Boxing: +35

By Andrew Harrison: What is it about the latter stages of the first decade in the new millennium that has seen the emergence of the mature tough guy? Is it diet? Could Gillian McKeith and her mob really have influenced a new tribe of senior action heroes by swapping beers and chips for lettuce leaves and green tea? Maybe it’s the pension crisis that has ruffled these old folks and caused a bit of an uprising?

Everywhere you turn you see it. There goes a 60 year old Stallone skipping up those famous Philadelphian steps, a 50 odd year old Bruce Willis throwing cars at helicopters, even Indiana Jones has put down his Saga catalogue for that trusty bull whip. The biggest fight in boxing that toughest of all sports, in the year 2008, sees a 43 year old Bernard Hopkins clash with 36 year old Joe Calzaghe and although these two opponents may not be as old on paper as the aforementioned A-listers, in boxing terms, they’re senior citizens.

One upon an aeon, the time for a fighter to think about hanging them up came when they hit the big 3-0 but fighters have less fights these days, hence less mileage, so more are battling on past this previous watershed. Nowadays, that ‘iffy’ birthday, which seems to set retirement alarms bells ringing, is more around the age of 35 (score one for evolution). There are many fighters who, like B’Hop and Calzaghe, decided for whatever motive, to fight on past this birthday but has anyone actually enhanced their career after this point, or have they ultimately, despite some success, tarnished their lasting legacies? Pass the bifocals there then sonny and let’s have a squizz at a few examples and see exactly what impact fighting after 35 had on some famous older fighter’s careers.

* Bernard Hopkins

Makes sense to start with Ol’ Popkins (his words not mine). Up to the age of 35 Hopkins was 36-2-1-1 with his biggest wins coming against the likes of Antwun Echols, Glen Johnson and Segundo Mercado, dropping a decision to Clinton Mitchell on his debut and one against Roy Jones Jr in 1993. Mmm hardly hall of fame stuff there then.

Since the day he blew out five rows of seven candles on his birthday cake though Hopkins, despite going 12-2, has seen his career and reputation soar, scoring wins over the likes of Keith Holmes, Felix Trinidad, William Joppy, Oscar De la Hoya, Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright. Indeed, the Trinidad and Tarver wins are B Hop’s signature fights, both outstanding displays of boxing. That’s much more like it.

Bottom line- Hopkins can confidently pre book (this older brigade are pretty thrifty) his ticket to Canastota for a few years time once those gloves are finally hanging on a peg in his Philadelphian mansion thanks predominately to the work he got done after the age of 35, and he may not be finished yet.

* George Foreman

Foreman was a mere pup of 28 when he retired following a whipping from Jimmy Young and an ambush from a religious apparition in the changing rooms afterwards. At this point he was 45-2 and hailed as one of the better heavyweights of all time.

He returned in 1987 aged 38 and stacked up a ledger of 31-3, losing gallant decisions to a peak Evander Holyfield, Tommy Morrison and Shannon Briggs, the latter richly disputed. It was an incredibly rough ride early on for George and he became perhaps the most ridiculed prize fighter of all time, not only having to take more shots in the ring than he once did but outside also as he was lampooned, cartooned and mocked by the trade press. Foreman persevered however, showing remarkable toughness, particularly against Holyfield and Alex Stewart as well as during the mind boggling title winning triumph over Michael Moorer.

Bottom line-If he’d never returned he’d have forever been the 70’s assassin who wrecked Frazier and Norton before succumbing to Ali and Young, which raised quibbles in some corners over his mental toughness. His post 35 career proved that Big George was mentally strong alright, tremendously resilient and the possessor of a granite chin. The Moorer win is in fact the most amazing on this list, and perhaps staggeringly, enhanced George’s overall reputation as a prize fighter. He also joined (at that point) Floyd Patterson and old foes Ali and Holyfield as men who regained the undisputed heavyweight title.

* Jersey Joe Walcott

Arnold Cream to use his real name, was 46-13-1 just prior to his 35th birthday, a perennial heavyweight contender with the scalps of great light heavyweights Jimmy Bivins and Joey Maxim to his name (he won 2 from 3 against Maxim). Jersey Joe had just lost a pair of brave challenges to Joe Louis’s heavyweight crown, flooring Louis in both battles, yet ultimately coming up short.

After he hit 35, Walcott chalked up a slate of 7-5 from his last 12 fights, losing twice to Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano as well as being upset by Rex Lane in the autumn of 1950. Despite this paltry return on paper though, Walcott managed to wrestle the heavyweight crown in the third of four showdowns with Charles, the ‘Cincinnati Flash’, and successfully defended the title the following year in their last encounter, before succumbing to the might of Marciano.

Bottom line-Pre 35, Walcott was the man who almost upset Joe Louis, a nearly man who couldn’t nail the big one. Post 35 though, he managed to win the biggest one of all, and despite suffering multiple defeats, lifted his reputation from that of a mere quality contender to heavyweight champ, the decision to forge on was a career maker for Walcott.

* Roy Jones Jr

When Roy Jones opened his birthday cards on the 16th January 2004, he did so in the knowledge he was probably going to be remembered as one of the greatest boxing champions of all time. His record was 49-1, with only one blemish, a disqualification loss to Montell Griffin, avenged spectacularly. He had defeated Bernard Hopkins, James Toney and John Ruiz in his biggest challenges, was a four weight world titlist, and had just outpointed his main threat at light heavyweight Antonio Tarver.

If only Roy had swapped his mouthpiece and boxing boots for a pipe and slippers. In his very next fight he was blasted to smithereens by Tarver, following this with an even more shocking knockout loss to Glen Johnson and all this before his next set of cards had arrived. On he went and Tarver dominated him in the rubber match to make it an unthinkable three defeats in a row. Jones has since notched up 3 decision victories.

Bottom line-Unless Roy demolishes King King and Godzilla on the same night after beating the record for points scored during an NBA game that very afternoon (which I grant you is a bit of a stretch); the decision to fight on at 35 was a shocker, one which tarnished his legacy irreparably.

* Larry Holmes

If Holmes had walked away when he reached 35, he’d have finished up with a record of 45-0; he’d have been WBC heavyweight champ for over 5 years and made 16 successful defences since he triumphed over Ken Norton in a thriller during the summer of ’78.

Unfortunately Holmes fought on until the age of 52, suffering in that time the 6 defeats on his ledger. He lost twice in upsets to Mike Spinks either side of his 36th birthday, ruining his perfect record and his attempt to surpass Marciano’s legendary tally of 49-0. He subsequently lost in championship tilts to Mike Tyson at the age of 38 and Evander Holyfield at 42, as well as a crack at the WBC title when he was 45 against Oliver McCall. He had one real victory of note, outfoxing Ray Mercer in 1992.

Bottom line-If Larry had never fought past three score years and five, he’d have shared the mystique and the plaudits bestowed upon Marciano; he’d probably also have avoided cramming his foot in his mouth with the infamous ‘jockstrap’ jibe he aimed at Rocky when attempting to top his record. There is nothing of sufficient merit in his later career which offsets the defeats which blighted his resume.

* Roberto Duran

Roberto boxed until the age of 50 in a career spanning 33 years; 10 of Duran’s 16 career defeats coming after his 35th birthday. His best and arguably his only quality performance after this point came in his master class points victory over the menacing Iran Barkley in 1989, when he wrenched away the WBC middleweight title in a boxing classic.

Other than this highpoint, we had to watch the once majestic ‘Manos de Piedra’ labour to defeat in the awful rubber match against Sugar Ray Leonard, lose decisions to the likes of Robbie Sims, Vinny Pazienza and Hector Camacho as well as doubling his number of stoppage defeats to four thanks to Pat Lawlor and William Joppy.

Bottom line-Duran was arguably the greatest lightweight the world had ever seen so his legend was secure before he ever moved away from this division. At age 35 he was 79-6 and had fought all of his significant career bouts (save the Barkley triumph). Duran should have hung them up earlier, perhaps after the resurgent Davey Moore win on his 32nd birthday and although boxing would have lost the classic fight with Barkley, Duran had already given us more than enough.

* Evander Holyfield

By doing the maths, we can see that at 35 Holyfield was still probably consulting his plastic surgeon after the ‘bite’ scandal of ’97. His resume stood at a highly respectable 34-3, rated by many as the heavyweight of the 90’s, the only defeats coming against Riddick Bowe (twice) and Michael Moorer. His standing and popularity were probably at their peak at this point after his brace of victories over Mike Tyson.

The ‘Real Deal’ hit 35 in October ’97 and since that point, his tally has been a desultory 8-6-2. The pinnacle during this batch of fights came 3 weeks later when he gained revenge over Moorer in a fabulous performance, halting him in 8. He also pushed Lennox Lewis mighty close in their 1999 rematch 2 years on from the Moorer win. Since that point Evander has laboured on in search of the undisputed title, dropping decisions to the likes of Larry Donald, John Ruiz and Chris Byrd. In perhaps a career low point (of which there are now many), he was stopped in 9 by former middleweight James Toney in 2003 aged 40.

Bottom line- This one’s tricky, despite becoming the poster boy for why not to fight on into old age, Evander pulled off a couple of crackling performances in returns against Moorer and Lewis. On balance however, he has done more harm than good and if he’d retired, if nothing else we would have been saved the dreadful trilogy of fights with John Ruiz.

* Archie Moore

When you think of a famous fighter who was successful when he fought on into middle age, who do you see? The majority of fight fans in the know think of Archie. He belongs to another boxing world completely, his stats bear this out. He had over 200 career bouts (194-26-8-1) with over 140 knockout victories; we are truly looking at an astonishing boxer.

If someone quizzed you about the Ol’ Mongoose you’d probably say he was a great light heavyweight champ, one of the best of all. Moore didn’t win the title until he was 36. Maybe you’d think of the donnybrook with Yvon Durelle? Archie was 41. His resume is littered with great fighters but check out some of the names he beat after he hit 35; Harold Johnson (2-0), Nino Valdes (2-0), Joey Maxim (3-0), Carl ‘Bobo’ Olson (1-0).

Bottom line-They really broke the mould with Moore. At 35 (an age most fighters head for the rocking chair) Moore had fought over 150 bouts yet despite big wins over the likes of Jimmy Bivins, Bob Satterfield and Holman Williams, he had lost 3 of his biggest to Ezzard Charles. Moore then went on to win his first title, fight some of his most significant battles and threw in probably the division’s best ever fight with the 11th round kayo of Durelle for good measure. Truly astonishing.

So it’s a tricky business then, Moore and Hopkins the standard-bearers of career enhancement when fighting on past 35. Foreman and Walcott notched fairytale wins but the rest have in all probability tarnished their earlier achievements to one extent or another. Ominously none of them here got away without defeat, indeed Walcott, Jones and Duran lost their very next fights! If Calzaghe elects to carry on for a few years more, he could do a lot worse than studying the fellow who will be trying to knock lumps off him in Vegas come April 19th.

Article posted on 11.04.2008

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