By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Ladies and gentlemen, Tony La Russa got it right.
OK, sure… he’s a baseball manager and has zero to do with boxing, but there’s little doubt that any fighter worth his hand wraps would nonetheless kill for the exit the 67-year-old authored last week.
By reaching the pinnacle of his position with a dramatic World Series win and announcing his retirement just a few days later, the now three-time champion gave himself the glorious ride into the sunset only a precious few in any sport – and even more rarely in boxing – seem to manage.
On the ice rink, Wayne Gretzky finished his career as a basically average New York Ranger.
On the football field, Joe Namath hobbled away as a sore-kneed Los Angeles Ram.
On the hardwood, Michael Jordan compromised some aura as a mediocre Washington Wizard.
And in the ring, for every Joe Calzaghe or Lennox Lewis that gets out unscathed, there’s a hundred more Ray Robinsons – losing fights and risking peril against opponents not worthy of general admission.
It’s a song as old as time… and it’s not stopped playing in recent generations.
Even in my own relatively short attention span – I watched my first TV fight in 1977 – a handful of high-profile standouts have lingered a few years after their shelf lives, watering down their records and, in the eyes of some, cheapening the legacies of their glory days.
And while I’ve never been part of the lynch mobs demanding that an able-bodied – albeit past his greatness – fighter hang up the gloves, there have admittedly been some guys who I’d have much rather recalled for something other than late-stage journeyman status.
The following, in no particular order… are the four who spring immediately to mind in the La Russa aftermath, making me wish they’d pulled the cord sooner on a similar golden parachute.
He should have retired (1978); He did retire (1981)
OK, this one’s easy. Alongside his fame as “The Greatest” – and thanks to his deteriorating condition since his exit – the best heavyweight of them all has become boxing’s signature piece for champions who hang on too long. Though a good case could be made for Foreman, Frazier III and several others as ideal swan songs, I’d have been happy enough to see the September 1978 coronation over Leon Spinks in New Orleans as the final dramatic act in a two-decade play.
He should have retired (1991); He did retire (2006)
The fact that the “Hitman” is my all-time favorite makes this one hurt a little bit more, even though his extra time gave me a chance to meet him. Indeed, while I made the pilgrimage to a penultimate nine-round debacle against John Long for interviews both before and after in 2005, I’d have much rather closed the book on Tommy immediately after hearing Jimmy Lennon Jr. confirm his unanimous scorecard win – and sixth world title belt – against Virgil Hill 14 years earlier.
He should have retired (1989); He did retire (2001)
Ask five people when “Hands of Stone” could have most gloriously walked away and you might get five contending answers. But for my money, I’d have taken the thrilling post-Valentine’s downing of then-champ Iran Barkley as a proper exit for the Panamanian legend. Sure, it would have cost the fans an up-close glimpse of him in Meccas like Buffalo, Kansas City and Bay St. Louis, but in my mind’s eye, he goes out with a belt on his shoulder – not with losses to Camacho and (ugh!) Pazienza on his ledger.
He should have retired (1983); He did retire (1995)
Perhaps only the hardest of the hardcore know Arguello even competed in the 1990s, when he scraped past a 2-12-1 Jorge Palomares by majority decision and lost a 10-rounder to one Scott Walker five months later. But now that he’s dead, it feels somehow more tragic that he didn’t at least end things with more honor. Though it wasn’t a triumph, the image of his concession to Aaron Pryor in their 1983 rematch was the fitting final scene I’ll replay in my head for the classy Nicaraguan.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF super middleweight title – Quebec City, Quebec
Lucian Bute (champion) vs. Glen Johnson (No. 9 contender)
Bute (29-0, 24 KO): Ninth title defense; Seven KOs in eight title defenses (8-0, 7 KO)
Johnson (51-15-2, 35 KO): Thirteenth title fight (3-8-1, 1 KO); Lost six straight title fights
Fitzbitz says: “Old warrior slowly fading from elite level.” Bute by decision
WBA cruiserweight title – Hollywood, Fla.
Guillermo Jones (champion) vs. Michael Marrone (No. 14 contender)
Jones (37-3-2, 29 KO): Second title fight; Undefeated since 2005 (6-0, 5 KO)
Marrone (20-3, 15 KO): First title fight; Two KO wins, two KO losses since 2008 (2-3, 2 KO)
Fitzbitz says: “Mediocre champion cruises through easy defense.” Jones in 8
WBC super featherweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Takahiro Ao (champion) vs. Devis Boschiero (No. 9 contender)
Ao (21-2-1, 10 KO): Second title defense; Former WBC champ at 126 (2009, zero defenses)
Boschiero (29-0-1, 14 KO): First title fight; First fight outside Italy
Fitzbitz says: “King of Italy falls short in first road trip.” Ao by decision
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA “world championships” are only included if no “super champion” exists in the weight class.
Last week's picks: 3-0
Overall picks record: 257-86 (74.9 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.