Do Aging Boxers Compromise Legacies When Fighting Past Their Primes?

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2013

Mosley said a 2012 loss to Canelo Alvarez was the end of the road, until his mind changed and he returned in 2013.
Mosley said a 2012 loss to Canelo Alvarez was the end of the road, until his mind changed and he returned in 2013.Al Bello/Getty Images

Think about some recent greats in the major sports.

Michael Jordan in basketball. Wayne Gretzky in hockey. Brett Favre in football.

Upon hearing their names, chances are good that the first mental images conjured are those of Jordan clad in black and red, Gretzky in copper and blue and Favre in green and gold.

Those are, after all, the colors they wore while winning championships, setting records and becoming the latest of the historic targets for future generations aiming to dunk, skate and scramble.

Lest anyone forget, however, none of them ended where they started.

Jordan wrapped up his NBA career with 120 starts as a Washington Wizard. Gretzky spent more time away from Edmonton than in it—winning exactly zero titles over 11 years in Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York after copping four Stanley Cups in nine NHL years with the Oilers.

And Favre mixed three seasons of NFL play amid his various retirements and other post-Green Bay shenanigans, while never consistently approaching the levels he’d reached with the Packers.

But in spite of the foibles—both professional and otherwise—their front-of-mind status is intact.

For some ridiculous reason, though, it doesn’t translate to boxing.

Instead, when it comes to the ring and the myriad fighters who’ve continued long past their admittedly ideal vintage, the same forgive-and-forget leeway isn’t immediately apparent.

Most recently, Shane Mosley’s May return to fight Pablo Cesar Cano had the same tired “another black eye for boxing” tag hung on it that had previously been used to deride the extended careers of former champs Roy Jones Jr., Evander Holyfield and James Toney.

As if a win, a loss or a draw against a 23-year-old fringe contender—Mosley won a narrow but unanimous decision, incidentally—would have any more impact on his end-to-end body of work than Jordan’s mediocrity, Gretzky’s anonymity and Favre’s frivolity.

Universally known as “Sugar” Shane, Mosley was initially a champion at lightweight at age 25, added welterweight to his resume at 28 and became a three-division kingpin six days after turning 32.

He retained successful high-end relevance as late as age 37, when he pummeled the sport’s supposedly most feared man in Antonio Margarito; and was half of a gigantic pay-per-view just 16 months hence when he met Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a 12-rounder at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

And while he’d admittedly not won a fight in four straight tries following the Margarito triumph, it’s not as if more than a sliver of active pros would have fared better than he did while going 36 minutes with Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez—and drawing with Sergio Mora.

Not to mention Cano, who’d lost a razor-thin nod to incumbent 147-pound belt-holder Paulie Malignaggi in his previous outing, a verdict more than a few ringsiders thought he’d deserved.

So, with all that as evidence, it seems the now 41-year-old Mosley’s biggest crime is simply being better than only 99 percent of the gloved flotsam and jetsam—rather than the 99.9 percent that he repeatedly bested during his peak efficiency stretch on either side of the arrival of Y2K.

Not exactly a capital offense in a more reasonable court.

And he’s hardly the first to be called before the judge.

Ray Robinson lost five times in his final calendar year as a pro. A few generations later, Ray Leonard failed to exit the fifth round of a swan song against Hector Camacho. In fact, the one-time “Baddest Man on the Planet,” Mike Tyson, simply surrendered his career on the stool to a 6'6" Irish wannabe.

They weren’t the easiest things to watch, but none dulled the shine on plaques in Canastota.

Certainly, everyone involved would prefer that the greats simply fade as they’re best remembered—Jordan with the Bulls, Gretzky with the Oilers, Favre with the Packers and Mosley as the lightning-fast and sharp-punching 20-something who handed Oscar De La Hoya his first legitimate loss.

But even if he dropped his next dozen fights, it wouldn’t mean the good days weren’t as good as the footage indicates, and it wouldn’t mean he’s compromised one bit of the respect, admiration and reverence he’d earned while reaching heights about which most rivals only dreamt.

Those memories are forever.

The legacies that created them should be, too.