At 43, Maske's comeback fight vs. Hill is preposterous
Posted: Thursday October 26, 2006 11:42AM; Updated: Thursday October 26, 2006 12:01PM
Henry Maske (left) announced his retirement after losing in a decision to Virgil Hill in 1996 in front of 12,500 in Munich.
Marcus Brandt/Bongarts/Getty Images
Of all the puffed-up novelty acts in boxing history, few, if any, have been as preposterous as Henry Maske's "comeback" bout with Virgil Hill. On March 31, Maske will end more than a decade of self-imposed exile to challenge Hill, the only fighter to ever beat him, for the WBA cruiserweight title. Both fighters will be 43.
Ten years ago Hill, a Joplin, Mo., native who was then the WBA light-heavyweight champ, won a 12-round majority decision over Maske in Munich to take the German's IBF title belt. The crowd of 12,500 booed when the result was announced -- Maske was, after all, das Vaterland's most popular fighter since Max Schmeling. A stunned Maske wept openly and announced his retirement.
"I don't want to go into the ring with people asking, 'Why is he still boxing?'" he said. "I want neither compassion nor ridicule."
Evidently, the loss ate away at Maske. "Henry was obsessed with Virgil," says matchmaker Don Elbaum. "He wanted to avenge his only defeat, but he needed a reason for a rematch."
That reason arrived on Jan. 27, when Hill claimed the vacant WBA title with a humdrum decision over Valery Brudov in Atlantic City. "Now, this wasn't just honor at stake," Elbaum says. "A world championship was on the line. This was a fight that had to be made."
It was easy to convince Hill, who's been relatively inactive and fighting for Erdnüsse since 2003. The hard part was convincing a credible trainer to take him on. Maske phoned Teddy Atlas, the ESPN boxing analyst whose clients have included Mike Tyson and Michael Moorer. Reluctant at first, Atlas eventually relented. He's now putting Maske through the paces at a gym in Hackensack, N.J. Hill is training downstate in Atlantic City.
The geriatric matchup will be held in Olympiahalle, an arena perhaps best known as the home of hockey's late, lamented München Maddogs. This particular dogfight is expected to draw a capacity crowd equal to the '96 original.
"It'll be like the German Super Bowl," says Elbaum. "It'll be as big as John L. Sullivan's 1892 fight with James J. Corbett in New Orleans." If Sullivan and Corbett were exhumed for a rematch, you'd probably see just as much action.
Hill (50-5, 23 knockouts) is way over the hill, and Maske is -- or was, at last sighting -- a 6-foot-4 defensive southpaw with a mind-numbing style.
"Henry's a typical German fighter," says Joe Calzaghe, the reigning IBF and WBO super-middleweight champ. "In other words, a robot."
A five-time amateur champ of East Germany and a gold medalist at the 1988 Summer Olympics, Maske turned pro after German reunification in '90. Three years later he won the IBF crown, building a 30-0 record against an assortment of European nobodies and Tomate-Dosen. Of his 10 successful defenses, only two were by stoppages. No doubt Maske is a likeable guy. But even in his prime, as a prizefighter he was a crashing bore.
For indulging Maske's obsession, Hill will earn -- if that's the word -- around $1.3 million, which is about $1.2 more that he could get to fight a legitimate contender in the states.
Maske's cut will be more than double Hill's. He doesn't exactly need the loot. During his pro career, Maske made -- and reportedly saved -- more than $10 million from purses and an array of commercials that included cheese, shampoo and Mercedes Benz. He now owns a chain of McDonald's franchises in Germany.
Not to sound like a total killjoy, but who's kidding whom? True, it takes a rare brand of guts to climb between the ropes at any age, but Maske and Hill are now just creaky parodies of their former selves. The sight of poky old timers pulling on trunks and lacing up gloves might be good for a few laughs if it weren't so dangerous. Absorbing repeated blows to the head causes irreversible brain damage in a great many older boxers.
As a fighter ages, his legs lose their spring and he's less able to move out of harm's way. Hand-eye coordination suffers, too, so that even defensive specialists like Maske and Hill wind up taking fewer punches on the gloves and more on the chin.
Better boxers than them -- Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali -- thought their quickness and ring smarts could outlast their youth. Ali wasn't convinced that his skills had deteriorated after he was knocked out, at 38, by WBC heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, his old sparring partner. He was tempted back by Trevor Berbick, a pug the young Cassius Clay might not have allowed to hold his spit bucket.
"All the people who once cheered Ali will be embarrassed for him now," said George Foreman at the time.
But Ali was beyond embarrassment. A month shy of his 40th birthday, he wasn't fighting for money or adulation. He was fighting out of hubris. "Ain't worried about nothing but being immortal," he said before losing to Berbick on points.
Ali left the ring old, slow and punched out. Maske will be entering the ring that way.