Monday, 9 June 2014

No easy way to say goodbye

"Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting."
                                                                                                                         J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

As Sergio Martínez floundered around Madison Square Garden against Miguel Cotto on Saturday night, his spirit willing but flesh and limbs all too weak, it struck me that, as you would expect from a sport that is so unrelenting physically and mentally, boxing is littered with painful and disappointing goodbyes.

Like many sportspeople, boxers often struggle to quit at the 'right time' - there is always one more mountain to climb, one more record-breaking feat to attempt or one more young challenger to try and repel, while the bleak landscape of retirement can seem daunting for someone who is used to the bright lights of stardom and the regular drug of adulation. (This is a theme, by the way, which will be prominent in Boxiana: Volume 1, to be published later this year).

Perhaps part of the difficulty top sportspeople have in knowing when to call it quits is the fear, alluded to by J.M. Barrie at the top of this page in a wonderfully moving quote, that by saying goodbye to their career, their achievements might soon be forgotten, overlooked or surpassed by others.

Is quitting 'at the right time' all it's cracked up to be though? It's often said that boxers 'damage their legacies' if they fight on for too long, but I'm not sure if that's actually true. Sometimes by fighting past their peak and experiencing humbling losses, boxers can actually make more of an imprint on posterity and the public consciousness than if they quit 'at the right time'. Gene Tunney, who famously said goodbye to his boxing career while still holding the heavyweight crown has, outside the boxing cognoscenti, largely been forgotten these days, while part of the mass appeal of the likes of Tyson and Ali, who carried on fighting far too long, is that their images as supermen were ultimately tarnished by the advance of time and the public's realisation that they were fallible after all. Watching Larry Holmes or Trevor Berbick dominate the husk of what was once the magnificent boxing specimen of Ali is painful, but also, if only on a subconscious level, somehow reassuring. As we watch such fights we are reminded that it's not just ordinary Joes like you and me who make illogical or irrational decisions on a daily basis - the greatest athlete of all time is equally capable of making a terrible misjudgement. Such human frailties make us love the likes of Ali even more, while the cold, calculating and far more sensible Tunney types we keep at arm's length.

The other benefit to a boxer of hanging around 'too long' at the highest level of the sport is that it removes any lingering doubts or regrets they may later harbour if they quit while still 'on top'. When Martínez was being destroyed by Cotto it was sad to see the Argentine trying to rouse his aged limbs, only for them to completely fail to obey his instructions, but at least he won't sit in retirement wondering whether there was one more great fight in him. Ditto Ricky Hatton after that comeback loss against Vyacheslav Senchenko.

If we dwell on the negatives of a sad goodbye we also overlook a crucial point made, very poignantly, by A.A. Milne in Winnie-the-Pooh; namely, that sometimes we have to accept how lucky we are to have "something that makes saying goodbye so hard". Hamed's joyful unorthodoxy and arrogance, Ali's peerless charisma, Tyson's fearsome power - they all turned to dust in the end, to the collective disappointment of millions of fans, but boy were they wonderful while they lasted!

Seeing these great talents fail and erode only reinforces the wonderful fallibility of being human. Once we realise that, perhaps we will learn how to better appreciate talent when it is at its peak.

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Postscript: In honour of how hard it is to say goodbye, and how hard it can be to watch the last rites administered to a boxing career, here are five painful boxing goodbyes that still choke me up a little.

Ali v Berbick, 11th December 1981:
This farcical contest was no way for any fighter to bow out, let alone the Greatest Of All Time. I can't really say any more about this sorry spectacle than that.

Honeyghan v Breland, 3rd March 1990:
Strictly this wasn't a final goodbye, as Honeyghan - who looks utterly spent and shot from the first bell to the painful conclusion in round 3 - went on to have another 11 fights, but this 'contest' has a special place in my heart because Honeyghan was one of my childhood heroes. I distinctly remember the build-up to this match-up, including a detailed and now painfully over-optimistic BBC interview with Honeyghan while he was training in the USA. That interview helped fuel my blind faith and optimism that Lloyd still had a World Championship in him. Instead, over the course of six brutal knockdowns administered by Breland's swift fists, I realised that Honeyghan's days as a top-level operator were well and truly over. His career may have continued after this fight, but this was his goodbye to boxing at the highest level, and it still makes for uncomfortable viewing. It was something of a relief to me while writing this article that the fight seems to have disappeared from youtube ...

Benn v Collins 2, 9th November 1996:
Nigel Benn - what a warrior! Those life and death struggles with Eubank, McClellen et al ... and then he bows out like this, with a six-round surrender against Steve Collins that would be pitiful if not viewed within the context of an otherwise brilliant and brutal career. Quite simply, Benn had nothing left to give.

Hamed v Calvo: 18th May 2002:
Hamed gets regularly slaughtered in the boxing press and on messageboards for the way he exited the sport. In retrospect though he made a wise choice to retire when he did. This utterly uninspiring points victory against the limited and light-hitting Spaniard Manuel Calvo showed how far his reflexes and hunger had deteriorated since the early glory days of his career. Billed going into the contest as the 'Fresh Prince', Hamed, who was only 28 at the time, ended up leaving the ExCel Arena with jeers and boos ringing in his ears and never returned to a boxing ring in anger again. Perhaps the most fitting epitaph for the Prince are the words spoken by Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner: "the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long."

Tyson v McBride: 11th June 2005:
The 'baddest man on the planet' and arguably, at his peak, the most destructive heavyweight of all time, ended his career quitting on his stool. Without the heart or motivation to continue fighting against the distinctly average and somewhat podgy Kevin McBride, and despite leading on two judges' scorecards, Tyson said goodbye to his career after six embarrassing rounds. Having promised before the fight to gut McBride like a fish, Tyson was instead forced to admit afterwards that: "I don't have the guts to stay in this sport anymore."

Luke G. Williams

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