Boxing, is it still a young man’s game?

I wrote earlier this week about the questions posed to boxing fans by Manny Pacquiao’s continued career. Pacquiao ploughs on at an age when the leading lights of every preceding generation were long retired, whether in good health or bad, destitute or comfortable. Where once fighters were considered ‘shop-worn’ or ripe for the plucking, we now find the perennially untested, underachievers and those still punching to prove themselves.

The volume of shows, the quantity of fighters and the plethora of platforms fans can now access to consume boxing creates a script in which the characters, and the weeks and months, are dragged across the stage with increasing speed.

In the thrall of this often breathless narrative and the surge of popularity fuelling it, certainly in the UK, themes and large scale ‘set-changes’ can be harder to notice. Pacquiao’s 40th birthday provided this observer with the necessary illumination to the shift in fighter demographics that has occurred in the past twenty years.

Fighters appear to believe their prime is an infinite or elastic resource and, as a state of mind, it can’t help to bring the best available together.  After all, ‘there is always next year’.

A century of fighters, their careers, their highs and lows, committed to record in word and film, ingrained the belief that a fighter’s peak, physically at least, occurs in their twenties. Turning 30, as a broad rule few were able to break, was usually the ‘high-water’ mark for a fighter’s career and more often than not a tipping point into decline.

In 1985, with the swirl of warm breath and cigarettes smoke clouding the June air at Queens Park Rangers football ground, Barry McGuigan faced the ‘veteran’ Eusebio Pedroza for the Featherweight crown the Panamanian had held for 7 long years. Pedroza turned 32 just three months earlier. The Irishman swarmed the champion and won over 15 pulsating rounds. At a packed Tottenham Hotspur ground in 1987, Joe Bugner was considered a shell of his former self and an opponent in name only to the popular Frank Bruno. Joe was just 36. The night Ricky Hatton broke Kostya Tszyu in the seminal win of his career, Tyszu was a veteran too and his age was regarded as a factor in the outcome. He was 35. A tired and forlorn Nigel Benn retired in the ring after his second loss to Steve Collins, aged ‘just’ 32. He had nothing left to give, or to prove.

Fighters got things done earlier back then. Progressed their careers in their twenties far more than their thirties; exceptions existed but these days too many remain unfulfilled at 30, 31, 32 and are stuck ‘chasing’ toward middle age. Such is the pre-eminence of this phenomenon that we are more startled by a young fighter, 25 years or less, reaching world championship level than an old one. Old fighters competing at the highest level has been normalised.

The prospect of the soporific Wladimir Klitschko being tempted back in to the fray, aged 42, filtered into the news feed this week and precious few raised objections, preferring to purr about the added dimension to a division revived from the inertia he imposed.

And now, the ultimate bonfire of the vanities, the clash of antiquities; Mayweather v Pacquiao 2 has been announced for September, on the assumption the Philippine legend prevails on Saturday. By fight time, Pacquiao will be closing in on 41 and Mayweather long since 42. Where does this trajectory take us?

Perhaps there remains time for Foreman v Holmes after all. And to think the aforementioned Henry Cooper was an old man at 35 and Barry McGuigan retired at 28.


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