‘That’s what fighters do, they come back’ – retired fighter Taggart discusses recent comeback trend

by Dee Taggart

I remember the late great boxing historian Bert Sugar saying “that’s what fighters do, they come back” and you only have to take a quick look at the past to know just how true that is.

The annals of boxing history are littered with comebacks, some with amazing glory and redemption while the majority end badly and in cases quite sad.

In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US Army in a protest to the Vietnam War and the racial oppression rampant in America saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong”.

At that time he was the heavyweight champion of the world. He was finally able to return in 1970 with his comeback culminating in Zaire in 1974 when he ‘shook up the world’ knocking out the young killer that was Goerge Foreman.

Yet who can forget Ali being beaten up and screaming in pain at the hands of his former sparring partner Larry Holmes, exemplifying the magic and heartache that can be involved in a boxing comeback.

Eder Jofre, the great Brazilian bantamweight, after losing to Masahiko “Fighting” Harada twice retired for three years only to come back and capture the featherweight title from Jose Legra.

Sugar Ray Leonard, who loved Ali, shocked the world himself after a comeback when he captured the middleweight championship of the world from another killer in ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler.

Leonard too couldn’t get enough and kept fighting until losing badly to Terry Norris, while later still losing even worse to Hector Camacho.

Then there was the real “Sugar” man, Sugar Ray Robinson, who lost a cruel encounter with Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight championship of the world. Robinson got stopped in the fourteenth round when heat exhaustion took its toll in New York’s Yankee stadium.

Sugar Ray then completed one of the greatest comebacks ever when he dropped back down to his more natural weight and regained his middleweight title.

He knocked out Gene Fulmer with a peach of a left hook in the 5th round but again like us all just couldn’t stop there.

He went on for years and finally quit after losing to Joey Archer in 1965.

Then more recently we had fan favorite and modern great Ricky Hatton, who went for his own redemption at the Manchester Arena in 2012. I was there with my brother, a ticket to the fight on the night of my birthday.

It broke my heart because it didn’t go well in the ring that night for
Ricky. In saying that, most importantly it seemed to set him free, and ultimately that’s real success.

So why is it that fighters struggle in retirement, why do they always come back? And what do I mean by being set free?

The first thing that comes to mind is money. You hear about Joe Louis standing in front of casinos in Vegas as a greeter, broke, yet a complete hero.

A man who fought many exhibitions for free while serving in the army for his country but the IRS destroyed him financially. James Toney coming back and taking a ridiculous MMA fight.

The greatest of all time “Sugar” Ray who retired to pursue a career in entertainment and real estate. All of them coming back for money. The reality is most fighters come from backgrounds that have no
money, so their ability to manage it even without the sharks and corruption in boxing, is usually not great.

There is nothing sadder than seeing a once great warrior getting into a ring
and risking his life, never mind his legacy, for a few quid.

It’s so important to prepare for life after boxing, but that’s also so hard when it’s been something you have been doing your whole life. The sad truth is a lot of boxers don’t really know anything else.

I remember one of my best friends couldn’t get why I was so lost when I
was facing the end of my own career. He was a great musician and music was his passion as boxing is mine. I said to him one day, “Chris, imagine you could never play the guitar and sing again, or imagine someone told you you couldn’t do another gig”.

I’ll never forget the silence after what I said, the look in his eyes as he was maybe comprehending that exact scenario.

Another big reason for comebacks is a fighters ego, but not just their ego, their amazing ability to overcome odds. I mean how can you tell Evander Hollyfield or Bernard Hopkins they’re being unrealistic, that the odds aren’t good. These men spent their whole life listening to that.

However, they went on and beat the odds continuously doing what everyone thought was unachievable or outright madness. I have to confess as much as I love Bernard Hopkins, I honestly thought Antonio Tarver would slaughter him and Kelly Palvik before that.

God better forgive me because Bernard certainly won’t, how dare I doubt him. Then there is for me the best reason for a comeback, pride. Fighters that are unable to give up or settle, with a desire to go out with some dignity.

They want to be able to look in the mirror when it’s all over. My own career and dream started by reading Wayne McCollough’s book ‘Don’t Quit’, it was “Rocket” fuel, pardon the pun.

The history of our sport has so many inspirational stories of this type of comeback. There’s Jimmy Braddock the famous “Cinderella Man”, played by Russel Crowe for the movie based on his life.

Then to my personal favourite Vinny Paz. Vinny broke his neck but just wasn’t willing to give up.

The fact that after that, not only did he box again but went on to win a world title. He also defeated the great Roberto Duran twice which is truly remarkable.

Closer to home we had Eamonn Magee, Ireland’s own Johnny Tapia. Eamonn had his legs broken in two places and suffered life threatening
damage to his heart and lungs, only to be back in the ring a year later defeating Allen Vetser.

We should never challenge these men. They called Bernard Hopkins the “Alien” towards the end of his career.

They also called big George Foreman a disgrace and a side show. Foreman
came out of retirement looking like a fat granddad after a decade out of the ring, and we all know what happened then.

Maybe the most sincere reason for a comeback is the exact reason we want to fight in the first place, the challenge or the buzz. Mike Tyson said “the temptation for greatness is the biggest drug in the world”.

Mike, of course, couldn’t let it go either, he was last seen in a ring losing to
big Kevin McBride having been finished for years. Even just the experience for me was the real drug. I used to say to my friends and loved ones when they went to see me fight, “when you see me bouncing on my toes looking across the ring at my opponent and the bell rings, that’s the most at peace I ever am”.

It’s not just boxers that love comebacks, everyone does, I mean who doesn’t love the Rocky story. Now with this unprecedented lockdown due to the coronavirus epidemic, a lot of boxers like everyone else, are stuck at home bored with time on their hands. I’ve started doing some training again myself for the first time in years, I’m hoping to lose some weight.

Mike Tyson is back training, getting in shape, and driving the boxing cumminuity into a frenzy with clips of his padwork. Evander is at it, as is Briggs, Toney, and there will be more.

The problem with legends like Mike, Evander, and even the guys like Marcos Maidanna and Lucas Mzatthysee, is that they are fighters and that’s what fighters do…

Jonny Stapleton

Irish-boxing.com contributor for 15 years and editor for the past decade. Have been covering boxing for over 16 years and writing about sports for a living for over 20 years. Former Assistant Sports editor for the Gazette News Paper Group and former Tallaght Voice Sports Editor. Have had work published in publications around the world when working as a freelance journalist. Also co-founder of Junior Sports Media and Leinster Rugby PRO of the Year winner. email: editoririshboxing@gmail.com