Every era in boxing is an era of the comeback as fighters endlessly cycle through their optimal periodization only to later recycle themselves – their reputations still marketable, their worn skills exploitable – adding their names and fates to an endless ritual.
On March 1, 1997, a 40-year-old Sugar Ray Leonard suffered the humiliation of being dropped and stopped by the faded figure of Hector “Macho” Camacho in Atlantic City. Leonard – heir to Muhammad Ali as king of the comeback – earned a remarkable 4 million pay-per-view dollars for his one-legged stand-in. Leonard had not even sparred during the bulk of his training camp, due to a leg injury, and was coming off of a six year-plus hiatus after being pummeled for 12 rounds in Madison Square Garden by Terry Norris, but it was truly of no matter. Leonard privately admitted that like his old nemesis Roberto Duran, he was entitled to earn some serious coin, if his loyal fans still thrilled at the very sight of him with gloves on anyway; call it part of the senior’s tour if you must, he mused.
His secret wish had as much to do with winning a prize fight in the very year he was scheduled to enter the Boxing Hall of Fame. Leonard and showmanship and ego and money – well, those words always did go together. He wanted to do something amazing and unexpected, and make his timing perfectly symbolic. Instead he had to endure being kept at bay by Camacho’s telegraphed right jab, which he couldn’t counter, being beaten to the punch, cut and then driven to the mat, his lips fattened from the taste of white leather. The Sugar Man proved there was nothing perfect about his boxing any longer, his timing was video fed for memory; need we mention he really was the ancestor of Sugar Ray Robinson, in most all things unto the end.
Marvin Hagler, Leonard’s most improbable victim of circumstances, never did make a return to the ring. His life became tied to Italian culture, the legendary middleweight king playing the cinematic heavy as an action star of sorts. And yet Leonard, almost in the spirit of Floyd Patterson, minus the beard, fishing cap and paranoia, told audiences of ESPN in the US that he was not really retired and this was certainly not his last fight; he would not go out on this kind of performance. With his body whole, two good legs, he’d get his bearings straight after a tune-up fight.
“Sugar” Ray Leonard never did fight again professionally. Somewhere in the recessed rationality of his mind, over the weeks and months living with the experience of his having been tamed, shamed and drained, Leonard came to internalize his athletic diminishment, his singularity spent. For even Ray Leonard’s luminous talent turned to apathetic fog under the ring lights; in the squared circle, the bell having rung, where once he stalked and savaged with speed and cunning, he was merely posing, a well built man attempting to deny being mortal, artificial.
One could name this generation’s Sugar, Shane Mosley or Roy Jones or Riddick Bowe or Evander Holyfield or Mike Tyson or Vernon Forrest or even the derailed Francisco Bojado. There’s no shortage of names we might invoke in exploring the vagaries of the comeback. Each fighter’s reasoning for renewal and continuance, quest and redemption are literally the stuff of what tempts us to think of valiance, vanity and vulnerability intricately stitched into their foreheads as targets.
Since January of 2002, Mosley has entered the ring seven times. His record over the last four years reads 2 wins, 4 losses and 1 no contest. Sadly, no one seriously looks at Shane Mosley as the fighter who out-sped and out-punched tough down the stretch against fellow Los Angeles native Oscar De La Hoya before a lively Staples Center sellout crowd on June 17, 2000.
If one could read minds, one suspects even Mosley’s ex-trainer, his father Jack, doesn’t truly believe his son is anything like the fighter he used to be. And against a pedantic David Estrada, in winning, Mosley himself appeared frustrated at times with the manner and method of his boxing. The staccato speed gone from his leg movement, his punches firing where once they scorched, Mosley now puts the best face possible on his performances. He recites the timeless litany of things he needs to do to improve. His spangling eyes not signaling incontrovertible confidence. Weighing in at just one pound over welterweight was not enough to regain his diminished hand speed against Estrada, let alone the continuous ability to punch accurately via combinations. Benching pressing nearly 300 lbs., running the lake at altitude up in Big Bear, then descending to vanquish foes with supreme efficiency, seems like a lost era already.
Perhaps Alton Merkerson, the longtime confidant and guiding light of emotional stability for Roy Jones, knows exactly the perplexing reservations born by Jack Mosley. Boxing writers are frankly amazed that after watching from ringside one of Antonio Tarver’s best, most sustained performances as a professional, Jones decides to have at the light-heavyweight champion for a third time. Coming off of successive knockout losses to Tarver and Glen Johnson, Jones offers us the rationality of boredom. He confesses to having lost focus and drive and interest in all things boxing, having sustained excellence for so long, having dispatched challenges with unparalleled athleticism for a decade. He fails to understand the irony of his admission. Being focused and prepared and in the zone of his athletic brilliance was Jones’ greatest asset, his quantum leap when compared to his generation.
The obvious question looms. One can only wonder why, having been concussively stopped twice, knowing his inability to move for twelve rounds and diminishing hitting power and being financially secure, why Jones would so brazenly tempt a three-peat butchering. A rhetorical question, for which, we sadly know the answer.
Yes, we all know. We all know Jones’ ego simply cannot go gently into the good night of anonymity of the HBO broadcasting team; only Jones would see a media job with HBO as a virtual vanishing. Perhaps, it’s the banishing, the indignity of having been drummed from the ring by a fighter he feels so inferior to himself. Him of 2000 maybe, maybe not, that’s an incalculable hypothetical. Still, we recognize that to view oneself in the now, in full perspective of one’s past being, is characteristic of a champion’s mindset. Jones disdains the very image of Tarver as his equal and subsequent superior. Standing out of time, Jones contemplates his best self enacting the ritual of revenge. For the rest of us, we who will be the onlookers, Tarver-Jones III has all the markings of a suicide mission for Team Jones. The issue of Jones’ fate as a boxer, from here on in, looks crystal clear.
Few, if any, bother to consider the comeback of former world heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe as anything except a man, marginally haunted by illusions, working himself back into the calling of his youth, his now expired youth. Mostly, we fear for his basic state of health. His basic health being the subject he spends the bulk of his time proving to commissions across the US remains unencumbered. Mostly without media scrutiny, the once formidable Bowe waltzes through the pretense of a resumed career. The fact he used boxing injuries to his head as part of his legal defense during his trial for kidnapping his family, he now tells us, is tantamount to taking the factual record out of its own context.
We know Arturo Gatti, recently hided by a prime Floyd Mayweather, will resurface yet again. We don’t consider his fighting again a comeback; we reserve that for his next sacrificial defeat, live on, and under contract to, HBO. He’s waged so many campaigns of return and rebuilding, he’s only lacking the official retirement press conference to make him a candidate for “Sugar” Ray Leonard’s mantle. Gatti fights for the love of it, because he’s a fighter. Period. What else would Gatti do? One almost asks for what else does Gatti live? Arturo himself says as much in the run up to all his fights. Mike Tyson, perhaps having found the porn industry to help him pay off the national debt of his life’s work as a fighter, until recently loved to fight, winning having become, after Holyfield, all but optional.
What of the Prince? No comeback in boxing has been more anticipated and prognosticated than the return of featherweight wrecking ball Naseem Hamed. Having been taught who his boxing daddy really was by the cryptic boxing of a reborn Marco Antonio Barrera, boxing’s most flamboyant showman folded his tent. The fact he surfaced in May 2002 to prove the point of his existence, left the boxing community with the void of his non-career. Yet the hope associated with his impending return never seems to fade. Endlessly, rumors drift from Sheffield, England down to London and across the pond to North America confirming a sighting of the rambunctious, and today very corpulent, Hamed. Hamed made his money, becoming a star and a celebrity and a champion. Add to that he won his last fight; let Barrera stay and take the beatings, says the Prince of never-never-again-land.
Fighters do come back to glory, not as before, but occasionally as adaptive, reconstituted by realism, hurried by time’s inevitable progress. Champions often demand of self the pain endured just to have their pockets lined and to hear their names screamed out in adoration, a sensation of mind beyond price. Some return to the ring because they have lavished all their treasures on friends, family and their past selves and need a final security boost with old age taking possession of their athlete’s physicality.
Some fighters come back because they are commanded by their egos to once again breech the fortress of championship boxing, all the glories, all the sex, all the attention, an entire lifetime lived out in the course of taking one's training camp readiness into the gnarling crucible of a big-time fight. And you go in with faith seemingly restored, willing to have you face rearranged as payment for your necessity.
Riddick Bowe came back because beyond the money he had no direction in his life; he felt as if he was no one, always nowhere, bored out of his mind. Johnny Tapia lives with the fear of not being a disciplined boxer every day of his life. How does one fill the emptiness that the industry of a life as a boxer, especially a championship boxer, ending begets? Partly, the answer is to be loved, understanding you within the frame of the present, literally seeing yourself. When an aging, aged champion looks in the mirror what does he see?
Of course, there was Ali in 1974, in Zaire. As irony would have it, Ali’s victim from Africa, Big George Foreman, completed a cosmic circle of improbability against Michael Moorer.
But then again, those were miracles of a kind and miracles are ultra exceptional phenomena, evading reason and predictability. Comebacks, typically, are all about evading reason and being totally predictable.
Of course, Roy Jones and Shane Mosley and Riddick Bowe know, in boxing, it isn’t the chips that fall where they may.