Suggestions that 41-year-old Bernard Hopkins will end his short-lived retirement in a clash with WBC Heavyweight belt holder Oleg Maskaev or WBO/IBF Super-Middleweight titleist Joe Calzaghe in the next year caused me to contemplate the current fascination with veteran fighters, as opposed to rising talent, whether it risks becoming an unhealthy obsession and the factors cultivating it.
If the continuing service of veterans like Hopkins is the only way to fuel the carbon burning pay-per-view machine or invoke curiosity amongst the wider sporting public then what hope for the future remains? Are prolonged careers like Hopkins’ the happy result of improving knowledge of nutrition, training techniques and protection of fighters? A more worrying reflection of boxing’s ageing viewing demographic, a lack of raw talent emerging from the amateur system perhaps or, in truth, the proliferation of belts that enable fighters to avoid the most demanding contests?
When 45-year-old George Foreman rendered Michael Moorer prone in the tenth round of their IBF World Heavyweight title fight twelve years ago next week, the self-styled punching preacher declared the win a triumph over accepted wisdom that age is a barrier to achievement.
His victory met with astonishment and derision in equal dose. An incredulous public, though cheering Foreman’s accomplishment, assumed boxing was a sport in decline – after all, how could an overweight middle-aged man win the heavyweight title, the perceived bastion of athletic perfection? Now a dozen years on, and with a collection of heavyweight contenders in their late thirties and early forties still vying for world-title honors, the significance of the achievement is greatly undermined, though as yet not replicated. But was the underlying assumption about the health of the sport ultimately correct?
This newfound longevity certainly doesn't begin or end with the heavyweight division. If it did, it would be easier to theorise that the weight class where strength and power are paramount would be a sustainable feeding ground for older fighters. After all, one of boxing’s oldest truisms is “the last thing a fighter loses is his punch.” But the phenomenon reaches much further. Even in the lower divisions where speed, reflex and the youth that fuels them is supposed to prevail, fighters are competing far beyond traditional expectations.
A generation ago, fighters were regarded as veterans or shop-worn by their 30th birthday. Ripe dinosaurs. Now they're the leading attractions. A fighting prime no longer the exclusive preserve of the young. In the 21st century, boxers in their 30's still seek definition and crescendo in their careers, the soon-to-be 35-year-old Joe Calzaghe a classic and topical example. It isn’t that fighters from bygone eras didn’t fight on into their late thirties, though the practice appears more rare, but they typically cut forlorn figures; desperately eking out small purses from expiring talent. Their modern day counterparts compete at a level of significance and remuneration far beyond their predecessor’s wildest imagination.
Of course, to propose only Bernard Hopkins and George Foreman as evidence for this changing landscape would undermine the suggestion’s legitimacy from the outset. After all, both Hopkins and Foreman could be discredited due to their almost unique physiology. Foreman, blessed with power unrivalled in heavyweight history and maintained throughout 'two' careers, was able to mask his increasing weaknesses with this huge advantage in power. Only premier opponents could outwit him during his second career, youth certainly wasn’t enough in isolation, and even then not without a painful struggle.
The Executioner meanwhile harnesses a physical prowess, ring-craft and zeal for self-improvement only the Ole’ Mongoose Archie Moore could match. But there are plenty more behind these exalted torchbearers.
In the heavyweight division only 27 of the current top 100* are yet to reach their 30th birthday, exactly matching the number already beyond their 35th. Add the years of Oliver McCall (41), Evander Holyfield (43) and Henry Akinwande (40) and the average rises still further. Is the heavyweight division really so devoid of talent and vigor that these fossilised warriors cannot be ousted? Does the sport really lack sufficient impetus and personality that a pay-per-view price tag for a 40-year-old Mike Tyson exhibition bout is a plausible sell?
Has boxing’s self-destruction reached such depths that only a bastardised version of the sport, a super-heavyweight tournament in the fistic backwater of Australia complete with replays, big gloves and back-to-back fights, capable of engaging a modern audience? Can the sport ignore – or indeed repel – the continued emergence of UFC and other assimilated combat sports? How does a sport so dependent on ageing protagonists reach out to a new generation of fans?
All troublesome questions. The Australian tournament a discernible attempt at an answer, the Contender television series another.
Whilst acknowledging the irony of using pay-per-view status or title belts as a barometer for a fighter’s standing and the cumulative health of the sport given the damage both have done to its wellbeing, the current crop of boxing stars are unquestionably an ageing breed.
Fifty-five years ago this month, a 37-year-old Joe Louis was regarded ancient when his comeback culminated in a clash with Rocky Marciano. Time Magazine reported, “Only those right at the ringside could see that Louis at 37, balding and thick-waisted, was little more than a bloated, moonfaced caricature of the famed Brown Bomber.”In 1974, and approaching 33, Muhammad Ali created fear amongst fans who felt he could be seriously hurt in his contest with George Foreman.
Now 32 years later Nicolay Valuev, a similar 33 years experienced by his gargantuan frame, is arguably the division’s best active chance of re-establishing interest amongst a new audience. His wider appeal has as much to do with his physical enormity and the biological voyeurism it encourages than the pugilistic excellence he’s demonstrated to date. And besides, a 33-year-old Russian is the future of the heavyweight division? If you’re seeking an alternative, perhaps the 38-year-old James Toney could yet save the blue ribbon weight class?
At the outset I surmised there were a number of potential factors behind the trend, in truth the situation is more complex than a single explanation. Shorter championship rounds, fewer fights, improving nutrition, the plethora of sanctioning bodies creating more opportunities and a reduced need to make risky fights all contribute.
Alongside these sits the oft-repeated explanation for America’s failure to develop a leading heavyweight in recent times; the athletic talent increasingly gravitate toward the rewards of the NFL and NBA suggest boxing’s intelligentsia. Without the inspiration and example of a meaningful and consensus heavyweight champion, with what does the sport attract or entice new blood? Particularly in America, boxing’s richest playground.
This vacuum is presently filled by the emergence of hungry young fighters from the former Eastern Bloc and a relocation of the heavyweight powerbase has ensued. Currently custodians of all four heavyweight belts and with a growing profile across the weight classes, ‘Soviet’ boxing is in the ascendancy. Watercooler economists would conclude boxing no longer provides the same path of aspiration from the impoverished neighborhoods and ghettos of the western world it once did.
Whilst boxing has always been a global sport with exponents from a disparate collection of countries and cultures, the one consistent source of excellence in the heavier weight classes has been America. From Johnson and Dempsey, to Holmes and Frazier. Of course, boxing doesn’t begin and end with the heavyweight division but despite the efforts of fighters like Duran, Barrera, Gatti or Hamed to educate audiences to the brilliance and entertainment contained in the lighter weight divisions, heavyweight boxing remains the pulse on which the sport’s health is judged.
In the absence of a unifying fighter or transcending personality like Ali or Tyson, the sport perhaps needs one shared experience to re-establish interest and participation amongst younger audiences. It’s certainly hard to conjure a scenario where the confusing and detrimental presence of the sanctioning bodies is purged, allowing new fans to decode the significance of different fights, bout by bout.
Nor is it likely that premier level fighters, whatever their age, will return to the frequency of combat their predecessors relatively meagre rewards necessitated. Without television, fighters simply don’t get the wages they crave or expect, and television dates are a finite resource – in this era of title fights being ‘the only’ fights – off-television non-title fights for established performers are never likely to be de rigueur.
Equally, with sanctioning bodies surviving proven infidelities and the television networks legitimising their numerous belts, fighters continue to avoid meeting their leading contemporaries, preferring rewarding low-risk defenses. Boxing’s current setup rewards and favors the fighter, which is to be applauded, but longterm, it may be to the further detriment of the sport.
In short, boxing doesn’t help itself through its organisation or lack thereof. On current evidence, answers to the sport’s problems won’t be answered from within, whether that be the emergence of a charismatic, dominant fighter or a sanitation of the sewer boxing’s “movers and shakers” inhabit.
Perhaps paradoxically, the way to exorcise the lingering ghosts of Hopkins, Jones Jr., De La Hoya, Mosley, Trinidad, Tarver, Tyson, Holyfield and Toney from boxing’s chorus line and entice a new audience to the sport lays in the fists of the sport’s most famously aged heavyweight.
That’s right, 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone, and the forthcoming sixth installment of his Rocky Balboa story, could be the sport’s most endearing, conspicuous and, arguably, final great white hope.
*October rankings from International Boxing Organisation’s (IBO) Computerised System – find them at www.iboboxing.com