Posted: Thursday August 24, 2006 3:33PM; Updated: Thursday August 24, 2006 5:10PM
Evander Holyfield (right) won for only the second time in his last seven fights.
Dear Mr. Endgame,
We see by the papers that wheezy old Evander Holyfield fought last week in Dallas. We also see that Rocky VI is due out at the end of this year, with Sylvester Stallone rising from the crypt for one last showdown. Are we witnessing a cosmic convergence? -- Tammy and Bernice, Bird-In-Hand, Pa.
Dear Tammy and Bernice,
There's nothing sadder than yesterday's champions who don't know when to quit. Every sport has them -- stars of the past who can't accept the inevitable deterioration of their aging bodies.
But only in boxing are senior citizens encouraged to prolong their careers after their skills are long gone, and only in boxing is the price for overstaying one's welcome so high. An aging baseball slugger might become an automatic out; an aging fighter, slow of reflex and with diminished endurance, risks being put out for good.
These days a lot of old boxers, including numerous former champions and, yes, a former movie champ, refuse to stay easy in retirement. Over the two last decades we've seen a ponderous parade of loose-bellied old folks climbing back into the ring. Among them: Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Holyfield and Stallone, for whom attempting yet another movie comeback is evidently more lucrative than selling vitamins on TV.
The rest barely even deserve to be called "comebacks."
Though Duran hadn't fought for a real title since 1989, he hung on for another 12 years before losing a unanimous decision -- at 50 -- to a punched-out Hector Camacho. During his wilderness years, "Manos de Piedra," one of the greatest fighters of all time, exceeded expectations only in weight. His hands may still have been made of stone, but his midsection resembled a second helping of mashed potatoes.
The 47-year-old Hearns -- who had "retired" in 2000 -- looked sluggish and blubbery during his most recent bout, a nine-round TKO of a hand-picked unknown named John Long.
"As far as boxing goes, Tommy Hearns was," Foreman said. "That's it: He was." Yet the Hit Man still trains regularly at the Kronk Gym in Detroit in hopes of getting rematches with archnemeses Sugar Ray Leonard (50) and Marvin Hagler (52).
Leonard retired after beating Duran a second time in 1989, unretired in '91 and lost listlessly to Terry Norris, retired again, unretired again in '97 only to get knocked out by Camacho, and hasn't been drawn back since. (To Hagler's great credit, he quit the ring "for good" in '87, and actually kept his word.)
"Tommy will believe it's over only when he's hurt severely," says Leonard. "It takes a trauma to discourage boxers."
A very stout Holmes, who's 56, is still trying to pick a prizefight with the very, very stout Foreman, 57. Holmes hasn't fought in four years; Foreman, nine. Those with long memories may recall that a hard-muscled Foreman held the heavyweight title for 21 months after clobbering Joe Frazier in '73.
Fourteen years later he returned to the wars as a not-so-lean, mean, grillin' machine. His previous bout had been a 12-round defeat to Jimmy Young on March 17, 1977. George says God visited him that night in his dressing room and told him to quit. You can't argue with a cornerman like that.
Last Friday a creaky 43-year-old Holyfield climbed under the ropes with an eye on a fifth title. His opponent was onetime insurance agent Jeremy (the Beast) Bates. Those with short memories may recall that a hard-muscled Holyfield faced the soft-tummied Holmes in '92 and retained the heavyweight belt, by unanimous decision.
That was when Holyfield's deal was still real. He entered the Bates bout having won two of his last nine fights. Still, he bested the Beast in Round 2. Afterward Holyfield said he'd like to fight a top-10 heavy later this year and contend for the crown in '07. By then, Stallone should be available again.
Everyone loves to speculate about how boxers from different eras would match up. Nowadays we don't have to -- they just duke it out. The 9,127 fans who showed up to watch Holyfield in Dallas would probably buy tickets for a seniors tournament. Lots of old palookas might still be willing to put their brain cells on the line. How about Gene Fullmer (75) or Carmen Basilio (79) or Jake LaMotta (85)?
Given the surreal state of the heavyweight division, and the scarcity of credible challengers, surely some matchmaker will latch on to the idea of resurrecting Max Schmeling, who must have something left at 100. Whoever the opponent is, I'll take the Black Uhlan of the Rhine at 3-1.
What's that you say? Schmeling died last year? In that case, it's a pick 'em.