Prizefighting is a young man’s vocation. Such qualities as reflexes, speed and physical endurance all decline sharply with age. Physical diminishment that might be imperceptible among the regular population can be cruelly obvious within the ring.
The typical fighter is past his prime by his early 30s.
At the same time, boxing is a sport of tremendous skill. It’s not uncommon to see a wily, experienced veteran knock off a ferocious young lion. There's a sweet spot for a few years when skill peaks and physical abilities endure.
But there is a shelf life on even the finest talent. It's a rare few fighters who manage to keep excelling at this brutal sport past 40.
We will never know what Dewey Bozella might have done in the prize ring, if given a fair chance. In 1983, the amateur boxer was wrongfully convicted of murder and ended up serving 26 years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Due to the fact that he steadfastly maintained his innocence, he was denied parole four times.
Finally, after nearly three decades behind bars, evidence suppressed by the prosecutors came to light, which proved Bozella’s innocence. Upon release he began working with troubled youth as a mentor and boxing coach.
In July of 2011 Bozella finally got the opportunity to live at least a part of the dream that was stolen from him long ago. On the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson undercard, Bozella made his professional debut, winning a four-round decision at age 52.
Simply getting licensed to fight over 50 is no small accomplishment. This list is all about warriors who continue to persevere for years after the odds would seem to have turned against them.
Bozella’s life story is about doing this, in a way that transcends boxing, even as boxing is a critical part of his story.
Willie Pep is among the very best featherweights in boxing history and perhaps the finest defensive fighter of all time. His career lasted over 25 years and included 241 fights.
Pep is best remembered today for his brutal four-fight series with Sandy Sadler. He fought those wars against the younger man after recovering from serious injuries sustained in a 1947 plane crash.
Pep originally retired in 1959 but returned to action in 1965 at age 42. Over the next year, he maintained his traditionally busy schedule, fighting 10 times and compiling a record of 9-1.
His opponents in this era were hardly world class. Nevertheless, for a fighter as well-traveled as Pep, this last go-around was an impressive testament to his incredible ring skill.
Twenty years ago, Evander Holyfield had already established himself as the greatest cruiserweight of all time and then went on to win the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. He was just getting started.
During the last decade of the 20th century, Holyfield won and lost portions of the heavyweight crown on four occasions, making him the first four-time heavyweight champion in history. So far, he’s spent the 21st century as the heavyweight who just won’t go away.
Holyfield has not exactly been a major factor in the division since turning 40, but he’s maintained a schedule, and physique, which can only be marveled at.
His record since turning 40 is 6-5. In December of 2008, at age 46, he nearly captured a portion of the heavyweight crown for a fifth time, when he took the 7'0" Russian, Nikolay Valuev, to a majority decision.
I actually thought he deserved to win, although the fight was so slow-paced it was nearly unwatchable.
Holyfield turned 50 last October. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him in the ring again.
Glen Johnson has gone 4-6 since turning 40, but that record has been compiled against top-level competition.
Four of his six losses were to former or current world champions, and his last two defeats came against highly regarded prospects.
Johnson is the prototype of a fighter who remains competitive until an advanced age. He fights with a rough but very intelligent style and never comes to the ring in less-than-perfect physical condition.
Johnson has seemed clearly diminished in the past year and even briefly announced his retirement. But last April he TKO’d Junior Ramos in two rounds and is scheduled to face undefeated Isiah Thomas in August.
Bob Fitzsimmons is mostly forgotten by boxing fans today, but there is a strong case that he should rank among the best pound-for-pound fighters of all time. Prior to Roy Jones beating John Ruiz, Fitzsimmons was the only man in history to capture the middleweight title and then go on to win the heavyweight championship of the world.
A blacksmith by trade, Fitzsimmons possessed unworldly punching power for his size. He also seemed to own a flask filled up at the mythical Fountain of Youth, fighting until past his 50th year.
At age 40, Fitzsimmons beat George Gardner for the light heavyweight championship, making him boxing’s first three division champ. Fitzsimmons’ post-40 record was 6-3-1.
Most fighters who enjoy great longevity are cut from the mold of Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins. They are dedicated professionals who treat their bodies as the expensive piece of equipment that it is.
They never let themselves get out of shape. Given the rigors of their profession, they are unwilling to add that kind of extra stress to their bodies.
But then you have the case of Roberto Duran. Duran was notorious for his carousing and weight gains between fights. He was a former street kid who had gone to bed hungry many nights, and as a rich, successful athlete, deprivation simply was not on his agenda.
Nothing but God-given ability and pure warrior spirit allowed Roberto Duran to keep going so long.
At 37, he captured the middleweight title when he beat Iran Barkley. Post 40, he compiled a record of 18-7. At 47, he fought William Joppy for the WBA middleweight title.
At age 50, Duran fought for his last time, dropping a decision to Hector Camacho.
Sugar Ray Robinson’s career breaks neatly into three separate parts.
From 1940 to 1952, he was simply the greatest boxer to ever walk the planet. By 1951 he had compiled a record of 128-1-2 and had captured first the welterweight and then the middleweight titles. In July of that year he was upset by Englishman Randy Turpin, but he knocked him out in a rematch two months later.
Robinson started 1952 by beating Bobo Olsen and then knocking out Rocky Graziano. In June he challenged light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim in Yankee Stadium. Far ahead on the cards, he collapsed on his stool after Round 13, unable to continue in the 105-degree heat.
Robinson retired after that fight, but he returned in 1955 and went on to win and lose the middleweight title three more times during the 1950s.
Robinson dropped the belt for the last time to Gene Fullmer when he was 39, but he was nowhere near done fighting. He would continue to fight with amazing regularity for the next half decade.
Robinson’s post-40 record was 30-10-3. That’s not a bad professional career. But for Sugar Ray Robinson, it was merely a victory lap.
From 1978 to 1985, Larry Holmes ruled the heavyweight division with as much authority as anybody ever had, running his record to a perfect 48-0. But in September of 1985, he lost his title by unanimous decision to Michael Spinks, and then he lost the rematch by split decision in April of 1986.
I think Holmes deserved to win both those fights, and consider the second one among the 10 worst decisions of my lifetime. At the same time, it felt like a legitimate end of an era. The age of Mike Tyson was already underway.
When Holmes was blown out by Tyson in four rounds in January of 1988, it seemed like a mere formality. And nobody ever expected to see the Easton Assassin again.
But then, in April of 1992, Holmes returned to action at 41. And you could argue that the 40-something Holmes had a better decade in the 1990s than Tyson did.
Larry Holmes went 21-3 after turning 40. In June of 1992, a 42-year-old Holmes gave Evander Holyfield an extremely competitive world title challenge.
Holmes’ last fight was in 2002, at 51.
When George Foreman announced his comeback in 1987, for boxing fans my age it was like a sleeping giant had awoke. Foreman was one of the most fearsome legends from the golden age of heavyweights.
But it’s not like many people expected him to be wildly successful. The overweight, middle-aged man who returned to boxing in 1987 bore little obvious resemblance to the monster who had annihilated Joe Frazier in 1973.
But Big George began to bludgeon himself back into fighting shape, all the while bludgeoning whoever stepped in front of him in the ring. Foreman proved better than any heavyweight in history that a big punch is the last thing to go on an aging fighter.
In 1991 Foreman, already 42, earned a shot at champion Evander Holyfield but lost by unanimous decision. He dropped another decision two years later when he faced Tommy Morrison for the WBO belt.
By this point, Foreman seemed like a nice story that had run its course, just short of the improbable Hollywood ending. He earned a third title shot at Michael Moorer in 1994, but the now-45-year-old Foreman was a considerable underdog.
For the first nine rounds of the fight, Foreman did nothing to prove the oddsmakers wrong. But then, in Round 10, Foreman caught up to the champion and knocked him out with a single punch.
At the time, it made Foreman the oldest man to ever win a major world title in boxing. Foreman’s post-40 record was 17-3.
In November of 1956, a mere two weeks before Archie Moore turned 40, he fought Floyd Patterson for the vacant heavyweight championship of the world and lost by decision. At the time, he was the reigning light heavyweight champ.
At this point, he had been fighting professionally for over 20 years and already had over 200 fights. But he was nowhere near done.
Throughout the remainder of the 1950s and into the 1960s, the Old Mongoose continued to reign at light heavyweight while moonlighting as a heavyweight contender. He fought at a blistering pace, bouncing between the two divisions.
In December of 1958, he defended the light heavyweight title against Yvon Durelle, surviving three knockdowns in the first round and another in the fourth to come back and knock out the challenger in 11.
Three months later, he weighed 192 when he beat heavyweight Sterling Davis by Round 3 TKO. Five months after that he was back down below the 175-pound limit, KOing Durelle in three in a rematch.
In November of 1962, less than a month before he turned 46, Moore was TKO’d in four by Muhammad Ali.
Moore’s post-40 record was 26-2-2.
Bernard Hopkins’ post-40 accomplishments not only put him at the top of the list in boxing, they put him at the top of the list in professional sports. Unless you count golfers, which I don’t, no professional athlete in any sport has ever been so successful at such an advanced age.
Hopkins lost twice to Jermaine Taylor during his 40th year, ending his decade-long run at the top of the middleweight division. A lot of fans disagreed with the judges on both fights, but it still seemed as if an era had come to a close.
In a sense, an era had come to a close. But for Hopkins, a new era has also begun.
Hopkins moved up to light heavyweight and beat Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright. In April of 2008, at 43, Hopkins lost a split decision to Joe Calzaghe, coming closer than anybody else ever had to beating the Welsh legend.
Six months after that he beat the stuffing out of Kelly Pavlik in a fight where many writers had predicted he would suffer the first knockout loss of his career.
In May of 2011, at age 46, Hopkins became the oldest world champion in history when he captured the WBC and lineal light heavyweight titles from Jean Pascal. Last March, he broke his own record, beating previously unbeaten Tavoris Cloud for the IBF title at age 48.
Hopkins' post-40 record to date is 8-4-2. He is scheduled to face Karo Murat in October.