For Ward, two national amateur titles, the 2004 Light Heavyweight Olympic Gold, an unblemished 9-0 start to his professional career and his 22nd birthday have since followed. Along this impressive path, three things have remained constant: Virgil Hunter, a brutal training philosophy and unrelenting passion.
“The whole idea is to train until you’re in an uncomfortable, painful situation,” says Hunter, who is Ward’s longtime trainer. “I use these situations in Andre’s training, so he knows he’s mentally prepared to handle anything he might encounter in the heat of combat.”
Ward was nine years old when Hunter first noticed him. “One day, I was finishing a workout when I saw a little fellow over there on a heavy bag. He was hitting the bag. Of course he didn’t know what he was doing, but I could tell he had natural ability,” Hunter says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This little kid here has got some pop.’ And right when I thought that, he turned around and looked at me. I nodded my head in approval, and he went back and whacked it a few more times.”
About a week later, Ward’s dad approached Hunter about training his son. Hunter saw the potential in young Ward—not only in his punch, but also in his mentality. Any athlete who would subject himself to Hunter’s intense routines needs a strong mind and a committed attitude, and that’s what Hunter saw in Ward.
“First and foremost, people need to understand that Andre came into the sport mentally equipped to handle it. I’ll probably never see another kid at that age with such a thorough understanding of what he wants to do in life,” Hunter says. “It’s his mental approach that allows him to handle the rigors of the training.”
By capitalizing on Hunter’s teachings, Ward is fulfilling his mission in life. Quickly rising through the ranks, the middleweight has become one of the most promising and talented boxers in his division.
Falling into complacency after experiencing success early and often is a common pitfall for athletes, but Hunter’s program has kept Ward always hungry and never satisfied. In turn, Ward points to Hunter’s training as the key to his success, even using it now as a teaching message of his own: “I don’t care how good you are; look to get better. I don’t care how hard you train; look to train harder. Look to max out. Don’t compete with the person next to you; compete with yourself.”
Hunter’s hardcore mental training has consistently pitted Ward against Ward to help him keep his focus sharp and attitude right.
"You have to be a general about your training," Hunter says. "And, no general goes to war to keep things the same."
The point of this duo’s war is to always strengthen Ward’s mind. They achieve this through crazy drills-like pushing a pickup truck and running with logs.
"Our unconventional training tests his mental power," Hunter says. "A senior citizen can push a small pickup if it’s on the right surface. But it’s how you do it, how many times you do it, and what kind of mindset you’re in and what you visualize, while you’re doing it that matter. So the training technique I use for boxing is visualization accompanying the physical."
These drills work the body from top to bottom and are enough to challenge even the best of athletes, but Hunter takes things a step further. Recognizing the unpredictable nature of boxing, the brutal beatings a man can take and the need for a fighter to push through until the last bell, Hunter bases his workouts on failure, not reps.
"I don’t use reps, because I don’t want you ever to think, ‘I’m done.’ We don’t want that mentality," he says. "Quitting points give you the chance to quit right at the point that your pain threshold is about to change."
Think of it this way. A coach tells you to condition by running 10 sprints. You can pace yourself to run the sprints in a way that’s easiest for you to complete: start strong and finish easy, or vice versa. But if a coach tells you to run as many as you can, you’ll push to your limit, until there’s nothing left, and you’ve shown that you’ve given everything you can. That’s the kind of situation that really test your resilience.
"The mind has to be willing to do something first,: Hunter says. "Only then will the body follow."
Hunter tests how far Ward’s mind will push his body with supersets-in particular, Sledgehammer Chops with Log Runs and Med Ball Chest Passes with Box Jumps. He says, "The log work is definitely mental, because your arms are exhausted from the Sledgehammer Chops. The challenge is really, ‘How long can I hold this log over my head while I run?"
You won’t be able to run full speed while holding the log, but it will improve the strength and stability of your low back and core-key muscles for any athlete.
Hunter recommends performing resistance training while standing, because that’s how fighters compete. "Instead of doing the bench press to improve chest explosion," he explains, "we’ll use a 20-pound medicine ball and chest pass it against a wall while shuffling back and forth." The shuffling ensures you continually move your feet like you do in the ring.
Ward performs these only once a week; training this intensely more than that puts him at risk of overtraining. So push yourself beyond the limit, but to dial back the intensity on other days to provide yourself necessary recovery time.
Instructions: Perform 4 Supersets with 60 seconds res between
- Holding 45-pound log or plate overhead, run 50 yard
- Rest briefly
- Keep performing 50-yard sprints until you can’t hold weight overhead any longer
Medicine Ball Sledgehammer Chops
- Get in athletic stance while holding med ball with both hands
- Swing ball overhead, like you’re swinging a sledgehammer
- Forcefully throw ball down to ground
- Repeat until form begins to suffer
- Immediately move to Log Runs
Instructions: Perform 3 Supersets with 60 seconds rest between
Medicine Ball Chest Pass with Shuffle
• Get in athletic stance
• Hold med ball with both hands at chest level
• Shuffle to side; throw ball against wall; catch off bounce
• Continue shuffling and throwing ball against wall until form begins to suffer
• Immediately move to Box Jumps
• Stand next to box in athletic stance
• Jump onto box, then back to starting position
• Repeat jumping on and off box until failure