By Liam Lawer @longcountboxing
“I know it when I see it” – U.S Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1964)
Originally employed to define hard-core pornography, when more conventional expression failed, this famous phrase can penetrate into our world of boxing, finding its relevance as perhaps the best answer to that ever divisive question: when should a boxer retire?
It often becomes uncomfortably apparent when we find ourselves witnessing a diminished fighter, especially when the decline is so drastic that we no longer wish to see them fight on. Yet when examining the individual attributes we can ascribe to those in such a condition, judging just when they should call it a day suddenly becomes less clear.
Age is a factor dramatically defied by the likes of Bernard Hopkins and George Foreman, and the wealth of stinging losses were of little concern to Jim Braddock, when he upset the great Max Baer. Had George Groves retired at his most fragile, following the brutal second defeat against Carl Froch, his Hollywood career would have been cut sadly short. Age, sustained punishment, and knockouts affect each fighter differently, and therefore an obvious point to retire remains hopelessly elusive.
There must, however, be a reasonable resolution beyond the unsatisfactory adoption of Justice Stewart’s remark. Here lies an attempt to find it…
Limiting the maximum age of competitors at first seems a sensible solution. The aging process is not kind to a fighter. Muscles break down and reflexes fade. Punches to the head are markedly more harmful as a fighter drifts closer to senescence. Boxing is a sport for young men, and as the old adage reads: father time is undefeated.
When attempting to pin-point the appropriate cut-off age, different problems arise wherever the line is drawn. Put at 40, and Adonis Stevenson’s career may have been considerably more ambitious, but the embers Carl Thompson’s would not have included his remarkable knockout of a young David Haye. Another foe of the Hayemaker’s, Lolenga Mock, is currently in the peak of his career, at a sprightly 44.
Between the ages of 40 and 49 there are stories of boxers having tremendous success, Foreman and Hopkins being the prime examples. But to curb it at 50 would be of little use. Roy Jones Jr is yet to reach that milestone, and anyone with an ounce of humility feels a little queasy watching him perform. Regardless, Saoul Mamby looked in better shape fighting at 60 than some do in their 20s. Alas, age limits would reduce risk, but rob a healthy fighter unnecessarily of the ability to provide for their family, and in the process create more of those fantastic stories which are littered throughout boxing history.
If age is too obtuse a consideration, then examining the punishment endured throughout a career may be of more use. No comfort is found in watching a fighter rendered unintelligible by punches they have taken for our entertainment. Subtitles are not supposed to be necessary for boxers speaking in their home language, to an audience who share that mother tongue. It is saddening to include the legendary James Toney in this conversation, but even sadder that he continues to stumble around the ring, using only the fading shadow of his past greatness to get by.
On the other hand, Juan Manuel Marquez had an immense amount of wear and tear going into his famous fourth bout with Manny Pacquiao. Had he retired instead, his career would be characterised by the three close contests that controversially never went his way.
Equally, the impact of savage knockouts is a concern worth considering. Some fighters are visibly affected by their repeated bouts of unconsciousness, while Enzo Maccarinelli for example, who has suffered a few at high level, appears as lucid and articulate as ever. Like the ageing process, punishment affects each fighter differently, and therefore is just as blunt a tool in deciding when a boxer should retire.
Whether they keep returning to the ring for money, or for a love of the sport, too many fighters extend their careers further than is safe and sensible. A retirement is like a stoppage, no one wants to see it too early, but it becomes uncomfortable viewing and dangerous if left too late.
Time is Money
The solution must involve a financial aspect, such as an aftercare program, so boxers need not rely on their fistic education to earn money for their families. Additionally, commissions need to maintain their integrity, improving the standard of medicals where possible, and at the very least strictly enforcing the rules when a fighter fails one. We may ‘know when we see’ a fighter who should be retired, but those who run the sport must know when to act in retiring them.