A few years ago, as Bernard Hopkins toppled backward through the ring ropes, landing on the cement floor, a collective gasp rose throughout the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles, CA.
This was not the way it was supposed to end for the future Hall-of-Famer and ring legend.
Hopkins had engaged in seven competitive rounds with 27-year-old Irish slugger Joe Smith Jr. He was losing the fight, but hanging in–until Father Time knocked on the door.
The 6,000 fans in attendance, who had ventured to The Forum to support Hopkins one last time, left downcast.
Sadly, in sports, an end to a glorious career can be painful to watch.
Any who witnessed Willie Mays stumbling in an attempt to catch a fly ball, or a Johnny Unitas pass fluttering down the field, recalls the sadness of watching greatness ebb.
Boxing, with all its brutality and bloodthirst, can be the most punishing sport of all.
In 1951, the legendary Joe Louis faced young gun Rocky Marciano at Madison Square Garden in New York. Louis, whose reign as heavyweight champion is the longest in boxing history, was favored 2-1 over the hard-punching, albeit crude, Marciano.
Louis did pretty well for a while. His jab tagged Marciano repeatedly. But his legs, and once-powerful right hand, let him down. Marciano kept after Louis, flooring him in round eight. A few seconds later, as Louis languished on the ropes with a blank expression on his face, Marciano delivered the coup de grace.
Two left hooks and a right hand sent Louis through the ropes and onto the ring apron. Louis was eventually helped to his feet by a few sympathetic ringside journalists.
“I saw the right hand coming, but I couldn’t do anything about it,” Louis said after the fight.
In 1965, the great Sugar Ray Robinson faced number-one middleweight contender Joey Archer.
Robinson, universally regarded as the greatest fighter in boxing history, was 45 on fight night. He looked good physically, could still move a little, but his once-brilliant reflexes had dulled.
He tried to knock Archer out early in the match but missed most of his punches.
Archer floored Robinson in round four and staggered him a couple of the other times. His victory was without question.
Asked the next day whether he would continue his career, Robinson smiled and said, “Aw, what would be the point?”
After getting pummeled by Larry Holmes in 1980, Muhammad Ali uttered the words, “I shall return.”
Fourteen months later he did, against contender Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. Many wondered why.
Ali, the former three-time heavyweight champion and self-proclaimed “Greatest of all Time,” had slowed down considerably. He was 39, years past his prime, but still magical at times in the ring.
He hung with Berbick in the opening rounds, popping him with his once-stinging jab, but ran out of gas and guile as the fight wore on.
Berbick won the bout by decision.
Ali was realistic in defeat.
“I think I’m too old. I was slow,” said Ali. “I was weak. The things I wanted to do, I couldn’t do.”
That’s probably the saddest realization for any athlete who is past his prime–the inability to do what you could once do without a second thought.
Bernard Hopkins admitted as much after his last fight.
“It is what it is. Am I comfortable with it? No.Things unfortunately happen.”
Even the greatest can’t defeat Father Time.
Pick up a copy of Intimate Warfare: The True story of the Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward Boxing Trilogy by Dennis Taylor and John J. Raspanti at www.amazon.com
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