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It's just a matter of hours until Steven 'The Quiet Man' Ward steps into the ring with one of the world's strongest men; a 6ft-9inch, 344-pound powerhouse responsible for feats such as shattering a 1,000-year-old strength record by carrying a 32-foot, 1,433lb log for five steps, deadlifting 501kg at his gym in Iceland and hurling a 56-pound kettlebell 19 feet.
The task is a daunting one. There will be a 127lb weight difference when Ward comes face-to-face with his next opponent, as well as a significant gulf in height but when I ask him to make a prediction for the fight, the relaxed cruiserweight laughs. "Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the face," he tells SPORTbible. "What happens when I hit him in the face? He could go awol and starts wrecking the place!"
Hafthor Bjornsson, known by many as 'The Mountain' from Game of Thrones, will make his eagerly-anticipated boxing debut in Dubai on January 16 when he faces Ward in three, three-minute rounds. The Icelandic strongman has stepped up his preparations ahead of an eagerly-anticipated bout against bitter rival Eddie Hall later this year and he's made some serious progress.
Since the fight was officially announced in May last year, Bjornsson has reportedly lost a remarkable 110lb and now, to his credit, the 32-year-old will test himself against former WBO European light-heavyweight champion Steven Ward; an experienced fighter who holds a professional record of 13-1-0, with notable victories against Liam Conroy, Josip Perkovic and Steve Collins Jr on his record.
Ward, who put on a dominant display in his last fight - a highly-anticipated cruiserweight debut against Jone Volau in September - was first introduced to Bjornsson in Belfast when he was doing some filming and ever since, the pair have kept in touch; although he didn't actually know who he was at first.
"When they first told me about meeting him [Bjornsson] in Belfast, when this all began, they said that I'll go down and meet 'The Mountain'. My reply was 'who the hell is The Mountain?' They said 'Thor' and I just laughed to be honest. I'd never heard of him. I don't watch Game of Thrones but he was there and that's where it all started."
The 30-year-old, who trains out of Belfast and Manchester at VIP Gym, was involved in Freddie Flintoff's journey in professional boxing a few years back and sparred the former England cricketer in the build-up to his debut fight against Richard Dawson at the Manchester Arena.
He admits he thought it was going to be a similar situation with Bjornsson but things have "escalated" since.
"I just thought I was going to be going over to do some sparring potentially, help him learn the ropes and give him some experience - trying to help him where I could. But things have just escalated from there." Wards tells us.
"The big man seems to be taking it very serious and he wanted an opportunity to see what it's like on the night - to have those butterflies in the stomach while having that feeling of going to the ring.
"You see all these Youtuber's and stuff doing all these fights but I find this different. He is an elite athlete - he's the bloody World's Strongest Man. He's massive. It's not like a YouTuber. He's a professional athlete in his own right and his sport.
"So I thought why not. It's an opportunity for me to go up against one of the world's strongest men and it's nice for me to help him out. I was happy enough with the offer. Actually, I'm thinking twice about it now...only joking!"
Ward is certainly aware of his opponent's ability, despite being sceptical at first. He has seen some real promise from Bjornsson in a number of training sessions and expects a difficult challenge when they go toe-to-toe on Friday night.
In fact, the cruiserweight fighter has given some fascinating insight into Hafthor's preparations in recent months.
"Initially I thought he'd be dead slow; you see these World's Strongest Men and stuff; they're just that big that they aren't really built for the boxing game so I expected him to be a plodder around the ring," says Ward. "But then I seen him doing some shadow boxing and pads and he actually moves well for the size of him. I messaged him saying "you move well for a big man."
"I thought his feet was going to be like led...stuck to the ground. But no.
"He's taking it serious y'know. He was telling me about fighters who he's watched and their different styles - and how a bigger fighter beats a smaller one. He's messaged me before wondering if I could recommend a good venue for a big audience to help him develop. The big man is keen to learn so fair play to him.
"And apparently he used to play professional basketball as well. So yeah, he moves well for a big lad!"
'The Mountain' weighed in at 454 lbs during his world record deadlift last year but the 32-year-old has lost over 100lb since - which is still far heavier than Ward, who weighed 198lbs in his most recent cruiserweight fight against Jone Volau in September.
The Belfast-born fighter, however, insists he is not worried about the weight difference.
"I'm not worried about it, but it's obviously a contributing factor - the man is massive." Ward tells SPORTbible.
"He's a big lad...so you'll bloody know about it (when he punches you). Even if I put my hands up and he hits me, he's that strong you'd think he'll do some damage. But there is a big difference between the technique of boxing and throwing a punch - just because your arms are massive doesn't necessarily mean you have a hard punch. You see these fighters that are really wirey and knock everyone out. It's all about the weight transference.
"One thing I do wonder is how big the ring will be. Obviously there's different size rings and the thing with him is he's a big lad; so will they get a smaller ring? That would limit me being able to move potentially. It should be interesting!"
Ward says he has approached the fight "like any other", following a strict regime in the build-up to the Dubai-based event. He has trained twice a day; five days a week and goes for a "big run" once a week.
That being said, he says it'll be "good craic" anyway and even fantasised about a potential Rocky-style moment.
"I'm trying to not think about it too much. I'm just excited to get in there. It'll be a bit of a laugh anyway won't it. It'll be good craic." says Ward.
"He'll be in there trying to punch my head off and I wonder what it'll be like... whether it will be like an old story; like a sleeping giant. It could all be going okay until I hit him with a clean shot and I then wake that sleeping giant. And then he goes mad, picking me up like when Hulk Hogan picked up Rocky in the film.
"Who knows...it might turn into one of those comedy shows!"
Featured Image Credit: Instagram: Steven_Ward & thorbjornsson
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