Sports legends are often built on a singular extraordinary act witnessed by thousands of people. Upset will always be remembered for handing Man O' War his sole defeat, Bobby Thomson for hitting a pennant-winning homer off Ralph Branca, and Buster Douglas for leaving Mike Tyson stretched out on the canvas, groping for his mouthpiece.
But there were only a few eyewitnesses in the Palmer Park gym in the winter of 1991 when a 19-year-old boxer named Michael Ward flattened former world champion Ray Leonard with a vicious right hand.
"Ray was getting ready for his title fight with Terry Norris in Madison Square Garden," recalled Ward, a one-time member of a team of promising young boxers Leonard had signed to promote in the '90s. "He couldn't believe it when he found himself on the floor."
Now Ward, 27, is trying to resurrect his own professional ring career. After losing a decision to Verno Phillips in December 1992, he did not fight for five years while getting in trouble with the law and trying to sort out his managerial problems.
Tomorrow at the Pikesville Armory, the Fort Washington middleweight battles Maryland rival Andrew Council on an ESPN2 cable show. It will go a long way to showing whether Ward still possesses the raw talent that made him so appealing as an amateur when he won 189 of 202 bouts and looked like a sure-fire Olympian.
"He was the closest thing I've seen to another Sugar Ray Leonard," said Ollie Dunlap, a longtime Leonard associate who also managed Ward for several years.
"Knocking down Ray was no fluke. I was there. Later, Ward did the same thing to Meldrick Taylor in Phoenix. He knocked him out with 16-ounce gloves and Taylor was wearing headgear."
Later, with Leonard providing a weekly allowance and a free apartment in a Silver Spring complex he owned, Ward simply had to fight. Dunlap and partner J. D. Brown tried keeping Ward as busy as possible, booking him in bouts every three weeks. He compiled a 17-2 record, losing a pair of split decisions to more-seasoned Ron Morgan and Floyd Weaver when a lack of serious training took its toll in the closing rounds.
"We argued all the time," said Brown. "We wanted Michael to act like a man and he wanted to act like a kid. We tended to forget he was a 19-year-old high school dropout. He needed time to grow up and mature."
Ward split with Dunlap and Brown and soon found himself in frequent trouble outside the ring.
After his long absence from the ring, he feels fighting is still what he knows best and also his best chance to make substantial money.
"I felt out of sorts without boxing," he said. "I should have been a contender when I was 21. But those are the breaks I made with my life, and I'm lucky to be getting a second chance."
Now being managed by his cousin, Mike Baylor, a Washington policeman, and Chris Middendorf, an area businessman with a stable of fighters, Ward claims he also has found peace of mind.
"No more manager problems," said Ward (24-3), presently ranked No. 9 by the World Boxing Association. "I'm back on track with boxing 100 percent. All I have to do now is go in the ring and perform."
Pub Date: 2/04/99