Back in the day I was in a group of pals who followed the sport of professional boxing with something like zeal, regularly watched such boxing as appeared on television and sometimes even went to live promotions at the Royal Albert Hall, York Hall and Bethnal Green etc. – we are talking here of British pugilists such Tony Sibson, Dave ‘Boy’ Green, Errol Christie, John H. Stracey, John L. Gardner, Herol Graham, Ken Buchanan, Terry Marsh, Frank Bruno, Nigel Benn and ’Gypsy’ Johnny Frankham, to name but a few of many at the time.
Boxing, of course, will always have both its detractors and its fans.
For our group of the latter – disregarding for a moment the visceral thrill of watching two fighters trying to knock seven bells out of each other and our respect for all those with the cojones to steps between the ropes to participate – two of the attractive features of the sport were its long and chequered history and the colourful manner and language deployed by those who reported upon or wrote about it.
Boxing lore is littered with time-honoured adages such as “A big good ‘un will always been a good little ‘un”, Mike Tyson’s “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”, Joe Louis’s “He can run but he can’t hide” and Jack Dempsey’s “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t”.
Arguably, those who take up physical contact sports are more aware of the passing and limitations imposed by time than most because they’re acutely aware of the effects of dulled reflexes upon performance – it’s why boxing has in its armoury sayings such as “The last thing you lose is your punch” and “They never come back”.
These are the ones I wish to address today.
It’s a sweeping generalisation, but professional boxers tend to split into those who either take up the sport because they possess a physique or facility for the game and hopefully it’s a way of ‘climbing out of the gutter’, making some money and building a life of relatively security if they can – or because, instinctively and or inclination, they’re born to it in the sense that they just ‘love a tear up’ and (frankly and proverbially) they’d happily fight for nothing if that was the only chance they got. It’s just what they do.
Inevitably, I would submit, those in the latter category are those that pass into boxing history as the greatest and most revered pugs of all. As I type I’m thinking of legends such as Roberto Duran, Carlos Monzón and the (I think) still officially active Manny Pacquiao.
When it come for the time to retire, for boxers – well, certainly the ones born to it – it’s a difficult decision. Any sportsman knows that, once you make that fateful decision, you’re a long time retired … so why give up before you absolutely have to?
You can tell the ‘born to it’ fighters because, even if they’ve got untold millions in the bank, they keep on going – sometimes for a fight or two beyond the point it is sensible.
I once heard – at one remove – the footballer Jimmy Greaves, when asked why on earth he risked his legendary reputation by still playing for the then lowly Brentford as he neared his fortieth birthday, responding “I just love playing. If I end up not being good enough for the first team, I’ll play for Brentford seconds …”
Perhaps taking his own approach to another level, he even later turned out for Barnet.
Common sense apart, Greaves’s was at least a noble attitude, one might venture to suggest.
(Boxing. of course, revels in its styling as “the Noble Art”).
When it comes to rugby union – another physical contact sport – the nonpareil Welsh fly half Barry John retired at the height of his powers at 27. Johnny Sexton, one of his outstanding modern counterparts, is about to play for Ireland in the Rugby World Cup aged 34.
Just for the record, he did subsequently make two or three mini-comebacks over the years – in the first of them absurdly still trying to play with a wooden racket against modern players playing with graphite versions.
Why is he still going? Possibly “because I can” would be his answer. He certainly cannot be still at the coal-face because he needs the money.
Then again, perhaps he’s trying to protect his legacy against the great Rafael Nadal who has just annexed his 19th Grand Slam title in the US Open and now sits only one behind Federer in the all-time list.
Yesterday we learned that female tennis great Kim Clijsters has announced she is coming out of retirement – for the second time – at the age of 36 and now a mother of three. She is back in training and plans to make the first appearance of her new career at the Australian Open next January.
What can be her motive? Presumably the Jimmy Greaves attitude might cover it.
Alternatively, possibly it’s the fact that Roger Federer is still going and so are the Williams sisters – and maybe they’re still making good money, so what’s not to like?
Anyway, today I am wishing Ms Clijsters the very best of luck with her comeback. Maybe, against all the odds, she’ll reach the latter stages of a Grand Slam tournament next year. And maybe she won’t – and will be beaten by a succession of super-fit modern youngsters barely half her age.
We shall see.