(I’ll be ringside Saturday, listening to Rachael Cordingley shriek. Which, somehow, this clip makes seem kind of adorable, believe it or not.)
2011 has been thought of as the “year of the upset” in boxing so far, and rightly so. But as a commenter on this site recently observed (and forgive me, thoughtful commenter, as I cannot recall nor find your name) it might also be the “year of the old man.”
Which brings us to Saturday, with 42-year-old Glen Johnson hoping to continue both trends against Carl Froch.
With any fight I attend in person — and I’ll be in Atlantic City this weekend for this particular battle in Showtime’s Super Six tournament semi-finals — I like to give it a little extra attention. We’ll do a full preview of the fight later, but for now I wanted to contemplate what a remarkable year it’s been for boxing’s graybeards, and what’s at stake for Johnson if he contributes to that trend.
First, let’s examine how good a year it’s been for old dudes until this point.
- Obviously, two weekends ago was a peak for the late-career set, marking perhaps even the biggest achievement of them all, if not the most shocking one. Bernard Hopkins, at age 46, became the oldest boxing champion in the sport’s history when he took the light heavyweight strap from Jean Pascal, 28, by decision.
- Erik Morales didn’t beat junior welterweight 27-year-old Marcos Maidana in April, but he came within a hair of doing so. And while Morales, at 34, isn’t as old as some of the other men on this list, he was the oldest in ring years. Hopkins was well-preserved, since he fights so intelligently on defense. Morales has a lifetime of ring wars, such that his team had to make a big show of him passing his physicals, such were the fears that he was risking his life against the hard-punching Maidana.
- Jorge Arce, age 31, is like Morales in that his ring wars make him far older than his numerical age. Even worse, smaller fighters tend to drop off heavily in their 30s, and Arce was moving up to fight bantamweight Wilfredo Vazquez, Jr., a prime 26-year-old. Arce stopped Vazquez in the final round this month.
- Vic Darchinyan had been showing signs for years of slowing down prior to reaching age 35, which, again, is pretty old for a bantamweight. His power seemed to be evaporating and he’d lost fights in both 2009 and 2010. Then, out of nowhere, he looked a little like the old Vic when he smacked 32-year-old Yonnhy Perez around in April before winning a five-round technical decision.
- Sergio Martinez, age 36, really has only in the last year and a half or so begun to become a fully-realized fighter. This year, he accepted the award for Fighter of the Year (for 2010) at the Boxing Writers Association Awards dinner. He also beat Serhiy Dzinziruk with relative ease and looked good doing it, something that nobody expected,even though everyone thought Martinez would somehow retain his middleweight championship.
- Zab Judah, 33, has revived his career with a return to junior welterweight, sparked by a win over Kaizer Mabuza in March to take one of his division’s title straps. While not much older than current pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao, the consensus was that, after a series of losses and an apparent lack of focus, Judah was “done” as a contender. But he has by all accounts matured, and now is poised to face Amir Khan in a big money fight that, a couple years ago, you wouldn’t have predicted Judah would be in line to secure.
Even though I’m the one raising this point, the question has to be asked: Is this a fake trend? After all, a number of older fighters had good years last year, with the Klitschko brothers thriving at heavyweight, Juan Manuel Marquez holding down the lightweight championship, Martinez having an even better 2010 than his 2011, etc. And it’s not like every older fighter is succeeding in 2011: Roy Jones, Jr. is really seriously a major health risk now, not someone who’s “pretending” in his fights, as referee Steve Smoger foolishly claimed while defending his refusal to stop Jones from taking unnecessary punishment against cruiserweight Denis Lebedev; Ivan Calderon wasn’t able to reverse his loss to junior flyweight champion Giovani Segura in their rematch; bantamweight Fernando Montiel got flattened by Nonito Donaire; and so forth.
But what I notice is that last year, compared to this year, older fighters are overcoming the odds against them fairly regularly. Hopkins, Arce, Morales and Darchinyan were all the betting underdogs in their fights; Judah and Martinez’ career arcs are a bit unexpected, even if they were the favorites in their 2011 bouts. Even with Marquez taking a drubbing from Floyd Mayweather in 2009 and rebounding with some good wins in 2010, he was viewed as the likely winner of those bouts last year; meanwhile, the Klitschkos are big favorites every time they fight. And, really, most of the older fighters who were kicking butt in 2010 retain their status in 2011. The only real noteworthy old-vs.-young upset I can think of from last year was Pongsaklek Wonjongkam claiming the flyweight championship against Koki Kameda.
So why is this happening?
It is reasonable to wonder aloud whether it’s about the match-ups. I tend to think people who go on and on about how much better fighters from previous eras were are stuck in the past; it could very well be true, mind you, and there are good arguments to be made about the lack of quality trainers, poor fundamentals, etc., but I generally think this exercise is a waste of time. Pick a sport. Any sport. Basketball, baseball, I don’t care. All you’ll hear from a certain set of fans and writers is that this generation of athletes is sloppier/worse/lazier/stupider/wimpier/ad infinitum compared to previous generations. Hell, A.J. Liebling lived in the days of Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson and he spent a lot of time pining for Jack Dempsey. This is the cycle of human history, aging and memory. Best to measure who’s fighting now within the era they’re fighting, really.
Separately from that over-arching gripe, if you look at the list above, there are some ultra-primitive opponents on the ledger. Pascal has demonstrated the occasional burst of boxing skill, but mostly he’s as crude as an Andrew Dice Clay joke. Maidana is a freaking caveman. Mabuza isn’t much of a boxer himself. A smart fighter, a wise older fighter, is going to have some luck against that kind of opponent. Vazquez is a decent boxer, but maybe Arce caught him in part because of Vazquez’ lack of experience. Martinez took advantage of a technically proficient but one-dimensional Dzinziruk, and Darchinyan took advantage of Perez appearing shopworn from all his wars.
It’s still important to remember that in most of these cases, most everyone expected the other guy to win, often easily. It’s not like there was a universal consensus that the “opponents” in those fights sucked, or else the odds would have been different. Pascal and Maidana had their doubters, but both had been competitive or better against pound-for-pound level fighters like Hopkins (in the first Pascal meeting), Chad Dawson and Amir Khan. Maybe the Hopkins and Darchinyan upsets were mild ones, but they still were going against the betting odds. It’s easy after the fact to pick apart why someone lost to an old man or nearly did, but we can’t forget what we thought beforehand, too.
Saturday brings Johnson’s change at continuing the trend. Johnson is a 3:1 underdog according to Bodog, and while an informal survey of some pals on Twitter found few picking Johnson to win, the sense is that he very well can and no one would be terribly surprised. Froch showed in his last fight that he’s not as crude as he’s perceived, but he’s still not Pernell Whitaker in there. Johnson’s a savvy, tough vet with a difficult style. Since coming to prominence with his win over Roy Jones, Jr., he’s only been easily defeated once, in the rematch against Dawson, otherwise having an argument for getting the victory or at least giving his (always younger) opponent a helluva hard time.
It’s my view that Johnson beating Froch ought to cement his Hall of Fame induction, although maybe for some it would take beating Andre Ward in the tournament finale. Let’s save that Hall of Fame debate for tomorrow (I want to make it a central discussion topic for the Open Thread), but the point is that if Johnson beats Froch, he’ll get even another chance to make this the “year of the old man” later in the fall with a very dramatic win. Likewise, there are other fights that could help the trend expand, like Hopkins-Dawson and Antonio Tarver-Danny Green — or that could, instead, suck some of its momentum away.
Here’s another thing: The more this is the “the year of the old man,” the more it is “the year of the upset,” too. It’s not like it’s only the old dudes pulling off the upsets. Probably the most stunning upset of the year was what Nobu Ishida did to James Kirkland in their middleweight bout in April. The relatively youthful Orlando Salido upset featherweight Juan Manuel Lopez, while the likewise relatively youthful Marco Antonio Rubio upset middleweight David Lemieux. I think, when all is said and done, “the year of the upset” will probably stick more than “the year of the old man.”
But it’ll at least be in the mix as a runner-up, especially if Johnson beats Froch Saturday. No matter what happens from here until the end of 2011, the first half of the year showed that sometimes in boxing, it’s good to have a few gray whiskers.