sports

After travails of boxing’s humble life, Andre Ward absorbs sports’ hottest lights

A vision that flickered dimly eight years ago when the sheen of Andre Ward’s Olympic boxing gold medal failed to draw more interest than a Central California casino audience is now hailed on the biggest stages.

When the Golden State Warriors walked out for Game 2 of the NBA Finals to continue their quest for a perfect postseason run that improved to 15-0 Wednesday night, it was boxing’s unbeaten pound-for-pound king Ward who led them on with an inspirational talk aired on the Oracle Arena big screens.

“They say the test of a true warrior is not defined by the outcome of our battles, but by the unshakable fight in each and every one of our hearts,” Ward said in his speech. “… We ain’t going anywhere.”

Roars, and victory, followed. While his team seeks to close a historic unbeaten run this week, Oakland’s Ward on June 17 will try to finish off his bitter rival Sergey Kovalev of Russia when the pair meet on HBO pay-per-view for Ward’s three light-heavyweight belts at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Ward (31-0, 15 knockouts) knows undefeated. A former super-middleweight world champion before he took Kovalev’s three belts by rallying from an early knockdown to close impressively and win 114-113 on the three scorecards, Ward aims to avoid Kovalev’s heavier punches and win more convincingly this time.

On Wednesday, when he briefly interrupted training camp to speak to reporters, he also paused to reflect on a rise that required thick skin, persistence and determination.

“I’m definitely aware. I’m thankful and appreciative to be around as long as I have,” said Ward, 33. “I’ve seen fighters come and go. Some have long, illustrious careers. Many others don’t. Sometimes guys are hot for a couple years, take a bad loss, then you don’t hear from them.”

Ward didn’t lose, except in court, as he fought just twice between December 2011 and June 2015 while attempting to separate from his late, Sherman Oaks-based promoter, Dan Goossen.

The expiration of that valuable time looked even more consequential in November, after Kovalev dropped Ward in the second round and later bloodied his nose.

It was then that Ward said his longtime trainer, Virgil Hunter, told him: “This is your moment,” and Ward continued to pile up valuable rounds in the second half of the bout to pull off the victory.

“Being able to compete through the ups and downs of the sport for as long as I’ve been in it, is a blessing,” Ward said. “The things like the Warriors, those accolades, I’m just thankful.

“I knew the reaction [inside the arena]. It’s a blessing. It’s what the Bay Area fans have always done for their athletes. They appreciate the athletes that go out there and represent them well.”

Ward said the tests of “lows where you stop and assess where you are” helped him “buckle down, tap into that and understand these things happen in life. … It’s not anything abnormal. It’s how you get through it.

“On the other side of it, I’m happy I went through it because it’s made me a stronger person, a better businessman, and now I’ve got something to say to the younger generation beyond what’s going on inside the ring.”

Ward now co-manages 2016 Olympic silver medalist Shakur Stevenson and has advised two-time Olympic champion Claressa Shields.

In his pre-game talk to the Warriors and their fans, Ward said: “Those big dreams — these dreams — they’re very much alive. … Right now, it’s going down.”

As his team appears bound to conquer LeBron James and the Cavaliers, Ward takes on the ornery Kovalev, hell-bent on revenge.

“This is when we stand tall, bite down on our mouthpiece and go toe-to-toe with the greatest competition on earth,” Ward continued. “We are ready. … It’s time to fight.”

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire

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