Calling time in 2017

Ron Borges
25/11/2017 3:51pm

Art by Trevor Von Eeden

Some big names and some lesser ones retired in 2017. Ron Borges says fundamentally they were all the same — fighters to the end...

There are many reasons to retire from prize fighting but the usual one is the cost of staying. That was once described brilliantly by someone who knew far more about the pain of the sport than its rewards.

“If you screw things up in tennis, it’s 15-love,’’ Randall “Tex’’ Cobb said of the hurt business. “If you screw up in boxing, it’s your ass.’’

Even the greatest fighters learn that hard lesson at some point, many only after they have overstayed their welcome. Every boxer who ever put on gloves promises as a young man that he will avoid this fate but few do because the ring is an unfaithful but seductive lover, difficult to walk away from but toxic if you stay too long in its arms.

This year, a number of outstanding boxers retired from the arena and nearly all left not in victory but defeat. They faced the bittersweet reality that time had run out the hard way, wearing sunglasses at midnight or bent over in a boxing ring with their hands around their ears while a younger man battered them onto their sofas.

Long-time heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko was one, succumbing to the youthful fists of Anthony Joshua on 29 April but not without getting off the floor twice and putting young Joshua down once, a reminder that while he may no longer have been who he once was, he was still a dangerous man to mess with. In the end, youth prevailed when Joshua finished the job the calendar had begun by knocking Klitschko down a third time so dramatically in the 11th round that it was clear the fight was over and no rematch, not even one guaranteeing Klitschko $20 million, was called for. It was time to leave.

That record 29th heavyweight title fight came before a roaring crowd of 90,000 at Wembley Stadium. At 41, Klitschko had by then been fighting for 21 years and this was his second consecutive loss, the other a massively disappointing performance against Tyson Fury 17 months earlier. Because of Fury’s personal problems, they never met again and now never will regardless of whether Fury’s announced retirement sticks or he returns to boxing in some country willing to licence him.
Klitschko (64-5, 54 KOs) had ruled the division for nearly a decade but was dismissed in the United States as less than his CV made him appear. That’s why he fought only once there in the final nine years of his career despite drawing big crowds in Germany and Britain.

Regardless of how Americans perceive him, though, Klitschko was a two-time champion whose second reign of nine years, seven months and seven days was the second longest in heavyweight history and his 18 consecutive title defences was third longest behind Joe Louis (25) and Larry Holmes (20). Clearly, he was a dominating presence until the clock ran out on him.

Four years after winning an Olympic gold medal in 1996, Klitschko first won the title from Chris Byrd but after being knocked out by Corrie Sanders in 2003 and stopped by Lamon Brewster a year later, it appeared his time at the top would be short lived. Klitschko proved otherwise but never forgot the pain of those defeats, keeping the gloves he wore the night Brewster beat him on his office wall and always carrying a business card given to him by Brewster’s former manager. On it was a photo of Brewster knocking him out.

Klitschko came back to rule the division and shared the titles with his brother Vitali, as they dreamed of doing as young boys, before outlasting his older brother. But at a time when the division is now lorded over by young lions like Joshua and the American champion Deontay Wilder, reality finally hit.

“I would have never imagined that I would have such a long and incredibly successful boxing career,’’ Klitschko said, “[but]…at some point in our lives we need to, or just want to, switch our careers and get ourselves ready for the next chapter and chart a new course toward fresh challenges. Obviously, I’m not an exception to this. Now is my turn.’’

For other ex-champions, like Tim Bradley, Juan Manuel Marquez, Robert Guerrero, Paulie Malignaggi, Nathan Cleverly, Shane Mosley, Takashi Miura and Takashi Uchiyama, things ended less dramatically this year but no less painfully. Each retired after defeat, age, injury or the sport’s unrelenting demands became more than they could muster.

“I had a helluva run,’’ said the 34-year-old Bradley (33-2-1, 13 KOs). “I’m just not motivated to do this any more.”

Bradley won five belts at junior welterweight and welterweight, made millions and was involved in one of the most controversial decisions in recent years when he was awarded a split decision over Manny Pacquiao on a night few felt he had prevailed. He should be better remembered for the pitched battle he engaged in with Ruslan Provodnikov in 2013, a toe-to-toe slugfest in which he suffered a concussion but fought bravely to win after going to the floor and being out on his feet in the final round.

Although his hand was raised and respect was won, Bradly was never quite the same. He had lost a piece of himself in that ring he could never get back to give the sport of boxing not only one of its best fights but one of its greatest quotes.

“I was concussed, dude,’’ he told HBO when asked why he hadn’t run from Provodnikov in the final round to preserve his lead.
“Boxing gave me roots, it kept me off the streets, it gave me confidence, it taught me how to be a man and face every challenge head on and take the good with the bad,’’ Bradley said when announcing his retirement.

“Yes, I missed holidays, birthdays, even missed hearing some of my children’s first words, but more than time, it took my blood, sweat and tears — all things I can never get back, which is why turning the page for me is bittersweet.

“There always comes a point in life where we have to make choices that, no matter how much we know the right option, it still leaves us filled with mixed emotions… For over 23 years, boxing gave me purpose and it defined me.”

The story was much the same for the 44-year-old Marquez, who is considered one of Mexico’s greatest fighters. Once one of boxing’s finest counter punchers, Marquez was worn down by 64 fights, finally abandoning a comeback he hoped would make him the first Mexican to win five world titles as age stalked him.

“Today is a special and sad day for me because I’m announcing my retirement,’’ he said. “The injuries pushed me to make this decision. I would have loved to do a final fight to say goodbye inside the ring, but I have to listen to my body, and it was telling me that the right moment to stop boxing is now.”

Like Klitschko, it took a sound thrashing from Badou Jack on 26 August to convince Cleverly, a two-time light-heavyweight champion, it was time to move on. The decision came in the hardest of ways, with blood spilling from his face from a broken nose as he stood his ground one last time, fighting now only for pride.

“I’ve lived it and loved every second of this sport,’’ said Cleverly (30-4, 16 KOs) at the end of his 12-year professional career. “A few too many miles on the clock. Time to say goodbye.”

Former junior lightweight champions Takashi Uchiyama and Takashi Miura also stepped away this year. Among Japan’s best fighters in recent years, they simultaneously held forms of the 130lbs title but never fought a unification fight that would have been not only a rematch but a fight that would have packed any Japanese arena. Six years ago, Uchiyama had stopped Miura in the eighth round of a title defence but two years later Miura laid claim to another version of the title and fans would have loved to see them settle the question of who was best — but time beat them to it.

Uchiyama (24-2-1, 20 KOs), 37, first won the WBA belt by knocking out Juan Carlos Salgado in 2010 and made 11 successful defences before being upset by Jezreel Corrales, who knocked him down three times in a second-round knockout last year. When he faced him in a rematch in December, Uchiyama lost a split decision and never fought again.

“Though I kept training since the Corrales rematch, I realised I couldn’t properly revive my motivation to train as hard as I previously had,” Uchiyama explained. “After deeply considering whether or not to go on, I finally made up my mind to hang up my gloves for good.”

So did the 33-year-old Miura (31-4-2, 24 KOs), whose retirement did not come as a surprise. Two weeks after dropping a lopsided decision to reigning champion Miguel Berchelt on 15 July, he announced he’d had enough. No one in Japan disagreed with his decision.

As for Malignaggi, his retirement at 36 came on the 19th anniversary of his first amateur fight and two days after a brutal eighth-round knockout from a left hook to the body launched by Sam Eggington at O2 Arena in London. It was the third time in his last six fights Malignaggi had been stopped.

A classic overachiever and masterful boxer, Malignaggi (36-8, 7 KOs) won titles at 140 and 147 pounds and 11 years ago put on one of the most courageous efforts imaginable when he went the distance in losing a WBO junior welterweight title fight to heavy-handed Miguel Cotto. Malignaggi was down twice, suffered a severe cut over one eye and a broken cheekbone and collapsed in the locker room after the fight before being taken to hospital. He had ignored it all to go the distance.

Guerrero’s retirement came after a predictable ending for many former champions. He was sacrificed at the altar of youth, being brutally stopped by young Omar Figueroa Jr, who dropped him five times. The undefeated Figueroa (27-0-1, 19 KOs) was coming off a 19-month layoff and looking to revive his career at the expense of a former featherweight and junior lightweight champion who had not fought in 11 months. Guerrero lost five of his last seven fights.

Though rare, not every champion leaves battered and broken. Two who did not are Floyd Mayweather Jr and Andre Ward, the former earning the easiest $100 million in history in August for stopping MMA star Conor McGregor, a rank amateur in boxing who had never had a professional fight.

After McGregor ran out of gas, Mayweather (50-0, 27 KOs) beat him down and delivered his first legitimate stoppage in a decade in what he is calling his 50th victory. After it was over, Mayweather, 40, made clear there would be no 51st.

“I’m not the same fighter I was 21 years ago. I’m not the same fighter I was 10 years ago. I’m not even the same fighter I was two years ago,” Mayweather said. After the fight Mayweather admitted he stopped sparring a week early because of persistent hand pain. “This is my last fight, ladies and gentlemen. For sure, this is my last fight,” he said.

Mayweather has turned boxing’s future over to the likes of Errol Spence Jr, Gennady Golovkin, Canelo Alvarez, Terence Crawford, Mikey Garcia, Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, Vasyl Lomachenko and the towering heavyweights Joshua and Wilder, it seems. But one fighter expected to be among those carrying the sport left as well.

After stopping Sergey Kovalev in a rematch of their controversial 2016 light-heavyweight title unification fight, the undefeated Ward decided at 33 that boxing had begun to ask more of him than he was able to give.

Ward was considered one of the best boxers in the world but never captured the imagination of either ticket buyers or pay-per-view audiences. As such his financial horizons were limited, not only by an absence of challengers but also the end of his long-term contract with American cable TV giant, HBO.

“I want to be clear — I am leaving because my body can no longer put up with the rigors of the sport and therefore my desire to fight is no longer there,” Ward wrote on his website. “If I cannot give my family, my team and the fans everything that I have, then I should no longer be fighting.”

Although many rated him the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, Ward admitted the harshness of the sport had begun to weigh on him in ways only a fighter can fully understand.

“People see what I do fight night, they see under the lights, but they don’t see the toil, they don’t see the grind, they don’t see just the pain, the physical pain that you go through, not just in the fights, but to prepare and to get ready for those battles,” Ward explained. “I felt the physicality of the sport, not just in-the-ring stuff but the training and the preparation started to take its toll on me for the last two or three years and I bit down and continued to push through and at this point, it’s time and I know it’s time.”

It takes more than champions to keep boxing going, however, an non-champions retire too. Boxers who win fights but not belts reach the same lonely moment. Although the world may not note their passing, they also change the sport’s landscape by their retirement.

One such fighter was Ola Afolabi, the longtime cruiserweight contender who retired this year at 36. Although he was never a champion, Afolabi had four memorable battles with the German Marco Huck before announcing his retirement in a
1,547-word essay posted on Facebook. It was a moving commentary on what boxing had meant to a Nigerian-born fighter from England who spent much of his career fighting out of Los Angeles with no particular advantages beyond his brave heart.

“Around 16 years ago, I was hungry and partially homeless when I stumbled into a boxing gym in Hollywood, out of all places,” Afolabi wrote. “With no prior training or experience in boxing, I decided to give it a go. At the ancient age of 20, I worked hard every day. I would deejay in a shady club on some days, and on other days, I’d work as an overnight receptionist at a student hostel in exchange for a bunk bed in a shared room of six foreign students.

“I would then hit the gym with barely enough sleep to spar with world champions like James Toney, Francois Botha, Julio Gonzalez and other experienced up-and-comers. I did this for two years before getting discovered in 2002 by my managers, Victor Martinez and Pedro Rosado. These two amazing men fed me and housed me, and for that, I will be forever thankful.’’

Afolabi (22-5-4, 11 KOs) turned pro that year with no fanfare and little reason to think he would leave a mark. His first fight ended in a four-round draw and after six fights he was a middling 3-1-2. Eventually he became a contender, though, and even won the interim WBO cruiserweight title in 2009 by stopping former champion Enzo Maccarinelli in the ninth round.

His next fight was the first of four against Huck, who was the reigning WBO champion. Huck won a disputed decision in Germany, where he was heavily favoured. In a May 2012 rematch, Afolabi nearly took the title again but the bout was ruled a majority draw. Some 13 months later, Afolabi lost a majority decision to Huck before finally being stopped by him with no titles at stake on 27 February.

During his career, Afolabi not only overcame a late start and often difficult circumstances but also a detached retina and multiple shoulder injuries that forced him out of the ring for three years between 2005 and 2008. Despite all his troubles, Afolabi was the definition of a fighter who boxed to earn his keep, sometimes as a prized sparring partner for Klitschko and Fury, among others.

“I missed my prime as a boxer,” Afolabi wrote. “The years I was supposed to do my best work and feel my strongest were lost…When you get old, the first things you lose are timing and reflexes…This is why I have to wrap it up. I have always been a realist. Boxing has been painful, but it has also brought me so many positives that outweigh the negatives. I see my idols like James Toney and Roy Jones with damages like slurred speech and balance problems still fighting in their 40s for $100,000 or less. These are guys with talents and status I could only dream of. If it can happen to them it will definitely happen to me. I will not let it happen to me.

“I accomplished more with no experience, help or protection than most fighters with all the advantages in the world, so after two retina surgeries, double vision and a bad shoulder, I must say goodbye to boxing.’’

They all must eventually and 2017 has been no exception. Some left with great fanfare, their fans longing for one more night, but the majority stepped away the way they left their corner, alone with only their dreams to join them. Yet fundamentally they were all the same.

They were fighters to the end.