Bernard Hopkins and Boxing's All-Time 10 Best Fighters over 40

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2012

Bernard Hopkins and Boxing's All-Time 10 Best Fighters over 40

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    Professional sports are a young man's profession, and boxing more so than most. By their early 30s, the majority of fighters have already lost too much hand speed, too much off from their reflexes, too much bounce in their legs. 

    Modern sports medicine has given professional athletes a lot of tools, both legal and illicit, to prolong their careers. But nothing will ever change the fact that boxers, as a group, have a short shelf life. If a few rare fighters manage to continue to excel into their mid and late 30s, even fewer continue to remain competitive north of 40.

    Some of this is the nature of the sport. If a former baseball superstar wants to hang around and be a .270 pinch-hitter/DH, it might be a sorry sight for his fans, but he isn't risking his health.

    If the 43-year-old baseball player can no longer catch up to certain pitches he used to pull into the right field bleachers, it means he takes a seat on the bench. 

    If a 43-year-old boxer can no longer avoid certain punches, he is going to absorb more head trauma, after a two-decade career already spent taking head trauma.

    Only a select list of fighters has remained competitive at a high level into their fifth decade on the planet.  

10: Willie Pep

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    Willie Pep originally retired in 1959, but he made a comeback in 1965, six months shy of turning 43. Over the next year he fought 10 professional fights, going 9-1. 

    While this was an impressive pace for an over-40 fighter who had nearly 2000 rounds in the bank, his comeback opposition was pretty much entirely inexperienced club fighters with losing records.

    His final fight was a six-round unanimous decision loss to 8-4 Calvin Woodland. 

9: Evander Holyfield

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    For anybody who remembers Holyfield at his best in the 1990s, it can be hard to look at his career since turning 40 as anything but regrettable. But even if it hasn't always been pretty, it has still been an impressive run for a man his age. 

    Less than five months before turning 40, Holyfield beat former world champion Hasim Rahman by technical decision. He then went on a three-fight losing streak, dropping unanimous decisions to Chris Byrd and Larry Donald with a TKO stoppage by James Toney sandwiched in between. 

    "The Real Deal" looked like he was clearly all done, but instead he went on a four-fight win streak, including three straight against fringe contenders Fres Oquendo, Vinny Maddalone and Lou Savarese.

    This led to a WBO world title shot against Sultan Ibragimov six days before he turned 45. He lost a unanimous decision by wide margin.

    Over a year later, at 46, Holyfield challenged the Russian giant Nikolai Valuev for the WBA belt, dropping a very tight majority decision which I frankly believe he deserved to win. Although let me be clear, I consider this the worst world title fight I have ever seen and "win" is a relative term here.

    Let's just say, he did as well against the 7'2" oddity as David Haye did a year later, in a fight that was used to give the appearance of propelling Haye to the top of the heavyweight rankings.

    Holyfield continues to present himself as an active professional boxer, less than a year away from his 50th birthday. Since losing to Valuev in 2008 he has fought three more times, beating fellow old-timers Frank Botha and Brian Neilson. A January 2011 bout with Sherman Williams was ruled a no contest after Holyfield was cut during a headbutt.

8: Glen Johnson

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    "The Road Warrior" Glen Johnson has gone 3-4 since turning 40, but all four of those losses came by hard-fought decision against fighters ranked in the top three in the world at either 168 or a 175 pounds: Chad Dawson, Tavoris Cloud, Carl Froch and Lucian Bute. 

    Meanwhile, he has remained a formidable stepping stone, turning back would-be contender Daniel Judah and world title challenger Yusaf Mack.

    His entry into the Showtime Super Six Super Middleweight tournament as a replacement fighter was a revelation. Fighting at 168 for the first time in a decade, he TKO'd the talented Allan Green, something the eventual tournament winner Andre Ward had been unable to do.  

7: Roberto Duran

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    Roberto Duran fought his last professional bout a month after turning 50, dropping a unanimous 12-round decision for the NABA middleweight title to 39-year-old Hector Camacho.

    While Duran's career post-40 has nothing to do with his status as a boxing immortal, he did post a respectable 18-7 record against mostly respectable competition. The 40-something Manos de Piedra handed undefeated prospects Roni Martinez and Sean Fitzgerald their first losses. 

    Duran dropped two unanimous decisions to Vinny Pazienza during his over-40 tour of duty. At 47, he was TKO'd in three when he challenged William Joppy for WBA middleweight title. 

6: Sugar Ray Robinson

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    In the months before he turned 40, Sugar Ray Robinson fought Gene Fullmer twice for the World Middleweight Championship, coming away with a draw and a unanimous decision loss.

    Post-40 Robinson became a shadow of his former greatness, but still good enough to school club fighters and give competitive rounds to talented prospects and solid contenders. In his fifth decade, the great Sugar Ray went 30-10-3, not a bad professional career all by itself.

    At 42, Robinson lost a 10-round decision to fellow all-time great Joey Giardello. At age 44, in his final fight, he went 10 competitive rounds with Joey Archer, who at the time was among the top two or three ranked middleweights in the world.  

5: Bob Fitzsimmons

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    In November of 1903, 40-year-old Bob Fitzsimmons beat George Gardner for the World Light Heavyweight title, becoming the first three-division world champion in boxing history. 

    A blacksmith by trade and the smallest man to ever win the heavyweight crown, Fitzsimmons sounds like a guy who just flat-out liked to fight and was exceptional at it. He had his last professional bout at 51.

    His post-40 record was 6-3 and included a knockout loss to fellow great Jack Johnson, who was 29 and very much in his prime.  

4: Larry Holmes

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    Larry Holmes captured the vacant WBC heavyweight title in June of 1978 when he beat Ken Norton by split decision in one of the all-time great heavyweight title fights. He ruled from the disco era late 1970s to beyond the start of Ronald Reagan's second term—seven-and-a-half years and 20 defenses.

    In September of 1985, he dropped the title in a unanimous decision to Michael Spinks, who had come up from light heavyweight, where he had been a dominant champion. Spinks earned a split decision when they fought a rematch in April of 1986. I think Holmes should have won that one.

    In January of 1988, the 38-year-old Holmes came out of retirement and was demolished by the "Iron" Mike Tyson Express via fourth-round TKO. Everybody assumed that would be the last we would see of the Easton Assassin as a world-class fighter.

    Three years later, Holmes launched a third comeback. He went on a six-fight win streak, which concluded when he knocked off the undefeated, well-regarded Ray Mercer. Suddenly everybody was paying attention to Larry Holmes again.

    In June of 1992, well into his 42nd year on the planet, Larry Holmes met the undefeated heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Holyfield clearly won the fight, but Holmes was impressive in defeat, giving the 29-year-old champion plenty of problems with his legendary jab and overhand right.

    Holmes went on to grind out seven more wins over the next three years and was given a shot at Oliver McCall in April of 1995. He lost a unanimous decision by scores of 115-112, 115-114 and 114-113.

    Overall, Holmes' post-40 record  was 21-3. In a sport where so many fighters hang on to the point where they risk tarnishing their legacies, Holmes' late career adds to his nicely. 

3: Bernard Hopkins

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    Four months before he turned 40, Bernard Hopkins knocked out fellow Hall of Famer Oscar De La Hoya. At 40, he lost two close fights to Jermaine Taylor and pretty much everybody made the natural assumption that Hopkins was more or less all done. 

    Instead, the famously Spartan Hopkins gave himself the luxury of moving up in weight and continued to be an elite fighter. He beat Antonio Tarver and Ronald Wright and then lost a split decision to undefeated super middleweight world champion Joe Calzaghe.

    Six months later, in October of 2008, he challenged another undefeated star, Kelly Pavlik. Pavlik predicted he would be the first man to knock Hopkins out. Instead, Hopkins gave him a boxing lesson. 

    The end of that fight is one of my favorite moments in boxing. A joyous Hopkins rebuked his doubters, and with less than a month remaining before the election, he made an impromptu campaign pitch for Obama, who he said he knew was watching at home. 

    In May of 2011, the 46-year-old Hopkins thoroughly out-boxed Jean Pascal to win the light heavyweight title and become the oldest world champion of all time.

    If this was simply a list ranking the most impressive fighter at the oldest age, it would be B-Hop. Winning a world title at 46 years old is an unprecedented accomplishment for any professional athletes. 

2: George Foreman

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    When George Foreman returned to boxing in 1987 at age 38, nobody gave him a chance. At one time he had been the most feared heavyweight on the planet, but that had been over 10 years prior. Now he sat, very overweight, on the cusp of middle age.

    Instead, he began to fight at a furious pace, about once a month, and by age 42 he was challenging Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight crown, dropping a unanimous decision. He fought three more times and then lost a unanimous decision to Tommy Morrison for the WBO strap in 1993.

    It had been one of the remarkable comebacks in all of sports history, but Big George wasn't done. In November of 1994, just two months shy of turning 46, Foreman knocked out heavyweight champion Michael Moorer in 10.

    Overall, Foreman was 17-3 after turning 40. He won three more fights after beating Moorer, before losing his final fight to Shannon Briggs by majority decision, less than two months before he turned 49.  

1: Archie Moore

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    Less than two weeks before he turned 40, Archie Moore challenged Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship of the world, losing by KO in five. He would fight for another six years plus, still averaging over four fights a year. His over-40 record was 26-2-2. 

    To me, the most astonishing thing about Moore's post-40 career is that for much of it he was the defending light heavyweight champion of the world, while simultaneously continuing to pursue his goal of winning the heavyweight crown.

    He would fight a heavyweight bout at over 190 pounds, then just a matter of months later come in for a title defense under the 175-pound limit.

    Moore's ageless wonder routine made him one of the most popular fighters of the late '50s and early '60s. Eventually, he transitioned into an acting career.