“There are no second acts in American lives,” author F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, which, of course, is so much bullspit. In boxing, there always seems to be some aging fighter raising the curtain on the second act of his ring career, and sometimes even on the third and fourth acts.
Sugar Ray Leonard’s devoted fan base dared to believe he could reinvent himself when he challenged WBC middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler in the spring of 1987, Leonard’s first fight in nearly three years and only his second in five years. The faithful were rewarded when their hero, whom so many others did not think stood a chance against the fearsome Hagler, was awarded a split decision and thus pulled off the biggest upset, or at least the most memorable one, since Muhammad Ali went to Zaire and shocked the world by taking down George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” on Oct. 30, 1974.
Those same diehards probably convinced himself that Leonard, only 2½ months shy of his 41st birthday and inactive for six years, could again dip into his trick bag and pull out another semi-miracle in his March 1, 1997, comeback against Hector Camacho in Atlantic City. But that old Sugary magic had all been used up, and Camacho – never known as one of boxing’s bigger blasters – sent Leonard into what proved to be his final retirement via fifth-round technical knockout.
“There comes a point in everyone’s life where you just have to accept the fact that you don’t have it anymore,” Leonard said at the postfight press conference, a grudging admission that age and ring rust can be more unbeatable opponents than even the guy standing in the opposite corner.
It will be interesting to see which Winky Wright takes the podium after his Showtime-televised June 2 middleweight bout with the much younger, and undefeated, Peter Quillin at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Will it be a ebullient and victorious Winky, replicating Leonard’s improbable feat against Hagler? Or will it be a disappointed and battered Winky, calling to mind Sugar Ray’s sad farewell against Camacho?
“I want to fight the best. I don’t want to come back just to get a win,” Wright (51-5-1, 25 KOs) said of his scheduled 10-round return against the 28-year-old Quillin (26-0, 20 KOs), who is ranked No. 5 by the WBA and No. 14 by the WBO. I want to be champion. If I can’t be champion, ain’t no need for me to be doing this.”
It seems a strange time, or at least a long-delayed one, for the crafty southpaw from St. Petersburg, Fla., to rediscover his inner fire for boxing. Not only is he coming off a 38-month layoff, but he was soundly beaten in his most recent fight, a unanimous, 12-round loss on points to Paul Williams on April 11, 2009. And he lost the fight before that, another unanimous decision, to Bernard Hopkins on July 21, 2007. Those defeats mark Wright’s only ring appearances in the last 6½ years.
But there was a time, not so very long ago when you stop and think about it, that the name of Ronald “Winky” Wright came up in nearly every discussion about fighters who merited consideration as the sport’s pound-for-pound best. He was WBC/WBA junior middleweight champion who in 2004 twice dominated Shane Mosley and followed those watershed victories with an even more breathtaking performance, pitching a 12-round shutout at Felix Trinidad in 2005. And Wright was the tide that raised all boats; his longtime trainer, Dan Birmingham, was voted the Futch-Condon Award as Trainer of the Year in both of those years by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
So why would someone that accomplished choose to step away from boxing just a few years later, even if he had been, to some degree, in those setbacks to Hopkins and Williams?
“There was no one significant that wanted to fight me,” Wright said. “I want big fights, fights that mean something. I’m not going to fight just to fight. I’m fighting because I want to be the best.”
Feeling he was being ducked more than a limbo bar, Wright thus took his leave, although he never officially announced his retirement. It was more like entering a state of professional hibernation.
“My legacy is already etched in stone,” he said. “I was, like, `So you don’t want to fight me? Forget it.’ So I took time off and raised my son. I did family things, and just enjoyed life.”
But that old boxing itch, which can be salved for months and even years at a time, always threatens to turn into a rash that requires scratching. Wright had done the doting daddy thing and enjoyed it, but the joys of fatherhood can last a lifetime. Fighters don’t have nearly so much time to take advantage of the physical gifts which have been conferred upon them. So the Winkster returned to the gym with a purpose, to ascertain whether he still what it had to make a run at the championship he believes still is within his grasp.
“It takes some getting used to,” Wright, who again will have Birmingham as his chief second, said of his reintroduction to high-intensity training. “But anything worth having is worth working hard for, and I’ve worked hard for this.”
So, what kind of condition was Wright in when he decided to again tug on the gloves?
“Sometimes I would work out, and sometimes I didn’t,” he said of his lengthy hiatus. “I’m not going to say I stayed in boxing shape, but I wasn’t fat. I might have gotten up to 185, but I didn’t have a big belly or anything like that.”
Washboard abs alone, however, do not a fighter make. Wright knows this, and so does Quillin. Neither truly knows what to expect of the other, which makes this matchup intriguing.
“I got a great opponent to bring out the best in me,” Wright said of Quillin, 28. “I didn’t pick a bum to fight. This kid is undefeated. He’s hungry. He wants to prove to the world he’s a good fighter. But the guys he’s fought, they ain’t me.”
What remains to be seen is whether the Wright who’ll be on display June 2 is still the master boxer who carved up Mosley and Trinidad as if he were Zorro, or the rusty blade who lost convincingly to Williams and then faded from sight.
Quillin said he won’t make the mistake of presuming Wright has retained only a shadow of his former brilliance, even though logic dictates that that probably is the case.
“I’m preparing for the best Winky Wright,” insisted Quillin, who said he has a special incentive for coming in at his best, too.
“I saw Trinidad vs. Winky Wright,” he told media members on a joint teleconference call with his renowned opponent, who is a good bet to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame someday, regardless of the June 2 outcome. “I was kind of upset because I was a big fan of Trinidad’s. Maybe this fight can be my revenge and I’ll get the win that Felix Trinidad couldn’t get.”