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Father Time remains undefeated: Reflections on Fighting too long

Image: Father Time remains undefeated: Reflections on Fighting too long

By Joseph Hirsch – There’s something painful about watching a boxer fight long past their prime, but it’s also many times inevitable. Money doesn’t grow on trees and fighters fight until they can’t anymore. Sometimes they go out on their shield figuratively, and sometimes, like Bernard Hopkins, they literally go out on their head.

Seeing a great fighter get worked over by someone he would have beat in his prime recalls Rose Louis’s comments about watching her husband Joe wrestling. “It was like seeing President Eisenhower washing dishes.”

In his memoir, The Bronze Bomber notes that he didn’t see anything wrong with wrestling, but he also added that “when you’re broke, who can see straight?”

The most painful of all these last-ditch efforts by former greats must be Muhammad Ali’s match (if it can even be called that) against Jamaica’s Trevor Berbick.

Revisiting the match recently, Ali’s ring-walk, flanked by stalwarts Drew Bundini and Angelo Dundee, had the feel more of a funeral cortege than a victory march.

“The Greatest” had already been showing signs of dementia pugilistica in his last fight, a brutal shellacking to Larry Holmes, and as he stood center-ring listening to the ref’s instructions, he had the look of a man heavily medicated with Thorazine.

Ali was 39 years-old, but age is relative and one must take ring wars into account. Ali had been in there with the heaviest of hitters, who targeted his kidneys (George Chuvalo), jaw (Kenny Norton), and even his arms when they couldn’t break his guard (“Big” George Foreman), and that’s not even mentioning Joe Frazier with his laser-guided left and Ernie Shavers, arguably the hardest puncher of all-time.

Fight broadcaster Don Dunphy called the blow-by-blow of Berbick-Ali, and while he gave some rounds to the ancient warrior, he noted that “the Greatest” was mostly a sitting duck for Berbick at close quarters, even when Berbick was only winging arm shots.

Chants of “Ali” came from the crowd, but the fans couldn’t infuse the old champ with one last shot of inspiration to carry the day. Ali had success in spurts, but he generally fought like a mummy lost in his own unwinding strips of gauze. After the battle was over, the ringside commentator said he hoped Ali never fought again. Fortunately, Ali didn’t fight again, but the damage had already been done.

Fighting a former great or even someone with just lingering “name” recognition is of course lose-lose for the up-and-comer from the fan perspective. If the younger man wins, he gets no credit because that was what he was supposed to do. If the old lion manages to spring a trap for his young, overeager prey, the fans ride the poor young man mercilessly for losing to the fistic Methuselah.

After Terry “Paddington Express” Downs beat “Sugar” Ray Robinson (in 1962 after Robinson had been in over 160 fights) the Englishman was asked how it felt to beat “Sugar.” His response? “I didn’t beat Sugar Ray Robinson. I beat Ray Robinson’s ghost.”

It isn’t always so sad watching a great fighter past their prime, though. Part of the reason fans do it is because they know that, while a fighter can’t turn back the clock, that moment sometimes comes in the middle of a fight- that magical fraction of a round where the former champ does what he used to do- just as Ali’s flicking jab and blinding footwork occasionally glimmered in his darkest hour against Berbick.

Watching Manny Pacquiao in there with Jeff Horn, “Pacman” was obviously a shade or ten past prime, but there was a moment there in the fight where he became his old self, the old buzzsaw of high volume and blistering combinations. He rearranged Horn’s face and almost forced a stoppage. And that was only thirty seconds or so of the old Pacquiao. If Jeff Horn had fought prime Pacquiao he would have been stopped by round eight, and that’s being generous. But time marches on.

And with that in mind, and this brief introduction over (and no disrespect intended) here is a short list of five fighters who I hope a) retire b) honor current promises to stay retired c) or at least don’t come to any great harm in their last grab for that brass ring should they choose to fight on:

Roy Jones Jr.

RJ is indisputably one of the greatest, most athletic fighters to ever step into the ring. He is one of those fighters who did things we’d never seen before, who elicited not just cheers from the crowd but gasps of collective awe. He campaigned successfully from middleweight to heavyweight and boxing fans will be talking about him 200 years from now. But he is forty-eight years old, has nine losses, and things have lately been devolving into the carnivalesque for the champ. He beat bare-knuckler Bobby Gunn in his last outing, proving not a whole lot, and he recently KO’d a fan who was offered a $100,000 prize if he could take out RJ in a surreal exhibition that featured troll-rapper Riff Raff spouting nonsensical rhymes, as well some wrestling on the undercard. He hasn’t entered Jake Lamotta-doing-stand-up territory, or Primo Carnera wrestling in a loincloth level of sad, but it is probably time for Jones to pack it up.

Jones has gone back and forth on retirement, saying that 2017 would probably be his last year in boxing, while also hinting that anything was possible.

If I had to pick the moment where I stopped just watching Roy Jones and started wincing with him, it would have to be the night he got into the ring against Joe “Pride of Wales” Calzaghe. Calzaghe never got the respect he deserved from American fans (even after shredding Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy in a sizeable upset) but after suffering a quick knockdown in the first (and no flash affair, like against Bernard Hopkins), Calzaghe picked Jones apart in a one-sided bloodbath. His haters malign Joe’s slaps, but those slaps sting, and managed to do something that no heavy-handed fighter had done: slice Jones open and make him bleed. The fight at least proved Roy Jones had a massive heart and no quit in him, but it was a clinical dissection and dominating performance from Calzaghe, who, according to Compubox, landed more shots on Jones than anyone RJ had ever fought before.

A few years back Jones had looked impossible to hit. Joe Calzaghe made it look like Jones was impossible to miss. Jones’ boosters point out that Roy was well-past prime (and he was), but Calzaghe is not Benjamin Button and was only three years younger than Jones and thus deserves some credit for administering what was, in my eyes, the coup de grace on a great career that should have ended there. A lot of fans would debate that, but I don’t think they would debate that Jones shouldn’t be fighting in 2017.

2. Miguel Cotto

Miguel “Angel” Cotto is 36 (soon to be thirty-seven) and will be fighting Yoshihiro Kamigai on August 26th. Watching this fight would certainly be a better use of one’s night than the Mayweather-McGregor debacle, but Cotto has been in so many crowd-pleasing wars (including one in which arguably Antonio Margarito had plaster in his wraps) that I’ll be watching more with thoughts of his safety than his victory in mind. Cotto has proven he is both a warrior and a tactician, with a granite chin and dynamite in both hands. He was never the fastest on his feet, but his ring IQ allowed him to cut off the ring and score rounds against everyone, including Floyd Mayweather. He’s lost three of his last six engagements, but the losses were all to big names and considering how rugged and durable he has proven in the past, my desire to see him sipping tropical drinks in the sun may be a little premature. Still, there is a part of me that thinks he never totally recovered from that first Margarito loss (whether Margarito achieved it with or without performance-enhancing plaster). Miguel Cotto (like Roy Jones) isn’t exactly Henry Cooper when it comes to bleeding out in a fight, and yet Margarito had him leaking like Czar Nicholas’s son by the time his corner rushed in with the towel. It was as ugly in some ways as the beating Iran Barkley took against James Toney, or the whooping Pacquiao put on Margarito.

3. Shane Mosley

“Sugar” Shane Mosley’s status is undetermined since his scheduled fight with Russian Magomed Kurbanov has waffled from the “on-again” to “off-again” column more times than you can count before finally being called off for good. Mosley suffered multiple injuries in training, and, at the age of forty-five and with ten posted losses, it doesn’t seem that there is much more that he can do in the ring besides tempt fate and risk his health.

Even if Mosley were to campaign again, he seems settled at super-welterweight, where he was never most effective. He was technically stopped by Anthony Mundine, but it’s likely that Mosley’s alibi of a nagging back injury is legit and that wear-and-tear had more to do with the loss than Anthony Mundine, who is a credible name but wouldn’t have gotten the better of a prime Sugar Shane.

Shane really started to venture into Archie Moore territory with his fight against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, since the Mexican was only one-year younger than Mosley’s son when the two men locked horns (it’s also a little eerie how similar Mosley and the “Old Mongoose” look).

Canelo has the kind of punch that stays with a man. Alvarez punches “through the target,” as Emanuel Steward noted. And while Mosley may seem lucid and sharp in interviews now, there is much that not even the best doctors in the field understand about boxing and brain injuries. The best research being done on the subject is performed on the brains of deceased boxers, and Micky Ward has graciously agreed to donate his own brain to Boston University upon death. Unless the technology gets good enough to tell us exactly how many more blows a fighter can take before he forgets his wife’s name (it happened to Igemar Johansson) though, it’s best if someone like Shane doesn’t take any more chances, no matter how slick he is or adept he is at taking some of the sting out of the biggest bombs.

4. John Molina Jr.

Molina never reached the level of fame or success of the other boxers on this list, but if I were pressed to pick the quintessential gatekeeper with a crowd-pleasing style, it would be Molina. The problem is that a boxer’s primary job is to please his cornerman before he pleases the crowd, and while Molina has heart to spare, “he wears it on his chin,” as Lou Duva once said of his charge Vinny Pazienza.

No one wants to be called a stepping stone or a trial horse, but after some great wars and some beautiful come-from-behind upsets, it’s time to recognize that not only is John probably not going to get another shot at the top dogs in his division, but he is probably also on his last legs as a stern test for up-and-comers. Despite his still relatively high ranking, it’s being generous to call him a gatekeeper.

Those come-from-behind wins are great, but as we learned with Arturo Gatti, you eventually run out of time, and it’s better if you’re not the last one to get the message. Getting beaten is bad. Getting beat up is worse. Molina takes an inordinate amount of punishment even when he’s winning. If he keeps going, he’s flirting with disaster.

The glory days should be remembered though, and Molina can look back on his prime with pride. Like Micky Ward, the fans remember and respect him more for his losses than the wins of some supposed greats. Nobody ever left their seat in a stadium and ventured to the parking lot with three rounds to go in a Molina fight because they figured he was going to cruise to a decision in a snooze-fest.

His tenth round TKO against Mickey Bey is a gladiatorial epic, and I’ll always remember that ninth round against Lucas Matthysse in which the mixture of blood, sweat, and Vaseline flying off John’s head was so thick that it spattered one of the cameras and created a solar flare effect. The man’s got nothing to be ashamed of, but with him being bookended in the rankings by two men who beat him (Adrien Broner and Terence Crawford), it seems like the only options he has left are to take another beating or take another beating. I say retire.

5. Paulie Malignaggi

Yes, I’m aware that the “Magic Man” has retired after a lifetime of using his ring smarts, speed, and razzmatazz to compensate for a lack of pop in his punches, but if you’ve been around this game for any length of time, you should know that retired fighters many times “unretire” and make ill-advised comebacks. I’m just praying Paulie doesn’t make this mistake.

Almost eight years ago Paulie was afraid of becoming an “opponent” after ending up on the short end of a decision against Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz in a fight that took place in Texas (surprise) officiated by Laurence Cole (another surprise), whose judgment as a ref has become so questionable that even he is starting to question it. If Paulie was disgusted with boxing’s politics almost a decade ago, there’s no reason to think he’ll get a fairer shake or be considered as anything but an opponent/former name for some hungry young lion’s resume, should the bright lights and the cheering crowd lure him back for one last payday, or perhaps he may feel he needs to avenge the loss of a sidepiece against another man currently being groomed as a gatekeeper (even though Broner’s probably still in denial after his shutout to anvil-fisted Mikey Garcia).

Pointblank: Paulie is too smart, too verbally fluid, and good at commentating to needlessly risk another braincell in the squared circle. He proved what needed proving a long time ago, when he was thrown into the lion’s den with a prime Miguel Cotto and gave it everything he had, or when he avenged his questionable loss to Juan Diaz. A lot of boxers make awkward/stilted commentators and fail to communicate their knowledge to the other commentators and fans. Great fighters don’t always make great color commentators. Paulie is totally against the grain in this respect, and watching him on Showtime I always admire his analysis of what either fighter is doing right and wrong. He doesn’t just have a future in commentating. Any boxer who picks him up as a cornerman is going to get a sage’s whole store of wisdom between rounds (provided they can keep up with his motormouth Brooklynese).

Honorable Mentions

Mention #1 Amir Khan:

Everyone knows the deal with Amir “King” Khan. He has nigh-on blinding hand speed, and in an amateur system when there is headgear, he could outbox nine out of ten guys in his weight-class. But in the pros, where one punch can turn the tide, too often his chin responds like a china hutch filled with porcelain in an earthquake. He has suffered three highlight-reel knockouts in four losses. He is a fighter whose popularity transcends the sport however, and with that popularity will come big money offers and big temptations. His loss to Canelo did north of 600,000 buys (more than Mayweather’s “retirement” fight against Berto), and while his potential mega-payday against Pacquiao fell through, Australia’s Jeff Horn is suddenly in the picture in Khan’s neighborhood weight-wise, though I have a feeling Jeff will be punched out of the frame soon (Horn is a lottery winner, as someone once called Hasim Rahman). A scrap with fellow Brit and chocolate brownie-dispenser Kell Brook could draw rabid attention domestically for Khan, but Brook’s own career is in suspended animation (the last time I counted, a man only has two orbital bones to break).

Mention #2 Ruslan Provodnikov

The Siberian Rocky is just a notch below John Molina in talent, and has taken more punishment than I would wish on my worst enemy. He’s posted three losses in his last six fights (always a bellwether that it’s time to cut the wraps off for good). He’s been in at least one fight that’s going in my time capsule, his astonishing near-KO of Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley.

It goes without saying that a lot of fighters have little choice in continuing to lace up the gloves, either to satisfy massive tax bills/liens or just to keep the lights on and the kids fed, and while it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who blows their dough feeding filet mignon to a Siberian tiger by the pool (or literally burning money), or “investing” in the get-rich quick schemes of fair-weather friends who have a “sure thing” restaurant or barbershop that devolves quickly into a money pit, the fact is that the old adage about boxers being the most exploited athletes is not without merit. Without soapboxing too much or waxing too sentimentally, I’ll close by saying that in a perfect world anyone who’s been in boxing wars, who gave the fans their money’s worth, should never be homeless or unable to meet their most basic medical needs. Whether you think a “boxing union” is an idea that deserves to gain traction is ultimately on you.

I’m personally going to do my part by taking a stand, skipping out on the Mayweather-McGregor PPV, and instead putting that pocketed cash to better use.

Boxers are rarely saints, and some might say that their fate is in their hands alone (and in the hands of their promoters, perhaps), but my personal code and years of watching the sport (and sometimes wincing at it) has led me to believe that if a man gives the sport everything, I feel entitled to give him back a little, when I remember to and if I have it to give. “Render unto Caesar” and all that…

And I wish all the men on this list luck in their future endeavors, in or outside of the ring.

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