life. He the boxer who won the European Championship in the tenth senior fight of is life, becoming one of the youngest to ever do so. There are no benchmarks in this country against which Ward can be measured.
“I grew up on boxing. Since seven years old I’ve been boxing. I like training, looking forward to being at the top. But mostly I like fighting,” he says. “The bigger the fight the better I get. The Seniors. Big tournaments like that. I like being up against it.”
Ward is V-shaped, has the waist of a Speedo model. His physique is that of a man, more mature than 17, a tattoo peeking out from one bicep. He doesn’t talk up his training or his nutrition. What animates him is fighting, getting in the ring, thinking about how he can beat people.
Ward is a champion adolescent, possibly Ireland’s pre-eminent athlete. His potential now hangs there, teetering on the fabulous, like a Picasso in a Sotheby’s auction house, certain to burst the house record. He is also one of the least-known athletes in the country, or, the most overlooked.
The world, though, loves Ward. He is better known in Baku than Dublin. They know him in Azerbaijan and Armenia. At a recent symposium on the Olympic Games, Michael Carruth said that four professional promoters had been in touch with him trying to find out about the traveller kid from Moate, who can box. They are on to him quicker than the public.
Certainty characterises Ward. The easy acceptance of his ability and knowing where it is going to take him in a world bigger than him is refreshingly callow. Ward is a 17-year-old without a boxing doubt. His self-belief is both daunting and intoxicating, maybe misplaced. He is a natural force and a secret of sorts in a country mindful of heroes.
“Up that way”, he says with a flick of his hand behind his head. His house is up that way. Ward’s still a stripling. It is easy to forget.
“I was 10-years-old. My coach Séamus Doherty used train me the whole time. He used to tell me I was really, really good and he used to tell the people around Moate,” he says. “My first fight was at 11-years-old. I think I’d 10 fights in the one year, seven of them were stopped, two or three went the distance.
“I won my first Irish title when I was 11 years old. From there on . . . you knew by other people. They’d say ‘there’s Joe Ward’. They wanted to watch me.
“I would never doubt myself in any fight. If you doubt yourself you are going to lose. The thing is character. It’s winning mostly. If you keep winning you can realise yourself, what you are, what you can achieve. I just think I’m good. I like proving it rather than talking about it.”
He looks at you squinty-eyed and wary as if to say ‘don’t you know my life. You don’t know where I come from, what I face. You don’t know that I may always be Joe Ward the traveller.’ Sometimes he just looks at you as if to ask why you are asking because you know the answers. What he is not is a teenager looking for sympathy.
“For me it goes back to the history. I just feel that I represent my family and I represent myself. I don’t believe in people saying you’ve got to go and represent your traveller culture. I just prefer boxing my own way. I like doing my own thing. I think we are all the same.
“Maybe little things are different . . . you might not get the same reception that a settled person would get. Little small things . . . when I came back from winning the Europeans my mother was there (Theresa) and my girlfriend was there (Julianne), you know . . . ” he says leaving it hanging.
It was no cheering hero’s welcome.
“As a traveller you have to go the extra mile to get what people take for granted. If you’re a settled person and you win something like that . . . for me it’s like every day you have to keep proving it. If I were somewhere like London it would be a different story.
“You can’t think like that all the time because it will eat you. But people should respect the hard work that you put in to win something like that (European Championships). It’s a shame but I take it on the shoulder. I’m well used to it. Being a traveller I think we should be all treated the right way. But we have to accept it.”
His father left when he was two years old, went to England. His mother raised him. Just him and her.
“We don’t have contact,” he explains about his father. That’s the story. You respect it. Theresa brought him around the country boxing and he leapt the hurdles two at a time.
In 2009 he won the AIBA light middleweight World Junior Championship and a year later the middleweight AIBA World Youth Championships. In February he beat David Joe Joyce 8-2 in the Irish Senior Championships. Next came Ken Egan, 11-6 in the final.
In April he beat Turkey’s Caner Soyak to win a multi-Nations event in Warsaw then, in June, Russia’s Nikita Ivanov fell 20-12 in the European light heavyweight final. The boy hasn’t yet lost a fight at senior level.
At the European Championships in Turkey, Ward was standing in line for the final weigh-in when a local official came up to him and shook his hand. He took him from the line to the front of the queue. It was an initiation of sorts, the first inkling of how success changes perceptions. He liked it.
“Then I kind of realised everyone was watching me,” he says. “I had to keep performing, performing. Very, very few get the chance at 17 to be in a senior team. When I got my chance, I took it. It hasn’t hit me yet, how good I am, what I’ve achieved. . . it’s pretty good. I really enjoy myself. I really want to show people in the world who I am. I’d like to show Irish people who I am.
“I like publicity. It drives me on,” he adds. “You go into a shop in Athlone and people won’t know who you are. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s not good. When I won the Europeans nobody, well, not many people recognised me. I’d like people to get behind me.”
After the Egan win there was talk that to push Ward into Europe would be irresponsible, that at light heavyweight he was too young and needed another year. He went, he won. But the defeat of Egan, Irish champion for 10 straight years, was the genesis of his European gold.
“The really, really big one was when I beat Ken Egan. It put me on the map,” says Ward. “That was my biggest fight. A 17-year-old, to go up and beat such a top-class athlete . . . you think about it when you’re lying in bed, about how good it is to go up and do something like that.”
Egan thought about it in bed too and let rip at Ward. Egan believed the youngster was getting beyond himself. But that was before Europe. In time Egan, a respected athlete, may look back on it with regret.
“I don’t know if he meant it,” says Ward. “It is very frustrating to be such a good boxer and you’re sitting at home watching someone else going ahead of you. He was number one, then sitting at home second best waiting for his turn. It might never come again. It’s very frustrating.
“I wouldn’t like to be in that position being second best. He probably doesn’t like it either. If someone is better than you he’s better than you. Do you go to a different weight and try to win or sit in second place, I don’t know.”
Touche. But Egan may get his chance in August. A box-off has been scheduled over four days in the National Stadium, a World Championship place on offer. Ward has not yet been told that he need not take part.
“I think it would be a shame,” he says. “What do I have to do to show people what I’m like? I’m proving nothing. I beat him already. I won the European Championships. Why go back in and box again? I’ve all to lose, he’s nothing to lose. If I lose. Tough luck. If he loses. Again. Big story.”
Unguarded, Ward speaks as if the honesty of the ring carries through to life outside. Occasionally he may seem to lack diplomacy but his words carry no malice, nor is he reckless. He meticulously analyses opponents. He’s no brawling puncher but for his age immensely strong and instinctively clever.
“The key to my boxing is my movement, my footwork, my timing and mostly my brain,” he says. “You have to be able to think for yourself while you are in there. If you are in a fight, in the ring, and things aren’t going for you it’s nice to be able to change it for yourself instead of waiting three minutes to go back to your corner. That’s the key in boxing, your brain.”
His is a carefree faith, born out of a career entirely without blemish. With his sweeping, cocksure invulnerability and grand designs on this year’s World Championships and next year’s Olympic Games, Ward fearlessly reveals himself as an uncompromising goal-setter and no less an achiever.
“I wouldn’t be in the sport if I was second best,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be number one.”
He leaves and crosses the main street again, leans against a wall.
A local man moves closer to talk.
This time he is recognised.
Moate’s European champion.JOE WARD: The Facts
Club: Moate BC
Senior career wins: 10 wins from 10
Irish Senior Championships (Feb, 2011) Semi-final: beat David Joe Joyce (St Michael’s, Athy) 8-2. Final: beat Kenny Egan (Neilstown, Dublin) 11-6.
International (Mar, 2011):beat F Meng (China) 9-2.
Felkiks Stamm Multi Nations (Apr, 2011 in Warsaw):beat D Semiotas (Lita) 9-2; beat W Letr (Poland) 9-7; beat C Soyak (Tur) 10-3. Gold medal.
European Senior Championships (Jun, 2011 in Ankara): beat A Karlson (Est) 10-7; b Fiori Simeno (Ita) 15-13; beat I Szello (Hun) 18-8; beat N Ivanov (Rus) 20-12. Gold medal.