By Thomas Gerbasi
When you’re magic, how could you possibly disappear? That’s the question Antonio “Magic Man” Tarver is asking just before he steps into the ring with Danny Green in Sydney, Australia on July 20th.
Sure, he’s 42, but being over 40 hasn’t stopped Bernard Hopkins and Glen Johnson from maintaining their relevance in the fight game. And with just 34 fights over 14 years, just a couple wars, and no knockout defeats, you could probably scrape a few years off his clock, right?
“I’ve been trying to tell everybody that but they don’t want to hear me,” he laughs. It is true though, and while a sporadic fight schedule at his age probably isn’t preferable, the former light heavyweight champion isn’t looking at sticking around just to fight anybody. As always, he’s been smart about his career, so if it’s not a big fight, he’s really not interested.
And at least in Australia, the Green fight is a big one.
“I’m excited about the fight, I really am, and at age 42, I know I’m not gonna get these opportunities a lot going forward, and I’ve got to take advantage of this one as if this is my last and this is how we approach it,” said Tarver, who left for the land down under on July 6th to get acclimated and ready for his bout for the IBO cruiserweight title.
It’s his second straight bout above the 175 pound weight limit where he made his name, and while the first – a ten round decision win over Nagy Aguilera at heavyweight last October – didn’t set exactly set hearts racing, it did push him back into the win column after back-to-back losses to Chad Dawson and got the wheels turning again when it comes to the latest stage of his career.
“I think when I first made my debut at heavyweight, I kinda rushed it and I wasn’t in the best physical condition that I should have been in,” admits Tarver, who weighed in at 221 for the bout with the journeyman. “It was trial and error and the fight showed that. I got injured early and I had to fight through pain and everything, but overall I did what I went to do, which was win, against someone who I felt at the time was a credible guy. He had only been stopped by Samuel Peter, who is one of the most devastating punchers in that division, I hurt the guy, and I never thought in a million years that he would end up running in that fight, and that’s what happened. He started running and he really didn’t want to come at me, and that’s because he felt my power early. Who knows what would have happened if he would have stood still and fought. But I can’t question a guy when he’s getting hit – should he stay in there or should he get out of there. He felt my power and he was on his bicycle for the majority of the fight, which was surprising to me, but it just goes to show you, I can punch.”
Tarver wasn’t the “Magic Man” of old in there that night in Miami, Oklahoma, maybe just an old “Magic Man,” but after a layoff of over a year and with the shoulder injury he sustained in the bout, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. The Green fight should tell the tale when it comes to Tarver’s continued relevance in the fight game, even though the Perth native and former super middleweight and light heavyweight champion isn’t exactly a spring chicken himself at 38. On the plus side, Green is unbeaten since 2006 and has fought three times each in 2009 and 2010, so he’s staying busy, and he’s going to be there to fight, which is exactly what Tarver expects next week.
“He’s a real tough guy and he’s very strong,” said Tarver of Green. “A lot of people say his strength is somewhat out of this world, but I’m strong too. I sized him up already and I’m gonna be the bigger guy, and he’s gonna come in with his tough man attitude and try to bully me, and he’s gonna be aggressive because he knows he can’t stand on the outside and box with me. He can’t stay on the end of my punches so his whole thing is gonna be to try and get inside, but then he’s gonna realize that I’m a great inside fighter as well and I throw great, short combination punches. If he don’t get me out of there, it’s gonna be a long night and I feel like this is judgment day because I feel like I have to knock him out in order to secure victory. I’m approaching this fight just like I approached the Roy Jones rematch – I gotta get him out of there. That’s what I’m focused on, and I’m working hard enough to say that when I land my punch, it’s gonna be with power, it’s gonna be with devastation, and if he can take that, then more power to him.”
That’s old school Antonio Tarver right there – confident to the point of brash, while still making complete sense when it comes to selling himself. When he tells you why he’s going to win a fight, it’s hard to argue with him. But of course, he has to do it in the ring, and while 42 used to be a death sentence for a boxer, the aforementioned Hopkins and Johnson have both showed that while the reflexes might slow, if you have your fundamentals, veteran tricks, and smarts in order, you can win fights against those with more athletic gifts. That’s something that’s lost on younger fighters these days, as they think they’ll be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, knock down trees, and race through rush hour traffic without getting touched forever. When age sets in and the reflexes go, they’re in trouble. Look no further than the man Tarver battled three times during 2003-05, Roy Jones Jr.
Tarver’s secret to longevity? He doesn’t hesitate to let the world know.
“I always had an old school trainer,” he explains. “Jimmy Williams right now is 83 years young, he’s still whippersnapper smart, he’s sharp, he outdresses me at times (Laughs), and he just has his wits about him. And he’s always taught me defense. That’s the key to longevity. A lot of these fighters don’t understand that. They go out there, they put their body in the way and they don’t understand that the body is a target. And once that target gets hurt, it’s hard to recover and it’s hard to come back. It’s like any dog that gets hit by a car but survives; he ain’t gonna be the same dog. He’s gonna walk with a limp. And that’s what it’s all about.”
“I’ve always been smart enough to know that if I get hit in the head enough times, I’m gonna be hurt, so I’m always conscious of getting hit, even in practice,” he continues. “Even when I’m just sparring, I don’t take that for granted. And that’s the key to my success and my longevity. It’s because I never liked anybody hitting me and I’ve always protected myself. If you look up the word boxing in the dictionary, it’s the art of self-defense, and that self-defense sometimes goes out the window for a lot of these cats and they wind up getting hurt, abused, and they’re never able to have longevity because of it. If I had any advice for these young fighters, get yourself a great trainer and learn defense and don’t take it for granted. We all have two hands, but it’s the person that can protect themselves the best and still fight back is gonna be the winner in the end.”
As you’ve noticed if you ever heard Tarver’s commentary on Showtime boxing broadcasts, he knows the game and he’s not shy when it comes to pointing out its shortcomings. That’s why he’s a must see for those wanting to learn more about the sport. And while bad decisions, fighters hanging on too long, and all the rest of the negatives can weigh you down at times, Tarver continues to go to the gym, lace on the gloves, and fight. Why, especially given the fact that he doesn’t need to fight anymore?
“Man, there’s nothing like boxing,” he said. “It’s mano e mano, and I think it’s the best sport out there. I love this game, it’s given me so much, and I have to be thankful for everything I have because of boxing. And I can still win. That’s why I’m doing it. I can still fight at a top level, and I’ve never been hurt, never been outclassed or dominated, and never been knocked out. There are a lot of never beens, so until I can no longer compete at the top level of the game, and that means fight for titles and win championships, then I’ll rethink my position. But until then, I’m gonna fight until I can’t fight no more at this level.”
That’s no magic trick.