The Glitz, The Glamour And The Aftermath- The Resistable Lure Of Retirement

09.10.06 - By Lee Purchase: Evander Holyfield & Thomas Hearns are the embodiment of pure sporting ambition, huge intestinal fortitude who endeavour to prove that age isn't the be-all and end-all of high end competitors. Iron-willed, strong, astounding men with a talent for the inconceivable. They are also, however a modern example of one of the major pitfalls of elite boxing success- when the end of an era for a star pugilist is near, the inability to finally 'let go' and accept the inevitable, for one reason or another.

When the door opens for a graceful exit from the sport which has provided them with so much, it is either directly shunned or treated as the revolving type with some boxers retiring numerous times only to make ill-fated comebacks. Why do great competitors such as these continue to damage both their legacies and their physical condition to such an irreversible state?

Boxers are required to become some of the most singular athletes within the sport on the road to the peak of the profession. The dedication, will and hunger will define how far their star can reach, but once their ascendancy is complete and they are among the elite, it becomes mandatory that they also carry the expectations of their family, their village, their city, their country, which provides huge support to a fighter’s dreams, the collective spurring them even further. An example would be the multitude of Mexican boxers who, it seems by birthright, are required to mete out as well as receive punishment in order to satisfy their ambitions, with the green, white and red of their nation providing the incendiary motivation and instilling an unmatched will; Salvador Sanchez, Julio Cesar Chavez, and more recently Marco Antonio Barrera & Erik Morales. Americans like those in the first paragraph who were constantly tackling opponents from across the globe, with the fantastical support of the United States behind them. Another latter day personification of this would be the Filipino megastar Manny Pacquiao, who really does seem to bring together a whole continent, and fights like he is fighting for every single one of it‘s inhabitants. The support that this patriotic element provides for fighters such as those mentioned is difficult to overestimate.

Once that apex has been reached however, and a boxer has enjoyed his tenure at the summit of the sport, it eventually becomes the situation whereby his own ambition overrides that of others as the factor in him continuing to fight. The general feeling is one of needing to prove that they’ve ‘still got it’, can still bang with the best of them and deserve to remain within
the upper echelons of the sport. The reality of it though may be completely different. Because of the intense belief and focus that most maintain, it is a lot easier for us the outsiders to see their failings when pitted against newcomers, unheralded fighters who are themselves determined to become first-time champions and also possess the necessary speed and physical attributes due to their youth that were once their older foe’s own advantages.

When fighters are in their prime, we expect them to give their all in every bout. We expect an invariable hunger for success over the years. We expect the utmost application in every single aspect. So to expect each of them to leave everything behind once the peak of the sport has been reached, is that absurd? Historically thus far, it’s application most definitely is,
especially when logical thinking may be restricted by the rigours of physical damage suffered in the ring.

An exception to the rule though are boxers who feel satisfied with the level of their achievements and historical stature, and have left the sport in what they would feel is a dignified fashion. For every Holyfield & Hearns (also Meldrick Taylor, Bobby Chacon a couple of decades ago, Riddick Bowe…the list is endless) there is a Rocky Marciano or a Lennox Lewis, men who have retired at the absolute peak of their sport in recognition of their success as that which they cannot exceed or be able to maintain. What others believe they could have achieved had they continued may be arguable in some cases, but the point is they used logical thinking in making their decision, proved by their comprehendible characters in comparison to the ‘punch drunk' state caused by chronic brain injury, and their legacies which have been enhanced by making these choices whereas otherwise they could have been tainted as with so many of their peers.

Moreover, men such as Lewis & Marciano (both a prime example of contentment within their field), are rare in a sport such as boxing in which it’s successful competitors occupy a pedestal coated in glory. The twilight years of a man's chosen career can be shrouded with impending fear, be regarded with a positive or a negative outlook, but are almost always anticipated with a sense of impending uncertainty. When that point of separation finally arrives, what removes the settled from the insecure and the misplaced is the feeling of satisfaction and the degree overall of what has been achieved. Sportsmen, as is stipulated by the glorious highs within their choice of livelihood, have a higher quota of achievement to fulfill to rendezvous with professional gratification, and for boxers that can inevitably mean residing within the ranks for much longer than their abilities will decree.

Additionally, the corrupting influence of the mighty dollar not only dictates most matchups in the industry, it is also another large factor in prolonging the length of certain fighter’s careers. Men used to huge purses and an extravagant lifestyle to maintain become a slave to the sums of money on offer and the wanton need to fulfill their extravagant needs, greed inevitably taking hold. Boxers surrounded by parasitic associates can be ill-advised as to handle this newfound wealth, especially as most are at a relatively young age, and ill-prepared to handle this privileged position. Then follows the squandering of their earnings, forced to eventually jump through the ropes for much longer than their beaten bodies will permit them with any real effectiveness.

Some can prove such a huge draw and an enigmatic fascination for the paying public, desperate for the cash generated by our curiosity which their ‘marquee’ name and physical presence will bring. Paraded for our viewing pleasure like a shackled bear in the circus, our memories of masterful former glories sustaining their opportunities to keep earning in the ring. An inevitable consequence and indicative of the wealth that saturates boxing, a prime example is the person who used to be ’Iron’ Mike Tyson, now a shell of a man who continues to make one ill-fated comeback after another. Once the self- styled ‘baddest man on the planet’, once the holder of the biggest prize available to a boxer, the undisputed Heavyweight championship, his controversies outside of the ring coupled with his destructive force within it made him certainly one of the sport’s most interesting characters, not only to boxing aficionados but also to the public in general. His spiraling debts may keep him lashed to the ringpost for years to come.

This is an unavoidable aspect in terms of protractedness that will continue as long as the money from television and other sources remains at such a high level. Our interest and the punter’s buck that accompanies it provide boxers with both a benefit and a hindrance, and this will continue with the lack of any sort of pension or fund that will support them in the remaining years following retirement.

However much in some cases we may want to, we cannot make people’s choices for them, and a boxer’s assessment as to what level of dignity they would like to bow out with is likely to conflict in most cases. The nature if the sport dictates that our idols enter into this level of combat and extend every ounce of themselves in the process, their inflamed desire resulting in a lack of self regard in terms of their physical & mental health. In a financial sense, young fighters need to ensure they are surrounded by people who have their interests at heart and whose motivation is not financial gain
to avoid having to stumble on boxing’s ‘golden treadmill’ out of born necessity.

As a concerned audience, advice can be offered and we can only hope it is heeded for the sake of it’s participants and the legacies that they strive to compliment. Whilst a former champion's quest to relive former glories can sometimes be a remarkable challenge and leave observers in awe of such seemingly continued desire and ambition, there is seldom more sickening a sight than seeing a once great prize-fighter take a terrible beating, hampered by their pride or their broken financial state.

Article posted on 10.10.2006

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