From Mike Tyson to Oscar De La Hoya, What Is the Fascination with Old Fighters?

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterAugust 28, 2020

Mike Tyson in 2019
Mike Tyson in 2019Willy Sanjuan/Associated Press

"If they don't make it make sense, it would be off."

That's Roy Jones Jr., age 51, talking about his upcoming exhibition boxing match with some long-retired fighter named Mike Tyson, age 54. Jones was ostensibly discussing the dollars and cents related to the bout's move from September to November. But he could have easily been addressing another topic: himself.

Well, not himself per se, but this entire bout—this entire phenomenon, really, in a combat sports context. The fight is happening and being pretty heavily covered (raises guilty hand in the air) despite the fact that each man has been on this planet for more than half a century, with a significant amount of said time spent getting hit in the head. But no one seems to think any of this is odd.

As any fight fan knows, these so-called "legends" fights happen with some regularity. They are fetishized and enthusiastically hate-watched by many.

Personally, I don't see a lot of clothing on this emperor. It's pretty lightly dressed. To paraphrase Jones, I can't make these legends bouts make sense in my mind. And I don't feel like I'm out on that thin of a limb here, either. So why do they happen? Even more to the point, why are people watching?

We should address the first question first, since this phenomenon goes way back in boxing and MMA. It's easy to shrug and say "money," but there's more to it.

Because this transcends Tyson-Jones, and there seem to be more examples coming out by the day. The great Oscar De La Hoya, age 47, recently announced his intention to return to boxing. MMA is a party to the action too, with the 43-year-old former UFC champ Fabricio Werdum expressing his desire to run it back with Russian legend and heavyweight GOAT Fedor Emelianenko (also 43—and sorry, Stipe) in the latter's purported farewell fight.

Fedor Emelianenko (left) defeated Chael Sonnen in 2018
Fedor Emelianenko (left) defeated Chael Sonnen in 2018Gregory Payan/Associated Press

By the way, for MMA fans, remember in 2018 when the then-43-year-old Tito Ortiz knocked out a desiccated-leaning-toward-spry Chuck Liddell, then age 48? That was not fun.

Sportswriter Greg Bishop recently summarized the strangeness of the situation, which stretches from Muhammad Ali to Sonny Liston and back again:

"De La Hoya was the rare boxer who was legitimately famous, [but] he never could let go. Very few fighters can, which always seemed odd, starting with the very nature of their profession. Like, who wants to stop getting hit in the face, retire to a life of golf and mansion-living in your 40s, then decide to willingly get hit in the face again? Most boxers, apparently. That's a story as old as the sport itself."

So why?

Before we talk about how it's not "all about the money," it needs acknowledging that, yeah, a lot of it is money. De La Hoya's and Tyson's ostentatiously sad histories in this area give the current batch of legends bouts an extra layer of noble rot.

But that's the thing about money. When is it not about the money? Golfers and basketball players like money too, but with respect, "legends" efforts or "seniors tours" featuring retired famous players don't garner anywhere near the instant attraction of a boxing legend sideshow.

Let's begin with Tyson and Jones, whose bout was just moved to November 28 from September 12 with an eye toward maximizing revenue. The fight is being promoted in part by something called Eros Innovations. I'm sad to report I'm not making that name up. That has Ja Rule's fingerprints all over it.

In any event, after months of social media teasing, Tyson broke the big news on ESPN's First Take with Max Kellerman. Why'd you come back, Mike?

"It's because I can do it," he said confidently. "And I believe other people believe they can do it too. ... Just because we're 54, that doesn't mean you have to start a new career and our life is totally over." 

For the record, I also believe people believe they can do things. But a 54-year-old boxer is different from, say, a 54-year-old baker. Is safety a concern? 

"We're both accomplished fighters," Tyson said when asked, evidently with the idea that this observation would settle the issue. "We both know how to take care of ourselves. It's an eight-round exhibition. And listen, we'll be all right."

The reason people like accomplished fighters is because they are accomplished at fighting, not at taking care of someone. We're not sanitizing each other's countertops here. I'm not trusting Jones or, you know, Mike freaking Tyson to take care of anyone any more than I'd expect Sanjay Gupta to win a boxing match.

Roy Jones (right) was knocked out by Enzo Maccarinelli in 2015.
Roy Jones (right) was knocked out by Enzo Maccarinelli in 2015.Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press

For his part, De La Hoya, who announced his own comeback August 19, pointed to the roar of the crowd to explain his decision.

"I miss being in the ring," he told ESPN. "I love boxing. Boxing is what gave me everything I have today, and I just miss it." 

Any cynic will tear that quote to shreds. Yet it's perfectly plausible. I can imagine missing that level of glory, and all of it focused entirely on you. Very few people can understand what that feels like. 

Sonny Liston defeated Chuck Wepner in his final fight in 1970.
Sonny Liston defeated Chuck Wepner in his final fight in 1970.Ron Frehm/Associated Press

Still, there's something deeper in combat sports culture that created this. Greed and individualism—perhaps best embodied by dominant kingpins like Don King or UFC President Dana White—have tended to render combat sports more of a fiefdom than a democracy. Pay is low for the rank and file, costs are high across the board and guidance is minimal. The lack of any meaningful union presence in both boxing and MMA­ doesn't help anything.

Put succinctly, boxing and MMA instill a "get whatever you can whenever you can" mentality in their athletes.

Sometimes a Plan B for fighters is just plain hard to come by. Having gotten to know a few fighters over the years, I could picture many of them having a lot of difficulty transitioning out of the sport because their skills and mindsets don't always translate smoothly to other pursuits. Keep in mind that these men and women literally get paid to beat the odds. Those iron wills are admirable but can be difficult to reshape and, in some cases, may do more harm than good.

Speaking of fan attention, though, theirs is still the more interesting side of the equation. There's not as much data on the fan side. What attracts people to plunk down hard-earned money for something they know in their hearts is irrelevant? Is the pandemic era so starved for content to the point people will shell out to watch lawnmower racing if it means they don't have to wear their mask for a couple of hours? Or perhaps it's the siren song of nostalgia. Is Tyson now the human equivalent of a Seinfeld rerun? Also, I wonder whether some people might watch for the sake of pure, morbid curiosity. Oh, say it ain't so. I just fainted.

Oscar de la Hoya in 2019
Oscar de la Hoya in 2019Anthony Vazquez/Associated Press

Putting the two sides together, if it's all about the money for the fighters and promoters, why wouldn't fans think the same way? I don't know about anyone else, and I don't want to be a buzz kill, but I don't know whether watching these two certified but fossilized legends of the sport paw at each other for 30 minutes is worth my $49.95 (or whatever the final cost might be) or a monthly subscription fee to a streaming service or both.

I mean, how entertaining could this be? They're a combined 105 years old. Remember that behind every big name, there's an actual thing. And I don't think I can make this thing make sense.