When beloved pugilist Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, it was intended to be Ali's retirement bout.
Ali was 32 years old at the time, and it was apparent to everyone that his best days were behind him. The former champion, revered for being nearly impossible to lay a glove on in his prime, was coming off of losses at the hands of Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, both of whom beat up Ali pretty bad (Frazier left Ali with a badly swollen jaw; Norton broke it). And while Ali avenged both losses in the lead up to "The Rumble in The Jungle", neither were convincing wins. Foreman, on the other hand, demolished Frazier and Norton inside of 10 minutes combined. It did not look good for Ali.
So it was publicized that this would be Ali's swan song. If he won, he reclaimed his title against a 40-0 wrecking machine that everyone thought was unbeatable. And if he lost, so what? He lost to a 40-0 wrecking machine that couldn't be beat.
The days leading up to the fight were grim. Howard Cosell got on the air and basically gave Ali a eulogy. Ali's camp honesty believed that he was going to get maimed or killed in the ring. At the very least, they believed his pride was going to make him endure one of the worst beatings in combat sports history.
But we all know what ended up happening. After enduring nearly 24 minutes of punishment against the ropes, Ali sprung on a completely gassed Foreman, who had literally beat up Ali until he was too exhausted to hold his own hands up. Ali hit him with a lightning fast combo, Foreman fell, and made the crucial mistake of taking a breather while on the mat. When he tried to get back up, it took longer than he thought it would, and suddenly Muhammed Ali had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, regaining his heavyweight title from the most worthy adversary of his long and storied career.
And this, we would all say, would have been a great time for Muhammed Ali to retire, just like he had intended before the fight. He was still in good health. He had plenty of money. He was coming off his biggest win. What better time to retire?
But like so many other boxers and mixed martial artists of yesterday and today, Ali didn't know when to say goodbye to the sport he loved. As you might have guessed by now, the Foreman fight wasn't Ali's retirement bout- far from it. He went on to fight 15 more bouts over the course of the next 7 years. And after each fight, you could see a little more of "The Greatest" fade. If there was a time when he absolutely, positively should have retired, it was after his 42 minute war with Joe Frazier in their rubber match, known forever as "The Thrilla In Manilla". Neither man was physically or mentally the same after that fight, and they were both lucky to leave the ring alive that night. But Ali still had to have "one more fight". He fought Earnie Shavers, the most notoriously hardest hitting heavyweight of his time. Watching Shavers land power shots to a fading Ali is hard to watch, especially knowing what we know today. Watching Ali get out hustled by Leon Spinks (the boxing equivalent of Crazy Horse Bennett, for those of you who don't know) was even harder to watch. But Ali chalked that up to underestimating "The Vampire" (as he dubbed the snaggle toothed Spinks), and in their automatic rematch, he out hustled Spinks and won his belt back for a record third time.
And then he retired and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, we wouldn't have to worry about our beloved hero anymore. He's retired, and even better, he retired champion. He went out on top. Good for him.
But Ali just couldn't say goodbye. Almost exactly two years later, he returned to the ring. In those two years, his speech had noticeably slowed, and he had started to slur his words. He was already experiencing health problems too, which had been misdiagnosed as a bad thyroid.
And he didn't get an easy fight for his return bout. No, he took on the man who took over the heavyweight title after his retirement - Larry Holmes. Holmes was 30 years old, 6'3 and 211 pounds of rippling muscle, with a 37-0 pro record. He was everything Ali was in his prime (technically speaking), and more. On top of that, Holmes had trained with Ali for several years, and knew the in's and out's of his game better than anyone else. Ali was 38 years old and hadn't fought in two years.
And it showed. Larry Holmes beat up Muhammed Ali. It was brutal and difficult to watch. Towards the end, Ali just stood there like a heavy bag and took what Holmes dished out, and wouldn't throw anything back. Finally, after 30 minutes of this nonsense, Ali's corner saw enough and threw in the towel. It was the one and only time out of 61 professional fights that Ali was ever stopped.
So, you say, that was a noble effort. He came out of retirement to fight the champ, he made a lot of money ($8 million dollars, to be exact - in 1980 dollars),and then he just went back into retirement and lived happily ever after.
And if you said that, you'd be wrong.
Ali still couldn't say goodbye. He wanted to go out on a win. But after what happened in the Holmes fight, no athletic commission would allow him to fight in the states. That didn't stop Ali though. He went to the Bahamas, and there lost a one sided decision to Trevor Berbick, a fighter who 5 years earlier Ali would have mopped the floor with. After that, Ali had no choice but to say goodbye.
Today, we see Ali in horrible health; ravaged by the cruelty of Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that often impairs the sufferer's motor skills, speech, and other functions. While thousands of people who have never boxed a round in their life have developed the disease (Michael J. Fox, for example), getting one's brain rattled on a regular basis certainly can't help matters.
One would hope that fighters today would look at Ali and try to learn from his mistakes - but apparently, they aren't. We are seeing far too many fighters overstay their welcome in mixed martial arts right now. These guys just don't know when to say goodbye, either.
Now, I will preface what I'm about to say by stating that I'm a libertarian, in every meaning of the word - I will never, ever try to tell another man (or woman, for the matter) what to do with their own bodies. I think adults should be able to do with their own bodies what they please, no matter if it's pickling their livers with too much alcohol or getting their brains scrambled from hanging around in the ring or cage for too long.
That being said, there are a lot of folks out there in MMA that don't know when to say goodbye. And yes, I'm looking at you Chuck Liddell. Mark Coleman. Tito Ortiz. Kevin Randleman. Now, in Mark and Kevin's case I can understand it- neither of those guy's can afford to hang it up right now. They have kids to feed, and they never made a whole lot of money during their career. And for that reason, I can tolerate them fighting more than a Chuck or a Tito. They're fighting for a noble cause - because they HAVE to.
Chuck and Tito on the other hand, don't have to.Neither man has to work another day in their lives - they are both multi - millionaires, and live comfortably. But neither can say goodbye to the sport. In Chuck's case, it's because he legitimately loves to fight. It's his hobby, his passion. Tito, on the other hand, does it because he loves to be in the public's eye. Tito likes to be famous, and if he could make a living being an actor or a rock-star, he'd do that instead. But he can't, so he mixes is up in a cage.
Now, I would like to give you an example of how staying around in the cage too long can effect a fighter. We will look at Chuck Liddell. First, let's take a look at an interview with Chuck from right after his come from behind KO win over Alistar Overeem in Pride back in 2003.
Now, let's take a look at Chuck six years later, as he talks to a sportscaster about his induction into the Cal Poly hall of fame.
Now, it's pretty clear to anyone with a decent ear the effects that Chuck's career has taken on him. In 2003, Chuck was an articulate, easy to understand guy. In 2009..........he wasn't. His speech over the last 6 years has slowed down, it's slurred, and it's also lowered in tone considerably. These speech problems point too a case of Dementia pugilistica - that's doctor lingo for "punch drunk". His speech has gotten considerably worse since he was horrifically knocked out against Rashad Evans. He should have retired then. He didn't. He came back and got knocked out again by Maurico Rua a few months later. That didn't help any.
And maybe it's a good thing that he's fighting Tito Ortiz for a third time in June. In their previous two fights, Tito showed nothing to indicate that he has the skills or power to even faze Chuck on the feet, let alone KO him. And he's shown nothing since then to indicate that he's aquired those skills. I think it'd be good for Chuck to beat Tito, say goodbye to the sport and his fans, and ride off into the sunset on a high note.
But we all know that won't happen.