By Corey Erdman
Being a boxing fan is a cruel existence for any number of reasons. The sport has no set schedule, doesn't always promise the best matchups, and has any number of injustices and inequalities that are difficult to negotiate. But perhaps no part of fandom is more difficult than watching your heroes get pummelled at the end of their careers.
It's a harsh reality that the people we hold up as making the sport pure, true and exciting—our sport's action heroes—are often taken away from us early, and in brutal fashion.
On Saturday night, two of the sport's most reliable action fighters, Robert Guerrero and Takashi Miura, showed with differing degrees of conclusiveness that they just didn't have it anymore--”it” being the ability to fight the way they wanted to fight anymore, and the durability to do so, most certainly not the heart to want to try.
Guerrero was buzzsawed in three rounds by a younger, fresher version of himself in Omar Figueroa in the main event of Premier Boxing Champions on FOX. “The Ghost” was very much that—simply a faded version of himself. He still moved the same way, still attacked Figueroa with ruthless aggression, but he could no longer absorb a punch the way he once could. After Figueroa landed a sharp uppercut in the early going, Guerrero was either rocked or dropped by every significant shot his opponent landed. Each time, Guerrero got up ready to fight the same way, and each time he was floored again. Even when the fight was ultimately stopped in the third, Guerrero refused the red stool and evaded ringside physicians, purporting that there was nothing wrong with him and he should have been able to fight on.
In Miura's case, his erosion was less stark in his unanimous decision loss to Miguel Berchelt, but still very much evident. Evident enough that the HBO broadcast crew discussed the idea of retirement at various points during the fight. Miura was able to absorb all of Berchelt's shots and continued to apply pressure to the super featherweight titleholder all the way to the final bell. But he absorbed a lot of those shots over 12 rounds, and his pressure was reduced to a one-handed attack, looking for an atomic left hand, rather than the whirlwind two-fisted frenzy he'd relied upon in fights past.
Both Guerrero and Miura are in their early 30s, but their reckless and exciting style has aged their bodies beyond their actual chronological ages. In Guerrero's case, he may have become an octogenarian overnight. While boxing is always dangerous and almost certainly damaging to your post-career life, it is at this stage in life when the types of fights these two men engage in start to do the most long-term damage.
“From 30 on, the loss of elasticity and resiliency is diminished--slowly, but progressively deteriorating until death. A boxer who fights after age 30 is helping nature along on its downhill course. A boxer who fights after 35 is pushing on the gas pedal, accelerating toward an early demise and making his trip there uncomfortable. The quality of his life after 40 will not only be speedily downhill but will carry with it the physical marks of his mistake, the marks of his profession,” wrote Ferdie Pacheco in a 1981 column for the New York Times.
It is precisely at this point in fighters' careers when being a fan of them becomes a tricky proposition. The economic reality of boxing is that fighters make their largest paydays past, and sometimes well past their prime. As a fan of a fighter, ostensibly you are rooting for him or her to make as much money as possible, and want the best life for them when the time comes for them to enter retirement.
But at what point do those things no longer go hand in hand?
For action fighters like Guerrero and Miura, the point at which that line is going to be crossed is more difficult to predict. Unlike defensively astute fighters like, say, Bernard Hopkins, who can at least competently defend themselves and not incur undue punishment no matter how far past their prime they go, brawlers don't have a calibrated punch radar to fall back on.
Action fighters build their brand upon an invincibility and imperviousness to punishment. We watch Guerrero bounce back from titanic knockdowns at the hands of the heaviest hitting welterweights and assume he can never be hurt, or watch Miura absorb Compubox-busting volume punching from the best super featherweights in the world and assume he mustn't feel pain.
Unfortunately, action fighters' biggest paydays are almost always commensurate with their harshest beatings, and with the time they do finally crumble. Think of Bobby Chacon's heartbreaking thrashing at the hands of Ray Mancini, or Arturo Gatti's whoopings from Floyd Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya.
Guerrero and Miura can most certainly find more hefty paydays before they hang 'em up. Miura can likely put up more of a fight at this point in his career than Guerrero can, but probably wouldn't be compensated quite as kindly as Guerrero, who fights in a more glamorous division and is handled by an advisor noted for paying fighters generously.
Without the absolute perfect matchup, neither are likely to turn in another ring classic like the ones they've both been churning out for the past five or six years. Unlike in other sports, where our heroes of yesteryear can age with dignity, and at least be put in safe positions where we can watch glimpses of their old brilliance once in a while, there's no such easy exit for high-contact fighters. While Ichiro Suzuki can still come off the bench once in a while and not humiliate himself on his way out, boxers don't have it as easy as baseball stars. In your last days as an in-ring competitor, you are simply fodder for prospects, or for champions to get a title defense in against an outgunned but recognizable opponent. The losses will be physically brutal, but the payoff will be handsome.
Every fighter could use some extra zeroes in their bank account, considering their odds of finding or even being able to carry out a second career after a lifetime of taking punches. The question is when is the money no longer worth the potential damage? Is the gold watch on the way out worth it if you have to wear it for the rest of your life?
It's an answer fans and fighters alike will forever be searching for.