Fighting Past Forty: The Perils and Prizes for Elders in a Young Man’s Sport

The first month of 2019 has been a peculiar one in the boxing world. In a sport that’s always looking into the horizon for the next fresh face, the next big thing, and the next rising star, a considerable amount of time has been spent on those not about to arrive, but those who have and are intent on not fading away just yet.

As forward gazing as the combat sport realm is, it is also a nostalgic one. One that will endless reflect on former glories, and January will always be the month we remember at least three great champions on their birthdays: Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, and George Foreman. Three men who not only set out to beat every man in the ring, but even seemed determined to best the man known as Father Time.

Eventually, no fighter can relentlessly wage war in the ring and must retire in the proverbial corner once and for all at some point. But each of this triumvirate of fighters, plus many more today even just as hellbent on holding still the clockhands as much as possible.

Even sports fans not keen on boxing know the name “Big George” Foreman. Either the famous bouts with Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali in the 1970’s, boxing monoliths visible even from the farthest observers, or the once ubiquitous television ads which brought his smiling face into millions of homes selling the George Foreman Grill.

The return of Big George in the ring came actually seven years before the introduction of the kitchen appliance, and ten years after his loss to Jimmy Young in 1977. At the age of 38, Foreman was perceived by many as being too old and especially too out of shape to be a title contender. Returning against journeymen weighing close to 270 pounds, Foreman’s fists were as frightening as ever as he slowly climbed up the ladder and reestablishing the fact in the ring, Foreman was to be feared once again.

In 1988 he won 9 times. His most important win during this era was against one of the most memorable crusierweights and hall of famer, Dwight Muhammed Qwai. Foreman scored a seventh round TKO against Qwai and his new fighting presence was crystallized henceforth. Foreman still had his mobility, and most importantly his power, but his brutal combinations which crushed opponents in the 70’s were gone. At least, not without throwing him off balance and his more careful style and adjustments had now made him as capable as ever of going 12 rounds, something he admitted that even in his younger days was a difficult task.

Foreman faced fellow formidable puncher Gerry Cooney in 1990, and after being shaken early came back to wreak havoc on Cooney, inflicting a devastating knockout loss on Cooney in the second round. After four more wins, Big George seemed destined to meet Qwai’s great crusierweight foil, and then heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield.

Foreman proved no match for “The Real Deal,” but while many didn’t give him a chance to survive against the fellow Olympian, Foreman exceeded expectations, stumbling Holyfield around with several large shots, especially in round seven. Despite never being in a position to win on points or coming close to delivering a knockout, the match is still seen as a career defining performance for the then 42 year old. Holyfield dealt Foreman his first loss since 1977.

After a lackluster outing with Tommy Morrison, who gave Foreman his fourth loss of his career, kept the power puncher out of range for nearly the entire fight. Morrison won a lopsided decision and became the WBO heavyweight champion. For Foreman, the desire to “go out right,” with “the title around [his] waist” was still out of reach.

Then, it happened…

HBO’s Jim Lampley gave the famous line, “it happened….it happened,” as Foreman, underdog once more against the younger, undefeated southpaw Michael Moorer. Moorer had defeated the man Foreman could not, besting Evander Holyfield earlier that year in 1994. Foreman, purposely slower and sluggish to lure an overconfident Moorer into a false sense of security, knocked Moorer out in the tenth round. Foreman, at nearly 46 years old, beat Jersey Joe Walcott’s record by eight years to become the oldest world heavyweight champion. Foreman had succeeded in showing that age was no “death sentence,” as he put it.

Foreman was competitive until the end, arguably getting a bad call against him in Shannon Briggs gaining a victory against him to win the lineal heavyweight championship in 1997. Notwithstanding, Foreman made an incredible body of work stretch further into the sky with his comeback starting in the late eighties, when this writer was an infant. The end of the 1990’s saw Foreman make more money in the kitchen than he did in a ring with his sale of his grill rights to the tag of nearly $200 million in 1999.

Undoubtedly a happy ending. One that many boxers don’t come even close to getting.

Walcott to Foreman is quite the gap, spanning nearly 40 years. It wouldn’t take decades for a similar feat to be achieved until the man known as “The Alien” Bernard Hopkins, already a great with then the record of consecutive middleweight title defenses and defeating hall of famers Felix Trinidad and Oscar De la Hoya, would beat Foreman’s record.

Hopkins soon moved to light-heavyweight after losing his middleweight titles to Jermain Taylor. While the number continued to climb upward, the age of Hopkins never proved to be a factor in his abilities to compete at world level. Gaining revenge on rival Roy Jones Jr. and just narrowly losing a tight contest to undefeated Welsh champion Joe Calzaghe and overcoming Jean Pascal after the first match being a draw.

Hopkins, like Foreman, changed styles as time moved forward and had in fact had arguably become a better fighter. Certain questionable tactics aside, Hopkins’ tempo, defensive acumen and still present punching power still made him a force in the fight game. At age 48, he beat Tavoris Cloud and won the IBF light heavyweight belt and defended it through age 49 defeating Kazakh Beibut Shumenov to pick up the WBA super-light heavyweight championship.

Hopkins, who had been a professional prizefighter since 1988, had his championship days come to a finale in 2014. Even in defeat there was something remarkable at the fact that Hopkins, despite being shutout and pulverized by Russian heavy-hitter Sergey Kovalev the much younger and then once of the most awesome punchers in boxing couldn’t stop Hopkins and was forced to go the full twelve rounds for the first time in his career.

After one more match against Joe Smith Jr. Hopkins was stopped for the first time in his career after being knocked out of the ring missing the 20-count, near the mind-boggling age of 52. Hopkins retired for good soon after.

Most great fighters lose their last fight. From Leonard, Ali, Hagler, Duran, Robinson, the odds are that fighters, battered and swollen with pride are going to pull that lever one too many times. While that didn’t happen to Roy Jones Jr., the only boxer to start at light middleweight to win a title at heavyweight, his career decayed with a less luminous half-life than his rival Hopkins.

Jones gave Hopkins his second defeat in 1993 to win the IBF middleweight title back when Jones was still the undefeated marvel of the boxing world. By the time they had met again in 2010, both had suffered numerous defeats and in Jones’ case a few brutal knockout losses, including the prequel to the second Hopkins bout, a first round rout to Australian Danny Green.

The second bout between Hopkins and Jones was so terrible, many, including ESPN’s Dan Rafael called for both fighters to hang it up. The fight was slow, boring and filled with fouls in which Rafael labelled the match, an “abomination.”

Unlike Hopkins, Jones would never really crack into the upper echelon of the sweet science again. The fighters took two different roads diverging away from each other for good. Hopkins would win championships, yet Jones, in his next bout was absolutely ravaged by Russian cruiserweight Denis Lebedev. Jones was annihilated and knocked out in a round ten stoppage victory for Lebedev.

Jones would win his last fight in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida in February, 2018, against Scott Sigmon, but some of his fights in the tail-end of his career would be so bad, so dull, so uninspiring, that at many times the former pound-for-pound king would be often be jeered by those who watched live.

The bout against the clock remains for many boxing, never mind the retirement of these all-time greats. Three fighters today are trying to wage their own war on time, with varying results.

If you’re a die hard fan, one who watches all levels of competition of boxing, we have one less underdog to root for now as we most certainly have seen the last of tough journeyman, Lolenga Mock. Having been stopped only once in the ring to David Haye (scoring his own knockdown in the process), Mock otherwise has completed every bout win or lose. Aged 46, and having faced a slew of champions throughout his run, Mock never made it to the top of the hill.

With the Congolese (then Zaire) born Mock, who has been fighting out of Denmark most of his career, what he possessed in stamina, toughness and sheer force of will, he lacked in speed and agility. The fights he needed to win to earn a title shot he just couldn’t. Mock, to those who were patient enough, could be easily outpointed and kept at range, yet he scored several upset victories over those who refused to take him seriously.

He managed to score a TKO victory over former champion Charles Brewer in 2005. Nine years ago he decision-ed a much younger Giovanni De Carolis for the European Super-Middleweight crown and just last year he shocked fight fans as he beat former interim WBA 168 pound champ Dmitry Chudinov.

Nearly in his mid 40’s Mock had his busiest year in 2016, fighting and winning all six times he entered the ring.

Losing a majority decision against World Boxing Super Series participant Anvi Yildirim in September 2018 and dropping a unanimous decision against Mateo Veron less than two weeks ago, it’s probable that the long story of Lolenga comes to an anti-climactic end. Mock’s abilities have reached an unsalvagable nadir, his legs , never the greatest asset are gone, his legendary ruggedness now a liability as he now just opens himself up to unnecessary punishment if he returns. Mock is a fighter I’ll always root for but now wish a fond and safe farewell.

The reason being, we’ve seen worse endings. Much worse. In victory or defeat, Mock was able to walk out holding his own head up. In a sport that tragically still sees a few deaths a year, last December we nearly saw fatality in French Canada.

While the world was in the whirlwind of heavyweight boxing, all eyes set upon Los Angeles, the opposite end of North America as far as Quebec City was concerned as we all awaited the showdown between lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and WBC titlist Deontay Wilder.

I was in Los Angelas and several of us watched in the various bars and stands in the Staples Center the fight between 41 year old Adonis Stevenson, and Ukrainian challenger Oleksandr Gvozdyk, 31. There was more on the line than Stevenson’s lineal and WBC light heavyweight championships. Stevenson’s reign had long been a target of criticism of avoiding top foes and taking the path of least resistance and surely the Haitian-born “Superman” as his fans chant was keen on reversing those remarks. After a successful defense against Badou Jack in Toronto earlier that year, albeit a draw, Stevenson vowed victory against Gvozdok.

While the Ukrainian Gvozdok, nicknamed, “The Nail,” was seen amongst boxing insiders as the pound-for-pound hardest hitter amongst the wave of Ukrainians dominating boxing at the moment along with Vasyl Lomachenko and the newly minted Boxing Writers Associaition of America fighter of the year, undisputed Crusierweight champion Oleksander Usyk. Stevenson, even by his most stern critics as a talented fighter, had quite the challenge before him.

Despite some awful judging and officiating the match was competitive, spirited, and entertaining, with each fighter knocking down the other (though they mistakenly weren’t counted), the fight was close and amplified the abilities of both men. The great action packed fight came to near mournful ending as Stevenson’s reign finally ended at the end of the eleventh round at age 41. He took several hard blows, all to the head in the corner and slumped lifelessly to the canvas. The jubilation among Stevenson detractors, Gvozdyk fans, and those just excited to see a new young champion was soon extinguished. Even watching from afar in the Staples Center, smiles disappeared.

“He’s not getting up, he’s hurt real bad,” a fan next to me said. Another fan exclaimed, “That was brutal.” as we watched on hoping the former champ could stand on his on power.

He couldn’t.

Adonis Stevenson was quickly rushed to the intensive care unit in Quebec City’s Hopital de l’Enfant-Jesus with a life-threatening brain injury and remained in a coma until around Christmas time after enduring emergency neurosurgery. Adonis Stevenson, both the champion and the man, nearly came to a violent, cataclysmic end.

With good fortune the man continues onward, with common sense the champion is forever a thing of the past. We shouldn’t see Stevenson in a boxing ring ever again.

A close call is sometimes too close, as even today, fighters do die in the ring. Christian Daghio, aged 49, was killed in the ring in Bangkok, Thailand this past year. Leaving behind his wife and 5-year-old daughter. He reportedly told Italian media that was the way he always wanted to die, a fighter, and that “he dreamed of fighting until he was 80 years old.”

Are dreams worth leaving children fatherless? Boxing will never cease to be dangerous, but the sport and those in it have a right to intervene and act as stewards and guardians to protect those, unable or unwilling to protect themselves. The WBC recently has enacted new weight guidelines to protect the health of fighters, for instance. Although the tragic truth is that safety in combat sports will always be an enigmatic and endless battle between the unstoppable force and immovable object. Boxing is in essence, the paradoxical, controlled violence.

Also this month we saw the continuation of the Manny Pacqiuao story. Now 40 himself, the once flyweight phenom and boxing’s only eight-division world champion has vowed to fight on against top competition. Now the WBA regular welterweight champion after beating Lucas Matthysse in Kuala Lumpur last year, “Pacman” soundly beat the much younger and much more cautious Adrian Broner in Las Vegas on January 19, 2019.

Broner has always been unable to wage war, and Pacquiao was an overwhelming favorite. Matthysse was a different story. Although Matthysse was seen as a shot fighter after his seventh-round TKO loss in Malaysia, many wondered if Pacquaio could withstand the assault of the hard-hitting, heavily tattooed Argentinian. Matthysse had managed to crush the previous two fighters before the Pacqiuaio bout, who were deliberately running from his power. While, conversely, many worried about the sluggishness of the Filipino icon in his controversial upset loss to Aussie Jeff Horn.

Now it’s February of 2019, Pacquiao hasn’t lossed since Horn and now the boxing world is talking about the certain first ballot hall-of-famer taking on current champions Keith Thurman, Mikey Garcia, Terence Crawford, or Mikey Garcia with many still giving the fighting senator from the Philippines at least a mild outside chance of victory, joining that exclusive club of elite pugilists who were able to return to top form after 40.

And there’s more..

Now former longtime dominant heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko, perhaps teased by money, boredom, the inspiration of fellow Ukrainian champs Usyk, Gvozdyk, and Lomachenko, has rumours abound concerning his potential comeback. Klitschko may also desire revenge against the current champs who had previously defeated him in Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury. Fans are now spreading word that a potential deal with Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Sport and streaming network DAZN are in the works with Klitschko’s K2 promotions. He still has fans, he may still have the skills and given the state of the heavyweight contenders today, many give the former Olympic gold medalist a chance at becoming a three-time champion.

Whatever the motivation, rumours and boxing are forever inseparable. Similarly, much like the sports risk and reward, the balancing act between safety and legacy are never truly resolved as long as the fighter is willing and able to press on. For many fighters, the end is almost a forced abandonment, with many not admitting the path has reached a forgone conclusion until there are no more steps forward available, and even then, the consequences for those who take one fight too many could cost a fighter literally everything.