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Why it’s so hard for a prizefighter to walk away

Amir Khan
Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
When is enough enough for a prizefighter? Thomas Hauser considers the issue

ON February 12, Danny Jacobs lost a controversial 115-113, 115-113, 113-115 decision to John Ryder in London. One week later in Manchester, Kell Brook stopped a badly faded Amir Khan in six rounds.

Jacobs, Brook, and Khan are each 35 years old. They’ve made big money in boxing and are “name” fighters who are still marketable. They can presumably pass any physical examination that might be given to them as a prerequisite to being licensed to fight. And each of them is in decline as a fighter.

Weighing the money that these men have made in the past and the physical risks inherent in their continuing to fight, when is enough?
Let’s start with Jacobs.

I watched Jacobs-Ryder casually. I didn’t score it. My impression (and that of most impartial observers) was that Jacobs deserved the decision. Keith Connolly (Jacobs’ manager) spoke to that point, advocating, “Danny can go straight into another big fight. He doesn’t need a comeback fight because he doesn’t feel like it was a real loss and we don’t think that bad judging should be rewarded.”

But that doesn’t address the larger issue.

Jacobs was once an élite fighter. He rebounded nicely from a loss to Dmitriy Pirog early in his career and was 32-1 (29) when he fought Gennady Golovkin at Madison Square Garden five years ago. I thought Jacobs beat Golovkin by one point that night. The judges ruled narrowly in Gennady’s favour.

Danny Jacobs prizefighter
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

Now look at the big picture. Jacobs had knocked out 12 men in a row leading up to the Golovkin bout. In seven fights since then, the only person who failed to go the distance against him was Julio César Chávez (who quit after five embarrassing rounds). Jacobs was taken the distance by Luís Arias (who has won one of five fights since mid-2017) and Gabriel Rosado (who many people think beat Danny).

Jacobs plans to keep fighting. He knows how to protect himself in the ring. He’s a safety-first fighter, even if that means not going all out for the win (as appeared to be the case when he lost to Canelo Álvarez three years ago). Indeed, it’s hard to know how much of Jacobs’ diminished showing in recent fights has been the result of physical decline and how much has been the consequence of a diminishing willingness to take risks. But the bottom line is that Jacobs no longer fights like an élite fighter. The Danny Jacobs who fought Gennady Golovkin would have beaten today’s version of Jacobs convincingly.

Jacobs confronted the harsh reality of his own mortality when he battled cancer a decade ago. His purse for fighting Álvarez was in excess of $10 million and he has been extremely well-compensated for other fights. When is enough?

Amir Khan made his mark as a 17-year-old silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics and last held a major sanctioning body title in 2011. Prior to fighting Kell Brook, Khan was knocked unconscious by Canelo Álvarez and took a hellacious beating at the hands of Terence Crawford in a bout that was cut short when Amir claimed he could no longer continue after an unintentional low blow. Earlier in his ring career, Khan was knocked out by Breidis Prescott and Danny García.

Prior to fighting Khan, Brook had been stopped in three of six fights (by Golovkin, Crawford, and Errol Spence) dating back to 2016. His most impressive win was a majority-decision triumph over Shawn Porter eight years ago. Kell’s recent showing against Khan is tempered by the fact that Amir looked dreadful on fight night. Conor Benn and Chris Eubank Jnr are calling out Brook in the hope of capitalising on his name to land a big-money fight.

Jacobs is managed by Keith Connolly, who was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America as its 2019 Manager of the Year. Connolly’s roster of fighters includes young prospects like Edgar Berlanga. It also includes two fighters who, like Jacobs, have made large amounts of money, have marketable names, and are on the downward slide.

Sergiy Derevyanchenko is 36 years old. He has reached for the brass ring three times – against Jacobs, Golovkin, and Jermall Charlo. Jacobs and Golovkin beat Sergiy by decision in fights that could have gone either way on the judges’ scorecards. More recently, Charlo decisioned him decisively.

Derevyanchenko has lost four of five fights during the past four years. He has taken considerable punshment during his ring career. His purses for fighting Golovkin, Jacobs, and Charlo totalled just under $10 million. He still wants to win a world title. But at what cost?

Adam Kownacki has also been adeptly managed by Connolly. Kownacki is a likable man and entertaining brawler whose approach to boxing seems to be, “I’ll hit you and you hit me and we’ll do it as long as both of us are standing.” Adam is now 32 years old with a 20-2 record and was knocked out in his last two fights by a shopworn Robert Helenius. Kownacki is showing troubling signs of the ring wars that he has been in.
Jacobs and Derevyanchenko might still be maneuvered to “world championship” fights against beatable opponents. That will be harder to accomplish for Kownacki. But Adam is a marketable commodity. A good estimate is that he has made close to $8 million in gross purses during his ring career.

There are myriad other fighters who can be similarly defined by large past purses, a still-marketable name, and declining ring skills. The “crazy money” being paid to some boxers today as a consequence of extraordinary spending by DAZN and other entities has created an unusual situation.

Sergey Kovalev was a fixture on HBO for years. The purse for his most recent fight – on DAZN against Canelo Álvarez – has been estimated at $12 million, although $2 million of that is believed to have gone to Main Events (Kovalev’s promoter) and another $2 million to Top Rank (for relinquishing certain promotional rights). Sergey is now 39 years old and has lost four of eight fights (three by knockout) since mid-2016.

Chris Arreola is 40 and has been fighting professionally for 18 years. He’s one of the most engaging personalities in boxing, exciting in the ring, marketable (although less so now than before), and a poster boy for what a fighter looks like when he’s dangerously past his prime.

There are other fighters who are similarly situated.

So, to repeat the question: When is enough?

Sooner or later, old age catches up with every fighter. He gets hit more than before. Often, he loses fights that he previously would have won.
Getting hit in the head isn’t good for a fighter’s health. And it’s not just getting hit in fights. Sparring in the gym leads to damage too. The symptoms caused by repeated blows to the head progress steadily long after a fighter has retired from boxing. Also, as neurologist Margaret Goodman points out, “The most difficult aspect of chronic brain injuries lies in the fact that by the time a fighter is showing symptoms, it’s too late.”

And the condition is largely irreversible.

Counting someone else’s money is a questionable endeavor. But if a fighter has made life-changing money, it’s sad to think that there will prematurely come a time when he is unable to enjoy it. Former heavyweight Jack Bodell put the matter in perspective years ago when he said, “I had offers to make a comeback but I wasn’t going to get any better. I wanted to take care of myself. It’s no use being the richest corpse in the graveyard.”

Unfortunately, most fighters rebel at the notion that they should stop fighting when there’s good money to be made.

In 1955, Jimmy Cannon wrote of Sugar Ray Robinson, “There is no language spoken on the face of the earth in which you can be kind when you tell a man he is old and should stop pretending he is young. He was marvelous, but he isn’t anymore.”
Robinson fought for another 10 years after Cannon penned those words.

“You always think of yourself as the best you ever were,” Sugar Ray Leonard has said.

“Fighters,” Barry McGuigan noted, “are the first people to know when they should retire and the last to admit it.”

If a fighter’s skills are fading and he’s financially secure, it’s time to stop fighting. Look at Muhammad Ali.

Fighters have to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. Some do.

Vitali Klitschko had won 13 fights in a row and was the WBC heavyweight belt-holder when he retired in 2012.

Carl Froch never fought again after scoring the most satisfying victory of his career by knocking out George Groves eight years ago.

Lennox Lewis was widely recognised as THE heavyweight champion of the world when he announced his retirement in 2004. “Deciding to end my career as a professional boxer was not an easy decision to make,” Lennox acknowledged. “I’ve been offered millions of dollars to fight again, which is all the more tempting because I believe that there are more championship-quality fights in me. That said, I am mindful of what happens to fighters in and out of the ring as they age.”

Lennox Lewis prizefighter

More recently, Andre Ward retired in 2017 after unifying the 168-pound belts and moving up in weight to beat Sergey Kovalev twice in fights for 175-pound titles.

Last year, it was suggested to Ward that he come out of retirement to fight Canelo Álvarez for an eight-figure payday because he still has “one more great fight left in him.”

Ward’s response was short and smart: “Why can’t I just have one more left in me?”

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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