By Rudy Mondragón
No better way to spend Halloween than visiting the training grounds of boxing trainer Virgil Hunter and Andre Ward in Hayward, California. It was Ward’s official media work out in anticipation of his November 19th match against pound for pound great, Sergey Kovalev, which will take place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
I left my friends home in Richmond mid morning to make it on time to Ward’s 12pm scheduled workout. It was a beautiful morning in The Bay. The sun was out and the air was fresher than the stuff we breath in Los Angeles. I hit I-880 going south and exited Industrial Blvd. As I made my way around the neighborhood, I could feel its working class vibrations. It was a Monday morning and the workers were out getting their hustle on, including Andre Ward and his team.
I reached the parking lot of the gym, but the buildings all looked the same. I saw two gentleman talking in the parking lot and thought to ask them for directions. One was dressed in construction attire and the other in a Halloween costume of sorts atop a fork lift. I asked them if they knew where the gym was. With ease they responded, “straight ahead boss.”
Assuming I would hit traffic on the road, I arrived to the gym ahead of schedule. This gave me some extra time to explore the gym, take pictures (see below), talk with media, and engage in conversation with a bright young amateur boxer named Joey Spencer (Click here for his Instagram). Spencer is a 15/16 year old from Linden, Michigan (25 minutes south of Flint). He recently moved to The Bay to train inside Virgil Hunters Boxing Gym where Andre Ward training sessions become a classroom for the young pugilist.
At his young age, Spencer discussed how he intentionally uses his amateur fights to raise funds for good causes. It was refreshing, but not surprising to hear that boxers like Spencer use their platforms to give back to their community. He was also well aware of the Flint water crisis and the relief efforts put forth by the Dirrell brothers (boxers from Flint) and Claressa Shields. It is worth mentioning that Claressa Shields, two time Olympic gold medalist for the US, will make her professional boxing debut on the undercard of #WardKovalev. History will be made on the night of the 19th on multiple levels.
I also had a humbling experience talking with Virgil Hunter. I confused a Nazim Richardson quote (swim without getting wet) for one I thought Virgil had said. Rightfully so, Hunter corrected me, but we continued to talk. We spoke about his intimate relationship with his fighters. He sees them more than bodies, they are like his grown up children. Beyond the bright lights, media events, ShowTime All Access, and overall commodification that takes place in the boxing industry, there are many stories of vulnerability, intimacy, family, love, struggle, and humanity. Hunter’s relationship with his fighters is evident of this on many levels. These are the stories that need more in-depth exposure and sharing. Boxers are trained and disciplined to fight, but they are also sons and daughters, siblings, parents, hustlers, and human in their imperfections.
My interactions with Ward were limited. I did get to ask him which song he wanted to enter the ring to for his fight against Kovalev. I also asked him who made that decision. He said he would be picking the song, but wasn’t sure at the moment. He mentioned the possibility of using a song by Hip Hop artist, Bizzle. The reason for this is because Ward believes the song gets him pumped up and contains a positive message. Him picking his own song due to its content showed me the level of intentionality and agency Ward has.
What touched my heart the most was the fact that Ward spent an extra hour talking with youth from a nearby juvenile institution. Ward talked about his story, family upbringing, struggles, and how his faith helped him stay on track and focused. At one point, Ward used hip hop music to educate the youth. He played “Just Sayin” by Bizzle. The boxing gym turned into a classroom and the lesson was about the downfalls of capitalism and consumerism, nurturing one’s consciousness with knowledge of self, and embracing change.
Ward acted in the spirit of Bizzle’s words: “I don’t care if you signed up to be a role model or not, Kids gon’ follow you regardless, It come wit the fame”
Inside the gym, Ward demonstrated his ability to use his lived experience to become relatable to the youth and share wisdom with them. Granted, the power structures that maintain the juvenile system, school to prison pipeline, and hyper-criminalization of black and brown youths no doubt needs to be changed. What is important is that Ward used his sphere of influence to do something. He started a dialogue and created a space where the youth spoke about their passions, their dreams, and their struggles. It was truly an intimate and vulnerable space where boys and men were speaking freely. Some would even say thats the way to start a process of liberation.
Best of luck to Andre Ward and his team come the night of November 19th.