A Changing Of The Guard

27.09.04 - By Matthew Hurley: One week, seven lonely days, separated what could turn out to be the end of an era in boxing. Two of the sports biggest attractions, and best practitioners – Oscar De La Hoya and Roy Jones Jr. – both succumbed to ninth round knockouts. In a way it signifies a changing of the guard; although Oscar’s conqueror, middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, boxing’s wizened old general, remains comfortably surveying all he sees from his creaking rocking chair. But even Bernard, in the wake of his biggest victory, indicated that he too will soon be cashing in on his retirement package. The old guard, those fighters we have grown comfortable with, are all starting to fade away. It’s the nature of things. It’s never easy to accept, but eventually even sports fans have to move on.

This transition truly started with the retirement of heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. In rapid succession, Evander Holyfield was knocked out, Marco Antonio Barrera was knocked out, Mike Tyson was knocked out, De La Hoya was knocked out and then Jones, for the second straight time, was knocked out. Along the way Sugar Shane Mosley lost to Winky Wright, Micky Ward retired and even George Foreman stepped down from his broadcasting duties on HBO. It’s all enough to make a fight fan shudder.

Of all the fights that reduced once great fighters to their knees none was more alarming than Roy Jones’ knockout defeat to Glencoffe Johnson. In his first bout since being starched by Antonio Tarver, Jones appeared gun-shy against a fighter not known for his punch. And the knockout blow, a straight right to the chin, didn’t appear to be all that devastating. But it decimated Jones. He remained on the canvas for four frightening minutes before being helped to a stool. Fighters can grow old over night, and Roy was never a guy who wanted to mix it up and get hit, but so quick and complete was his crash that HBO broadcaster Jim Lampley was practically begging for him to retire. It’s always sad to see a hall of fame athlete collapse under the weight of age, wear and tear and simple exhaustion. You want them to go on forever, but they can’t. Ultimately they are as human as the rest of us. Roy Jones was special, but at least within the roped off square of the ring, he isn’t anymore. His time is over.

De La Hoya’s demise was certainly more competitive but also ended with one punch. An argument can be made that he was simply outsized rather than out classed but looked at with an eye for the technical proficiencies of both combatants he was beaten by a better fighter – pure and simple. Oscar is to be commended for a career of high level consistency but ever since leaving the welterweight division he has struggled in every bout. In his last three fights, against Shane Mosley, Felix Sturm and Bernard Hopkins his record is one win (against Sturm) and two losses. And many people feel he lost to Sturm as well. Oscar knows that he has, perhaps, one bout left in him. The feeling here is that he will either clamor for a rematch with Felix Trinidad, which would still be a huge money maker, or pursue a third fight with Shane Mosley. Any other match-up makes fiscal sense, since Oscar still remains boxing’s biggest draw, but little else. And the “Golden Boy” doesn’t need the money.

As for the other warhorses such as Tyson and Holyfield, they should retire. Neither will though. Tyson needs the money and Holyfield needs the glory. Tyson will always garner attention because he still has a punch and he still has that certain something called “charisma” (be it good or bad, depending on your opinion) that puts asses in the seats. Holyfield is a more worrisome subject. Never a big hitter in the heavyweight ranks but the possessor of a heart as big as his body, Evander has become a fighter true fight fans are turning their backs on because he is breaking their hearts. We don’t want to see our hero reduced to mediocrity. That very heart that elevated him to greatness has ironically become his undoing as a fighter – it won’t let him quit. Because of his name he will continue to receive undeserved big pay days and possible title shots and he will continue to lose. The inevitability is glaringly obvious.

It’s time for the fighters and the fans to move on. With a young crop of potential stars like Miguel Cotto and Jermain Taylor on the rise, young turks like Manny Pacquiao and Vitali Kitschko winning belts and surging veterans like Erik Morales and Winky Wright finally getting their long deserved acclaim, boxing will certainly survive the coming transition. It always does.

Still, it’s hard to let go. These fighters who are sailing off into what we all hope is a blissful retirement have given us so many thrills. They have earned their place in our hearts and now they deserve their gold watch and a respectful salute.

Thank you Roy, Oscar, Evander, Mike and all the other fighters who never earned the money they deserved but still left everything they had in the ring. You, all of you, are the reason why people like me love boxing.

Article posted on 27.09.2004

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