Why do aging boxers still fight?

BY foxsports • November 9, 2011

A bumper weekend of fight action started earlier on Friday, when James Toney travelled to Russia to face former interim cruiserweight champion Dennis Lebedev.

If boxing fans thought Toney was finished embarrassing himself after his MMA fight against Randy Couture at UFC 118 last year, over the course of 12 rounds they were proven very, very wrong.

In many ways the fight brought to mind the old adage, “I can cope with despair, it’s the hope that kills me.”

The simple fact that the former super-middleweight champion Toney, who tipped the scales at 257 pounds when he lost to then-heavyweight contender Samuel Peter in 2006, had got in decent enough shape to weigh in under 200 pounds was genuine cause for celebration, and piqued more than a few people’s interest. The theory being that if Toney was disciplined enough to get in half decent shape, then maybe we were going to see him put in a decent performance against an opponent who needed 12 rounds to knock out Roy Jones Jr. back in May.

Alas it was not to be. Lebedev, a man who last year fell to Marco Huck via a very controversial decision, held his side of the bargain, as he was as hopelessly a one-dimensional opponent as you could hope. But Toney was utterly useless, in ways that made it one of the saddest sights in boxing.

The man who had once been so famed for his ability to slip punches with superior head movement could do nothing to avoid the pedestrian offense of his rudimentary opponent. A man who had once delighted fans with his superior footwork could do no more than plod forward and lunge aimlessly. Sometimes he couldn’t even do that as on more than one occasion he collapsed to the floor as his shockingly uncoordinated legs imploded beneath him. He didn’t land a single meaningful punch and on all three judges’ scorecard lost every round. Absurdly Lebedev picked up another interim title for this nonsense.

As for Toney, he talked about fighting on. Already there is talk of him facing Roy Jones Jr. and there’s also the possibility of the previously announced crossover fight with MMA legend Ken Shamrock. The one thing that is not likely is the one thing that should be happening –- retirement. With that frequent foe of boxers -- the IRS -- having given Toney perhaps his worst beating of the past few years (and let’s face it, that’s saying something) the former three-time world champion is in no position to leave the one job he’s had his entire adult life.

And that, of course, is a familiar story. Boxers may occasionally earn big money but they seemingly always spend it even bigger. And naturally there are unscrupulous promoters looking to profit from the hard times of an aging legend. More often than not the profit is tied up with trying to give their latest prospect a leg up. Lebedev’s fights against Jones and Toney were awful and he was poor in them, but the Russian can now walk into a rematch with Huck claiming the scalps of two of the most gifted fighters of recent times.

And while it’s easy to blame the fighters who fight on and it’s even easier to blame the promoters who exploit them, surely those who enable the whole fraudulent fiasco are also to blame. And that’s the fans. Those who poured into the arena on Friday, those who watched on television worldwide and those who will be impressed by Lebedev’s boasts about defeating two legends. Why do we all do it?

The answer is a mixture of misplaced hope and very real despair. The hope is that for one night only we get to see the legendary fighter turn back the years and give the younger fighter a real run for their money. So often it turns out not to be the case, but there are enough examples, such as Evander Holyfield outclassing Nikolai Valeuv and Erik Morales looking staggeringly good against Marcos Maidana, to keep boxing fans watching every other faded veteran as they’re trotted out to pad somebody’s record.

And then there’s the despair at the fact that the young fighters just aren’t as interesting as the legends of yesteryear. What modern fighter has the devil may care personality of James Toney or can back up the bravado as he did in his prime? What modern fighter can match the genius of Roy Jones Jr. or the rugged determination of Evander Holyfield? Maybe there are fighters ready to fill the shoes of these aging legends, but they’re denied the exposure that made all three stars in the first place.

The sad fact is that the problem with boxing is not that its biggest fighters got old, but that their sport got small.

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