ATHENS, Aug. 29 -- He blew kisses to the crowd, and one toward heaven. He patted little children on the head. He said he saw the face of his late father in the crowd and felt his spirit in the ring.
There were no anti-American boos for Andre Ward on Sunday afternoon. This time in the Olympic Boxing Hall in the tough Athens suburb of Peristeri it was: "An-DRE! An-DRE! An-DRE!"
Andre Ward, right, outpoints Magomed Aripgadjiev to win lone boxing gold for U.S. Said Ward of his late father: "I just know he's looking down on me and I felt his spirit all through this tournament."
(Rick Bowmer -- AP)
Ward, 20, the boyish-looking, sad-eyed boxer from Oakland, Calif., believed he would win the light heavyweight gold medal for the United States. He just didn't know how.
Sunday he did it, against a strapping gentleman from Belarus named Magomed Aripgadjiev, 27, whose idol is Muhammad Ali, and who said after the fight that Ward was too quick, too agile and too accurate for him.
But in the waning hours of the Athens Games, with the Closing Ceremonies just hours away, Ward seemed to do more than just win America's only gold in boxing, snag one of the last U.S. medals of this Olympiad, and restore luster to U.S. Olympic boxing.
Off in the crowded, working-class, sports-crazy neighborhood of Peristeri, Ward was an example of the selfless, straightforward Olympic athlete. Before irritable crowds, he was humble, focused, methodical and bent on his goal through a series of varied and powerful opponents with an array of body types and boxing styles.
"I'm chopping down trees," Ward said of his rugged opponents after Sunday's four-round fight, nursing an injured right eye with an ice pack.
In the case of Aripgadjiev, who was the one who resembled the lumberjack, Ward used his jab, breathtaking footwork and lightning combinations to pull out a fight in which he had been trailing, nine points to seven, at the end of the second round.
"I wasn't having fun the first two rounds," he said. "I was kind of tight. . . . I got the country and the world on my shoulders. But I loosened up, and it was now or never, it was do or die. So I had to pick it up and that's what I did."
Ward began moving like a metronome. Each time Aripgadjiev seemed to get a bead on him, he headed in the opposite direction. Ward would then leap inside and pummel his taller and slower opponent. It was dangerous business, as Ward's battered eye showed.
He called Aripgadjiev "a great champion. . . . very sharp, and very technically sound. . . . I knew I would have to have a great bout in order to defeat this man."
He said he was cautious of his opponent's powerful jab and solid "sneaky right hand."
But in the end he outpointed Aripgadjiev, 20-13, winning the final two rounds 7-2 and 6-2.
It was the first U.S. gold medal in boxing since 1996, and the first in the weight class in 16 years. Ali won gold as a light heavyweight in 1960, as did Leon Spinks in 1976.
As he approached the medal stand after the fight, Ward blew kisses in an arena where he was booed Friday during his semifinal victory over Utkirbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan.
Up on the stand, he blew a kiss upward that he said later was for his father, Frank, who died suddenly two years ago.
"I just wish he was here with all my heart and soul," Ward said. "I could just see his face in the stands, looking at me. . . . I just know he's looking down on me and I felt his spirit all through this tournament."
He believed he got from his father spirit, determination, and "dog."
"That's what we call dog," Ward said. ""When you bite down and pull something [from] deep down. . . . That's in my blood."
This fight was an example, he said. Though it had won him gold, he said he didn't believe it was his best performance.
"I had to dog it out," he said. "I had to bite down."
Ward indicated he had dug almost to the bottom as he sat beside Aripgadjiev after the fight. He said he was emotionally numb. "I don't even know what it feels like to be a gold medalist," he said. "I probably won't feel this for a couple weeks."
And he was banged up physically. "My eye's hurting a little bit, but it's definitely worth it," he said. "That's a love tap. That's nothing to me."
He said it was almost a miracle that he had survived the brutal competition to win gold.
"I'm 172, 173 pounds," he said. "I'm fighting bigger, stronger, men, but somehow, some way I'm coming out victorious. You know, I'm chopping down trees."
As for the cheers, rather than boos, Ward said it didn't matter.
"I just knew that I had a job to do," he said. "I had to take care of business. I've been waiting my whole life for this, so regardless if they boo, if they cheer, I have to stay focused. I can't let either one change my emotion. I have to be cold and calculating."
"I'm just blessed," he said. "I'm glad to come away with the gold medal for my country, my family, and for my loved ones."