Closing time: retirement from boxing

MICHAEL KLIMES

Some day, they're going to write a blues song just for fighters. It will be for a slow guitar and a soft trumpet and a soft bell.

— Former heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston.

WE all want to know about champions when they are in their prime. Rarely, however, do we want to know about them when they have fallen. Boxing is a sport renowned for its brutality in the ring but, perhaps, people are not as well informed about what transpires outside of it. Some of its best former champions have disappeared (literally) off the radar and we are left scratching our heads as to where those once famous or infamous athletes (depending on your perception of boxing), multi-millionaires, childhood heroes and incredible people have gone.

Usually they have ended up worse for wear and fans are left stone cold, staring into the deceptive mirror of the past asking is that really him? That once unconquerable fighter? That once brilliant world champion? That once unbreakable, steel jawed brawler? That once beautiful boxer who made every one of his opponents look like ponderous journeyman? The ultimate question then presents itself: Where did it all go wrong?

The relationship between fan and fighter is a complicated one but it can be best articulated by a quotation from the acclaimed movie Pulp Fiction that encapsulates boxing in its entirety: "You see this profession is full to the brim with unrealistic people who thought their body would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don't."

Fighters with their most diehard fans are not pragmatists. The whole reason why the best fighters refuse to believe it is over is, for a short period in their lives, these boxers are the closest things to gods or maybe even gods themselves. Being unbeatable, allowed by superhuman qualities, brings an invincible intoxication to egos. If you are untouchable for a part of your life, then you simply end up believing you are immortal. The same is true of fans as that short magic from a boxer's prime rubs off on them and their version of faith is more powerful than the religious alternative. They do not know how these gladiators have acquired these miraculous qualities such as speed, power and courage but they can see the tangible consequences of it in the destruction of their adversaries.

Conversely, fans shudder when they realise that illusion: That their heroes are not immortal and that their conclusion to slowness is as true and more permanent than the greatness their champions once had. Fans, like their fighters become normal everyday people again, vulnerable to our most innate fear, which is ageing. What do fighters do after they retire?

Four former heavyweight champions, four different names, four different styles of fighting but part of the same history are what separate yet capture Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Frank Bruno. They are all from the same era of promising heavyweights in the 1990s that failed to light up the decade as much as it should have done. All of them are now in retirement but in various ways.

Iron Mike Tyson is that latest to have hung up his gloves. From being a dangerous contender, then world champion, to being a convicted rapist and finally a washed up failure; Tyson was, from 1986-1989 (when he was a world champion with that mystique) the epitome of what a champion should be: serious, aggressive, ridiculously talented and an overpowering force in the ring that feasted on fear.

His career also conforms (unfortunately) to the overtly violent and outlandish thug view that boxing novices have. The narrow-minded impression of Tyson, however, failed to reveal complexities, deep complexities that still haunt his life. A single mother, bullying, fame, money, corrupt promoters (notably Don King against whom Tyson filed a $100 million lawsuit) and most of all he himself brought Tyson spiralling down. His retirement is still an unfinished chapter in a still very unfinished life.

Frank Bruno, the much loved former British heavyweight champion, the first in 98 years after he beat Oliver McCall on points in 1995 to land the WBC title, had until recently a life outside of boxing in considerable turmoil. It all started when Bruno lost his title six months after he had won it to his previous destroyer that was Tyson. His wife of 17 years divorced him in 2001 over allegations of abuse followed by his much loved trainer/mentor George Francis committing suicide a year later after his wife and child died in a short time span. In hindsight, it also appears Bruno has been a long sufferer from bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness, illustrated in public appearances where he repeatedly used the word `wicked' a bit too obsessively.

Bruno's inner demons after finishing his career suggest the trials boxers have to go through. In a fairly recent interview to The Guardian he called boxing, `the toughest and loneliest sport in the world. You've got all the fans, lots of hangers on jumping up and down and shouting different words. But when you go into the ring, it's a very lonely and scary place. It's just you and the other guy.'

Everyone was astounded that Bruno announced his return to the ring in 2003 in a bid to challenge the 2000 Olympic Champion Audley Harrison. The tabloids in Britain, led by The Sun and The News of the World, launched a stinging campaign against the ex-champion. The Sun in all its `classic sensitivity' ran the headline, `Bonkers Bruno Locked Up' referring to how police had come to Bruno's house and hospitalised him. The tabloid was criticised for its vile campaign and Bruno received wide adulation from fans that came to his defence. The campaign adopted a more moderate tone when the tabloids suddenly realised that not everyone shares their views.

Sir Henry Cooper, the popular British boxer who had famously put Muhammad Ali down to the canvas in their first fight in 1963, hit onto why boxers find it hard to retire, `If you don't have that daily routine anymore, where you have to go to the gym at a certain time, train at a certain time, you miss it — all fighters do. One day you are a boxer and the next day you wake up and you have retired — you are not a boxer, then you think `what am I going to do now?' You have to plan.'

This is why perhaps the legendary four-time heavyweight championo Evander Holyfield is determined to fight on despite a legacy and lifestyle that is assured at 43 years of age. `The Real Deal', a boxer of a much finer pedigree than Bruno, was an excellent talent with an even more impressive courage and work ethic that endeared him to the fans.

He was banned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission last year from boxing but has since then been fighting for his licence to be reinstated. He has lost seven of his last nine fights against opposition he would have ripped apart in his heyday. `The Real Deal' is not the same person who knocked out Tyson over 11 rounds, participated in the pulsating 12-round title fight against Riddick Bowe and won a hotly contested bout over Dwight Qawi on way to becoming the cruiserweight champion.

Holyfield's problem may run deeper than Cooper's assessment. The answer is suggested in the film Rocky II, where Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone) is pleaded by his wife not to come out of retirement because of a damaged eye. All he can softly reply is, `It's all I know.'

Finally we come to Lennox Lewis, winner of 41 out of 44 fights and the dominant heavyweight of his generation and an undisputed all time great. He finished his career in February 2004 and plans to stay that way. We can only hope Lewis will not, like the other three boxers discussed here, feel the urge to comeback. At his last press conference he proclaimed, `Let the new era begin.'

Hopefully, more fighters will take Lewis's advice to heart in the future and lead healthier retirements away from what made them. They have to learn to move onto a different era of their lives.