Andre Ward knew the gravity of his task Friday night.
He was entering a hostile arena, where his arrival, as an American boxer, would prompt jeers. He faced a potent Uzbek fighter with the sinew and finesse of a rodeo bull. And he was the last American boxer with a chance for a gold medal.
The problem was: Ward felt lousy. Listless. Out of sync. Then someone reminded him how in the Old Testament King David advised his son, Solomon, that as long as he had faith, he would triumph.
Thus sustained, Ward, 20, an earnest young man from Oakland, Calif., stood amid his raucous detractors and won a close and awkward brawl with Utkirbek Haydarov, 30, in a light- heavyweight semifinal bout in the Olympic Boxing Hall in the Athens suburb of Peristeri.
He is scheduled to fight Magomed Aripgadjiev of Belarus for the gold medal Sunday afternoon, in one of the last events of the Olympics.
Friday's bout began at about 9:45 p.m. and Ward's reception was as expected.
The fans booed him when he arrived. They booed him during the bout, booed the 17-15 decision, booed him afterward, and cheered Haydarov before he left the ring.
Ward said he didn't care. In fact he said he sort of liked it.
"It doesn't bother me at all," he said. "It really motivates me, because I feel like they're not showing my country very much respect, and I take that personal. I feel like they're not showing me much respect, and I take that personal. So it just keeps me on my toes."
"In the midst of the boos I can also hear my family and friends cheering 'USA,' so that's a good thing, too," he said.
The four-round fight was rugged and unglamorous from the start, with Haydarov plunging at the American like a wrestler. But Ward would dance away and counterattack suddenly as Haydarov stalked him. He jolted Haydarov with a left halfway through the first round. But Haydarov continued to bore in and won the middle two rounds by one point. Ward, though, had scored well in the first round, and assailed Haydarov with more effect later, winning the last round.
"It's exactly what I thought it would be," Ward said of the contest. "He's a southpaw. He's awkward. I'm coming in. He's coming in. We just tangled up. Couple times he threw me down. Couple times he hit me and cuffed me behind the head."
Ward said he had watched a lot of film on Haydarov, but still didn't feel quite right in the hours before the fight. "I wasn't really feeling upbeat," he said. "I didn't really feel like I had that great feeling. I didn't really feel perfect. A lot of times I look for a perfect situation."
But life, and sport, are seldom so, he said. He said he prayed for a way to win. "The day that you don't feel good . . . those should be your best days," he said. "That's when you should call it up mentally and really give it your all."
Things got even tougher when skilled teammate Andre Dirrell lost to Gennady Golovkin of Kazakhstan in an afternoon middleweight bout, leaving Ward the last U.S. gold medal contender in boxing. "I knew I was the last person left," Ward said. "It did hit me. I definitely felt the load."
U.S. Coach Basheer Abdullah said there was confusion about the score late in bout. He said he thought Ward had a comfortable lead entering the last round, and had instructed Ward to protect it. The coach said he learned later that it was a tie at that point.
Ward said winning the gold medal "would mean everything to me."
"That's what I've been training for my whole life," he said after the fight, as he sat with a white towel over his red and blue warmup suit. "I believe I will get that. I don't know how it's going to look. I don't know how the bout's going to go but I really believe deep down inside that I'm going to get this gold medal. And that's not being boastful."
"I'm just trying to win bout after bout," he said. "Now I have one more left."
It's amazing, he said, that "little old me" could win a gold medal. But he had faith it would happen.