By Richard Hubbard
When he stepped into the ring for his last fight back in October, Tommy Ward had something else on his mind other than simply recording victory in a six-rounder against Norbert Kalucza in Ashington.
It wasn’t just about extending his perfect record to 19-0 and maintaining his position as mandatory challenger for the British super bantamweight title, the stakes were a little higher than usual this time around.
Word had reached Ward that his name figured on the shopping list of the recruitment drive of Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren as a result of his groundbreaking partnership deal that sees BoxNation pair up with BT Sport to broadcast some 30 domestic fight dates in 2017 and beyond.
The Hungarian Kalucza was duly dispatched by a body shot in round four and Ward subsequently got the call he had been waiting for. One he hopes will propel his promising career to new heights.
Ward was quickly announced as one of the new attractions for the new era of British boxing and he harbours ambitions of, not only picking up championship belts, but also to be the catalyst that revitalises boxing in his native North East.
“I’m not sure of the exact date, but it was a couple of weeks before it got released officially,” said the 22-year-old, taking up the story of when he first got an inkling over the prospect of getting his big break on the small screen. “Before my last fight – and I boxed on October 8 – there was word of it then, but nothing was set.
“After my fight they got in touch, I am now mandatory for the British title against Jazza Dickens and it went from there.
“It was great news, what I have always wanted since being in the boxing game, being picked up by probably one of the best promoters in the world, to be honest. You couldn’t ask for no better and I was buzzing for it, over the moon.”
Ward admits when news broke of BT jumping aboard boxing’s gravy train the question did cross his mind over whether he would be a candidate for signing on the dotted line during what became something of a mini transfer window at the back end of the year
“Yeah of course because it is a massive deal and it is great really. It works for both fighters and fans, there is a lot of exposure there now and people who don’t tend to have BoxNation will most likely have BT Sport and there will be a lot shown on there.
“With boxing being on BT Sport there will be so much exposure, so it is fantastic for the boxers too.”
Ward has had nothing handed to him on a plate since turning pro at the earliest opportunity following an amateur career that saw him win a European championship and only suffer four reverses in some 60 vested contests.
He has served his time on the off-TV circuit, forcing himself into title contention, but with always in the back of his mind the intention to catch the eye of one of the game’s kingmakers.
On two occasions he steered himself into position for a shot at a TV regular, but twice his ambitions were thwarted by the same opponent withdrawing.
“Of course, when I turned pro I was only young at 18 and you do your apprenticeship. I was doing that and everything was going well, I was progressing and improving and kept winning all my fights.
“Obviously we kept pushing for bigger and better and was hoping one day maybe to get a crack at a title and, if we win that, maybe get signed by a big promoter.
“I beat Rob Turley in a title eliminator, which was a good fight, and was supposed to fight Gamal Yafai twice for the English and then a final eliminator for the British, but he pulled out of that both times,” added the brother of more seasoned pro Martin Ward who clearly has no time for what might’ve beens.
“I was just working away doing what I love and I am just thankful this is my job. It is nice to have a job that you love doing and, now I am with Frank, I am just buzzing and can’t wait to see what this year brings.”
Being a keen surveyor of the boxing scene, Ward didn’t need to swat up or do any homework to know he wasn’t only in the right place at the right time, but also with the right man to further his career on an upward trajectory.
Warren’s mission statement has always been about nurturing young fighters and plotting a route towards title contention and Ward hopes his name can one day be added to his promoter’s roll of honour.
“Of course, I am a big fan of boxing and watch it all the time and I think Frank is the best in the world for that. He progresses the men he has got, gets them the right fights and if anyone can get someone the fight they want, it is Frank.
“He can make things happen. Look at Jazza Dickens, for instance, he got him the (Guillermo) Rigondeaux fight. He was only British champion – although he was mandatory for the European – but he got to fight one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
“That is only down to Frank Warren that. It is fantastic.”
A first title is firmly on the horizon against the aforementioned Dickens, a fight Ward suspects is next in line for him and one he is sure will present his sternest challenge to date. He hopes it will be an occasion where he will finally get to showcase his skills to a wider audience and get people speaking his name.
“I am mandatory for the British title, so there is that fight ahead and I think that will be our next one. If not, I will just leave it up to Frank because he is a great promoter who knows exactly what he is doing.
We want to fight the best people out there we can and I am sure Frank can deliver. He’ll do his job and I’ll do mine – he’ll put them in front of me and I’ll beat them.
“I think it is a good fight, he is a good fighter and a nice lad – his trainers Paul and Mick (Stevenson) are both nice people too. He’s tough, strong and obviously he can box – he is all around a good fighter really.
“I’m really looking forward to that type of fight because when you get someone like that in front of you, you turn up your game yourself.
“This is the type of fight I want where people will get to know us and who I am. It will be the hardest fight of my career so far and that is what I am really looking forward to.
“I really do believe though that we can go on to bigger and better things, but you’ve got to beat people like Dickens to get there.”
To get there, as he has demonstrated in 17 of his 19 fights, Ward is more than happy to do the rounds and has clocked up 104 to date.
He emphasises the fact that he considers himself a boxer – as opposed to fighter – and shootouts are not his cup of tea. If an opponent is there for the taking, then fine, otherwise he will continue his policy of boxing clever.
He concurs with sentiments once shared by Liam Walsh, who reckons going in all guns blazing is simply amounts to offering your opponent a chance of getting lucky.
“I am not one of these fighters who gets stuck in and is prepared to take one or two to land one big one. That’s not boxing, that is fighting.
“I am more about out-boxing and out-thinking people – being a smarter fighter. There is no point taking punishment if you don’t have to. You break them down and, if you feel them going, you can turn up the gas and get them out of there.
“You get some people who are real tough and not going anywhere, so you outbox them all day long, but if you try to land some heavy shots you may get caught yourself. It is something you don’t play into.
“I like to stick to my boxing and wear people down.
“If you go in there all guns blazing you’ve got more chance of getting hit because you are not thinking about what’s coming back at you.
“Anyone at any weight can be knocked out, it is a matter of being hit in the right place at the right time. You will go. You are better off being smart, being clever and thinking about what you are doing.”
Along with winning a first pro belt, uppermost in Ward’s mind at the moment is restoring the North East region as a host for big televised shows.
He reports that there is no shortage of talent, just a lack of the recognition that comes with promotions being transmitted into homes across the nation.
He also points out that he is in some pretty good company in his bid to put his home patch back on the boxing map.
“I’m hoping so, there is a lot of fantastic boxing up here in the North East, there really is some really good fighters who are all trying to come on the scene.
“They are maybe just not getting the exposure they need.
“Kalam and Josh Leather, who are also with Frank, are very good and young Joe Maphosa has just signed as well and he was a good amateur.
“So there is a few talents that are getting noticed, but there are a good few more on the North East shows and some really good fights. They are just not televised.
“With working with Frank now, hopefully I can win a couple of titles and then start putting on a couple of shows up here in the North East. Then the boys up here can really show what they can do.
“There is the public interest, a lot gets in the papers, but you could just really do with the television up here because that’s where people get to know you. Barring that, only people who are real boxing fans or like a night out at the boxing, will get to see you. You are missing out on the ones who like to sit at home and watch the boxing.
“That is what you really need.”
Despite his still relatively tender years, Ward really is an old hand at his boxing game thanks to his mother deciding the gym was the place for his older brother. The five-year-old junior sibling tagged along for the ride, but ended up becoming hooked, although hopefully not literally.
“Me mam dropped my brother Martin down to the gym when he was 11 and I would’ve been about five. I walked in and met a coach called Graeme Rutherford from Birtley ABC and I started training and just loved it.
“I always wanted to go back and when I was six or seven Graham moved me up to the bigger class and I went from there and had a really successful amateur career.
“It is the only thing I really know about, I just love the sport.”
With the vast majority of his childhood spent in and around the environs of a boxing gym, Ward confirms there was little chance of him ever getting up to any youthful misdemeanours and the principals drummed into young punchers did the job in keeping him out of any bother growing up.
“Definitely, boxing alone is a great sport because it teaches you discipline and respect, it teaches you a lot of things – being tough and how to be a man really. It is the proper way to go along and I think it is a fantastic sport.
“Any young people who want to get in there and do it, I think they should because it is great.
“I’ve been doing it since the age of five and I haven’t looked back really and I don’t intend to anytime soon!”