Not going out like that!
Boxing, perhaps more than any other athletic endeavor, lacks the proverbial happy ending for fighters who give everything to the sport. It is a matter of conjecture as to why that is, given the diverse array of boxers, the world over, who left the sport on a sour note. It is why I give Floyd Mayweather Jr. credit for going out on a high note and not sullying his legacy by sticking around too long. However, I do not rule out a comeback that only a very few (Rocky Marciano, Joe Calzaghe, Ricardo Lopez, etc.) have avoided. The vast majority need a final beating at the hands of sometimes lesser foes to convince them that their time has passed.
This article was inspired – no, conjured up – by nightmare images of over-the-hill 47-year-old Roy Jones Jr. and 38-year-old Antonio Margarito stumbling around the ring two weekends ago. I don’t begrudge any person the right and opportunity to go out on his terms and even watched a couple rounds of Antonio Margarito’s struggle with an inferior foe he would have dominated in his prime. What I would say is, if it is not necessary for financial stability, the stain a final losing image can put on a legacy is not worth it. For the purposes of this list, I limited the choices to Hall of Fame inductees. I gave preference to boxers coming back after lengthy layoffs and, as such, omitted greats who returned after short absences, like Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Bob Foster, Pernell Whitaker or Ken Buchanan, who lost to foes they would not have considered as sparring partners in their primes.
Notable omissions that would make most other lists are Joe Louis, Jimmy Wilde, Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Leonard or Jim Jeffries, since they at least lost to future Hall-of-Famers. Although, I agree that they lived down to stereotypes by exiting on undoubtedly low notes. I could have included a Bobby Chacon or Aaron Pryor, as well, and maybe should have as they looked almost as bad beating pitiful opposition in their final outings to exit with wins…of sorts. I did not bother ranking them either, since an ignominious list as this is bad enough in itself without adding further discomfiture by assigning it degrees of badness.
Mike Tyson (2005) – Once universally feared and bestowed the nickname of “The Baddest Man on the Planet,” the ending showed Tyson as anything but a dynamo surrendering meekly on his stool to an ordinary Kevin McBride. The paychecks told a story of perceived worth as Tyson got 5.5 million (90% of which went to back taxes and a divorce settlement) while McBride was happy to get $150,000 and everlasting bar story fame of being able to say he beat Mike Tyson. Even Tyson apologized to fans for what they witnessed, “I do not have the guts to be in this sport anymore. I don’t want to disrespect the sport that I love. My heart is not into this anymore. I’m sorry for the fans who paid for this. I wish I could have done better.” But he couldn’t; his skills and ambition had long since abandoned Tyson the way fair-weather friends had.
Carlos Palomino (1998) – One of America’s favorite Saturday afternoon matinee idol boxers of the 1970s, the model-handsome Palomino was able to translate his fame into national beer commercials, small movie roles and other non-boxing outlets. Even the intelligent Palomino was not immune to the temptations of a comeback; initially retiring in 1979, Palomino returned to the ring in 1997, scoring four wins over poor opposition before falling at the hands of competent but not excellent Wilfredo Rivera, who lost in three world title bids. Palomino did not come back for ego; he returned to the gym after his father died and, like an addict, was driven back to the sport because he said he felt a connection with his father again, who introduced him to boxing. No matter the reason, even if it is a good one, it always seems to end the same.
Alexis Arguello (1995) – The much admired and heralded Nicaraguan, both for his gentlemanly manner in and out of the ring, was featured in two comeback bouts at age 42 on the USA Network’s much loved “Tuesday Night Fights.” This means more American sport fans than usual saw Arguello’s final defeat to Scott Walker. It should be noted that Arguello was given the benefit of the doubt on the scorecards, only losing by a point on two cards. However, it was not that close and there was the final ignominy of losing to a boxer nicknamed “Pink Cat,” dressed in all pink, backing Arguello up continually and only needed a sidestep to incapacitate Arguello’s once-vaunted offense. While Arguello was not beaten up, the fact that this once-feared boxing master looked so impotent is the equivalent of seeing Walter Payton in a wheelchair.
Matthew Saad Muhammad (1992) – Few gave more of themselves inside the ring than Muhammad, he battled to the last drop of sweat in back-and-forth fights that remain legend in Philadelphia and to boxing historians. Boxing took so much out of him that, at age 26, he was past his peak and a spent force. Some legends knew they were fooling themselves and the public with their returns to the ring for money and nostalgia, more so than sporting merit. That makes someone like Saad Muhammad seem even sadder, as he refused to give less than 100% but had no more than 1% of himself remaining. Saad Muhammad made his final comeback in the late-1980s, only winning one of his last nine bouts and exiting to a 11-3-1 Jason Waller in two rounds. Saad Muhammad was never a good judge of when to enter or exit though, relating a story of why he refused to take the role of Clubber Lang in the “Rocky” movie franchise, “Man, if I could go back in time, I would shave my head, if that’s what it took to get that part. But if you knew things then that you know now, life would be a lot easier; wouldn’t it?”
Danny “Little Red” Lopez (1992) – A West Coast fan favorite, Lopez earned a following with smooth, elongated aggression, which kept opponents at the end of his jab that only Hall-of-Famer Salvador Sanchez had the skill to withstand in his prime. Lopez also earned style points, entering the ring in an authentic Native American headdress, in honor of his Ute Indian heritage. Sadly, there was nothing stylish about his exit, being stopped in the second round by 10-26-2 trial horse Jorge Rodriguez a full 12 years after his retirement. Lopez never stood a chance as he entered the fight with an undisclosed broken left hand he injured badly in a construction accident a couple weeks earlier. Not even that was a good enough excuse for the 40-year-old Lopez to conclude he could contend a decade removed from his featherweight title reign.
Wilfred Benitez (1990) – A true prodigy, Benitez was the youngest boxer to ever win a world title, at 17, but a spent force because of partying and taking too many punches by his 23rd birthday! Benitez continued to box until age 32, no doubt a considerable contributor to the brain damage he suffered, leaving him a broken and poor invalid living with his mother at 40. This, despite being known for incredible defense and evasiveness as a youngster born of lightning-fast reflexes, until his lack of training (or no training, as most observers noted) caught up to Benitez, making him an easy target. In all honesty, it would have been better for all concerned, even for paying fans in attendance, if Benitez had been knocked out in 10 seconds instead of the steady 10-round pounding he took from unexceptional 15-6-1 Scott Papasodora. One of boxing’s cautionary tales, Benitez suffered a dark finale for a boxer who started so brightly.
Ruben Olivares (1988) – An idol of his time, Olivares was Arturo Gatti and Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. wrapped into one thrilling package, beloved by the Mexican people and boxing fans the world over for his boyish smile and rakish personality. So it made the farewell that much more bittersweet, especially since it came at age 42, against a boxer whose only verifiable record stood at a meager 2-2. I could not find out much information about the actual “fight,” other than it took place in Mexico City with Olivares scaling a respectable 130 pounds, despite his career-long battle with weight due to his love of partying until the early morning hours. That was the only respectable thing about the event, however, as Olivares was knocked out in the fourth round of a scheduled 10. Perhaps the less we know, the better when it comes to that ending.
Muhammad Ali (1981) – The late-career loss most sports fans associate with Muhammad Ali is his shutout defeat at the fists of Larry Holmes. However, Ali’s final outing against Trevor Berbick, after a years absence, was equally hard to watch (though Ali kept it close for six rounds) and thankfully mostly forgotten by history. So, maybe Ali’s 1.1-million-dollar payday made it worthwhile? Not even the lovely location – the event was dubbed “The Drama in Bahama” – could distract from the foul odor emanating from the ring as Ali labored and Berbick failed to inspire. Celebrated boxing writer Steve Farhood summed it up best, “Berbick, not one-fifth the fighter Holmes is, walked right through Ali, yet couldn’t drive in a single telling blow.” The fight was held in the Caribbean because no American athletic commission would grant Ali a license, given his deterioration as an athlete…and the action, as well as result, proved them correct.
Willie Pep (1966) – It may be particularly disappointing to see a once-unhittable defensive wizard come to an end, since we are unaccustomed to the true tolls of punches impacting that type of boxing hero. That was the case with Pep, a once unassailable ghost-like figure, getting tagged by an honest 8-4 club fighter named Calvin Woodland. Woodland bested a Hall-of-Famer with 241 bouts to his credit inside a dingy Richmond, Virginia arena in a six-round preliminary bout. Pep made his first comeback at age 34, won some fights too, but said of the Woodward bout, “I knew I had gone too far. I made a name for myself by not getting hit and now suddenly I was getting tagged. I realized a 44-year-old man belongs on the golf course and not in the boxing ring.” Thankfully it was only a six-round affair but still enough to tell with certainty that Pep had reached end of fistic viability.
Tony Canzoneri (1939) – It is part of boxing’s narrative that once formerly great fighters are fed to the young lions of the sport, which is what happened when volume-punching Canzoneri came up against bomb-throwing (THE RING magazine rated him one of the 100 best punchers of all-time) Al “Bummy” Davis. The 19-year-old young gun was undefeated in 35 fights, while Canzoneri was gifted easy opposition, so he would enter the fight on a six-bout winning streak. No matter, as Davis tore into a backpedaling Canzoneri, who won titles in three divisions – back when that meant something – from the opening bell, without mercy, for eight minutes and 13 seconds. This was the only time Canzoneri was ever stopped in 171 bouts but the win backfired and, instead of elevating Davis, he was seen as a villain by fans, who had such an adoration for Canzoneri. It should have been the beginning of a Hall of Fame career for Davis but personal problems dogged the young star and he was gunned down at age 25 in a bar by four robbers.