It may be July 2005, and Bernard Hopkins may yet return to defeat young middleweight champion Jermain Taylor, but The Executioner's loss last weekend essentially brought down the curtain on the 1990s. The last Mohican of a long forgotten decade finally succumbed to the vigour and enthusiasm of youth and the ceaseless march of old father time.
Approaching 41, Hopkins should have been long since vanquished, but it’s a testament to his class, dedication and downright bloody-mindedness that he's outlasted everyone of his era. The past year has seen the departure of several marquee fighters, and whilst some will doubtless return for ill-advised comebacks or continue to fill the role of gatekeeper to the next generation, the 1990s are now officially over.
By way of continuum from a previous article entitled The Final Curtain: Tyson, Holyfield and Jones Jr., it’s worth celebrating the respective triumphs of the soon to depart trio of Hopkins, Tszyu and McCullough.
The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use.
Robert F. Kennedy
A fighter's fighter, the quietly determined Australian by way of Russia, has long operated in the shadows of the louder, more quotable champions of his generation like Roy Jones, Naseem Hamed and James Toney. His recent defeat to relentless Ricky Hatton illustrated that nobody resists the corrosive effects of inactivity, injury and birthdays indefinitely, but the fact he travelled to Manchester to fight an undefeated contender in his own backyard at the age of 35, and remained the bookies favourite, illustrated his skill and defiance of his advancing years.
Arguably the most devout and monastic trainer of his generation, the light welterweight powerhouse arrived late as an attraction and entrant in consensus pound-for-pound lists. Indeed, it was the victory over Brooklyn braggart Zab Judah in 2001 that affirmed this status – despite a resume that already included Mayweather, Chavez, Mitchell, Bramble, Bergman, Ruelas and Gonzales. The trademark howitzer that caused the now infamous and uncontrollable Judah’s “break-dance” served to ensure the fight lived long in the memory of those that witnessed it and elevated Tszyu's reputation as a power puncher to a new level. No longer just a respected but unheralded champion, Kostya Tszyu became a revered pound-for-pound entrant and one of the most feared operators around.
Retirement looked likely when injury forced him to withdraw from his rematch with Sharmba Mitchell in 2003, a contest set to take place in his Russian homeland in a promotional move that had the distinct aroma of a farewell fight. Those who believed the subsequent 18 month absence from the ring would encourage him to quit, or worst still see him return as a shadow of his former self, misunderstood his irrepressible pride and will to win.
Tszyu returned to knockout Mitchell, the “man” during Tszyu’s protracted absence, in just three rounds and swiftly reminded doubters of his power, precision and determination. The cynics will point to Mitchell's poor tactics and the Hatton defeat as evidence that Tszyu was, in truth, far removed from his prime, but for Kostya to still be competitive at 35 in the lower weight classes serves only to enhance his reputation. Whether he's now retired, as his wife apparently implores him to be, remains to be seen. But if for nothing else, his humbling of Judah in such comprehensive fashion deserves applause.
There are some defeats more triumphant than victories.
Michel de Montaigne
There are few fighters that unify fans like the self-styled “Pocket Rocket,” his unique brand of volume punching, unflinching bravery, limitless endurance and media-friendly humility ensure a special place in boxing folklore.
Last weekend’s stoppage defeat to standout champion Oscar Larios broke the former Olympian’s heart and those that surrounded him during those final emotional moments. Few of the fight fans that witnessed his heroic encounters with destructive punchers like Erik Morales and Naseem Hamed or saw him survive the savage beating dispensed by Scott Harrison argued with the stoppage. It was clear that respected fight figures Freddie Roach, Richard Steele and ringside physician Margaret Goodman understood the need to save Wayne from his own chin and courage. But it broke their hearts to do it too.
However, to remember Wayne McCullough’s career as simply a collection of gutsy defeats would be to do the Irishman a massive disservice. Wayne was also an outstanding amateur, winning silver at the Barcelona Olympics and losing only 11 of 300 contests. Professionally, his victory over Yasuei Yakushiji for the WBC bantamweight title in the Japanese champion’s backyard should rank as one of the finest performances ever by a British fighter abroad and is probably the high point of his 12 year paid career. The then-27-year-old Yakushiji never fought again.
Few fighters operate at elite, world-class level for ten years, and fewer still compete at the age of 35, and those that do are rarely found in the smaller weight classes where speed and stamina are key. Wayne McCullough defied those rules, defied opponents, and will inevitably attempt to defy the indefinite suspension now bestowed on him.
But if it does prove to be the end, he’ll live long in the memory.
The only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever.
History would doubtless be cruel to “The Executioner” if he elected to retire in the shadow of his points defeat to young buck Jermain Taylor. Sceptics and cynics will point to the weakness of division during his long reign as middleweight king. They’ll say he only beat blown-up welterweights in his defining fights. They’ll say the first hungry young middleweight he faced beat him.
And they’ll all be wrong.
Longevity in this most demanding of sports is hard enough; longevity within one division should earn greater kudos because of the physical sacrifices it demands. The modern fight fan encourages and applauds weight jumping and the ceaseless pursuit of multiple belts, but there is something deeper, something richer, something far more real about dominating a single weight with the belligerence Hopkins has displayed.
Like Hagler before him, Hopkins lacked the eye-catching speed of his peers, he lacked the film star smile, and because of it he lacked the support of television networks and sanctioning bodies. But he refused to be deterred.
Hopkins’ debut defeat couldn’t deter him, defeats and a draw in his first two cracks at the title to Segundo Mercado and Roy Jones Jnr couldn’t deter him, and he’s refused to allow politics and promoters to prevent him doing things his own way either.
To put his skills and defiance of the ageing process into context, Hopkins now approaches 41 and has been a professional for 17 years; Hagler was thought old at 33 and Monzon retired at 35. Light heavyweight legend Archie Moore is probably the only fighter who matches Hopkins defiance of age and physiology. Hopkins’ 20 middleweight defences is a record unlikely to be broken and it is a reflection of the man that he’s fought Howard Eastman and Taylor, the two leading contenders, rather than search for easier fights in the winter of his career.
Insistent on retiring before the age of 41 following a promise to his late mother, Hopkins will still doubtless try to pack more meaning and competition into his remaining months as a professional.
If those few months included revenge over Taylor and victory over Winky Wright or Antonio Tarver, then history may yet remember him more fondly.
If it doesn’t, it will mislead future generations.
Longevity isn’t easy. Nobody could have expected these three to still be contesting world titles five years into this millennium. So come on, lets party like it’s 1999!
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