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The temptation of “just one more fight”

Why do too many fighters retire too late?

Marc Serota/Getty Images

I wish I’d never had the chance to see James Toney fight. He was the big name attraction at the 2013 Heavyweight Prizefighter Tournament and the moment you saw him, you realised the name was pretty much all that was left. "Lights Out" slurred alarmingly through the pre-event interviews, while his physique had more in common with an average middle-aged man than a top athlete. In a field of limited ability, the scraps of greatness he still had were enough to beat a near-novice in his first fight and then be competitive in defeat in the second. But all that night his expression had no passion for a craft he’d once mastered; he looked like a workman who had long tired of it all.

Success at the top level of sport is often grounded in an utter confidence in one’s abilities. The trouble starts when the abilities diminish and the confidence doesn’t. A boxer’s ego is often so strong that even mounting evidence and the pleading of close friends isn’t enough to convince them. It’s not always about being blind to decline; these fighters often accept that they’ve lost something but still feel they have enough. Ali was well aware of what age had stolen from him but still believed that he could keep winning meaningful fights.

Some fighters just want a good ending (the "watched too much Rocky" syndrome). Ricky Hatton did not want his farewell to boxing to be his brutal second round KO by Manny Pacquiao. So three years later, he went out for one last go in front of his adoring home crowd and came up short. Hollywood endings often prove elusive outside Hollywood. For others it’s less about the pursuit of glory and more about pure love of the sport. Paulie Malignaggi has a great career as TV analyst and his recent choice of opponents suggests that he’s realistic about his current level; he’s still fighting because he’s still having fun.

The only way a sportsman ever knows for sure that they’re done is when they go on too long and get found out. In most sports, being stubborn risks only your reputation; in boxing, it risks your long-term health. The only way to get a boxing retirement right is to go a little early. Joe Calzaghe could have undoubtedly extended his unbeaten record but he was content to settle on his achievements and get out with his health. Carl Froch chose retirement over a grand finale fight. He had a long think, realised the hunger wasn’t there any more and wisely called it a day. To go while you might still have something left goes against the instincts of sportsmen who’ve spent lifetimes pushing their limits. There is, however, courage in walking away on your own terms.

I’m aware that by this stage of the article, many readers will be thinking "cut to the chase, it’s all about the money" and there’s no doubt that all the motives explored above are exacerbated by financial worries. No-one finds it easy to turn down a good pay day and it’s even harder when you’re confronted by an uncertain future. The boxers who make good decisions on their retirements are those, like Calzaghe and Froch, who have financial security. Such fighters can confront the voices in their head telling them "just one more fight" without the anxiety that comes from not having enough.

Young men with a lot of money understandably have other priorities than carefully planning for the future. Yet the consequences go way beyond the wasted dollars. Boxing is a dangerous sport trying to ensure as many of its participants as possible retire healthy. You can spend hours debating the guidelines on when a referee should stop a fight or the rigorousness of pre-fight health checks. And yet the single best way to keep more boxers healthy is for more of them to stop fighting at the right time. They will do so if they make better financial decisions when young. Everyone has a right to waste their money but those in power in the sport could still do more to nudge fighters towards better decisions. Former fighters can also play an important role here. Many prospects look to them for guidance; they need to remember to offer advice not just on life inside the ring but life beyond.