A fighter retires knowing that there is nothing left to give to the sport of boxing, having given his fair share of blood, sweat and tears to the cause the only thing left to do is switch off the lights on a career which he/she hoped lived up to its expectations. That’s the case most of the time but there are some exceptions to the rule, some throughout history have walked away from the bright lights only to step back, never missing a beat in regaining past glories.
This week, I take a look at some of my favourites which initially had become a shortlist of twenty, please excuse some omissions as I narrowed it further down to five.
In 1967 Ali refused to be drafted into the United States Army due to his protest against the Vietnam war, because of this, Athletic commissions decided to revoke his license forcing him into retirement.
At the time Ali was the heavyweight champion with a list of feats already to his name and if he had decided to remain retired, his legacy was intact but a burning urge to return stayed with him until in 1970 he was given the green light to continue his career.
The 70’s was one of the divisions best eras, even fringe contenders would now be thought of as genuine world title holders, Ali never missed a step on his return, handing defeats to Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena after a three year forced vacation.
The wins set up the “fight of the century” between himself and Joe Frazier in 1971, but on this occasion, it was not to be as Joe landed his trademark lead hook to fall Ali in the fifteenth round before the unanimous decision was announced.
By 1973, Ali was still amongst the contenders but a loss to Ken Norton had further pushed him down the pecking order with some doubt he would return to glories past.
A rematch win over Norton stirred up new hope before a rematch win over Frazier set him on a collision course with BIG George Foreman who was wrecking ball of a fighter, mowing through Frazier with ease in two rounds.
The fight between Ali and Foreman would take place in Zaire in 1974 with the big money placed on Foreman, but on the night Ali used his vast intellect to fatigue Foreman in the blazing heat of Africa before sealing the deal in the eighth, fights fans looked on with amazement and his return to greatness had come full circle.
Its one of my grandfather’s favourite fights before he died, he would always recite it to me which to this day has stayed with me with the excitement that he had recollected.
SUGAR RAY ROBINSON
The Greatest fighter to ever lace a pair of boxing gloves, Sugar Ray Robinson makes it on to most lists when talking about greats but here it was after his retirement in 1952. At the time he already held legendary status with a record of 131-3-2, in that time he had held the Welterweight title before moving up and capturing the Middleweight strap and quite nearly added the Light Heavyweight title to his collection but it was not to be in regards to the latter, Joey Maxim was behind on the scorecards at Yankee stadium but on a hot day in New York, Robinson ahead on the scorecards collapsed from exhaustion, handing the title to a fortunate Maxim. Afterwards Robinson ever the showman, retired to embark on a career in show business but in 1955 his inevitable return came.
Sure he wasn’t the force he had been but two wins over Bono Olson put him in pole position for a shot at Gene Fullmer in 1957, he lost the fight but won the rematch to capture the title, then lost to a split decision to Carmen Basilio before winning it back in a great affair in 1958.
The return was sensational, what people had come to expect from this extraordinary fighter who to this day remains on the top of the pile when people ask me who the greatest fighter is.
SUGAR RAY LEONARD
Ray was 26 when he retired from the sport of boxing, at the time he was the undisputed Welterweight king but due to a detached retina, Leonard walked away making one comeback against Kevin Howard which was a forgettable fight to most.
During that time the emergence of Marvellous Marvin Hagler was in full effect, standing at the top of the pound-4-pound list he was a dominant force.
In April 1987, Leonard decided to return, throwing himself head-on into the storm of facing Hagler, many thought it was unwise but Leonard had extensively watched Hagler during his time of absence, believing he had found a weakness in a fighter most felt was the most complete of the time, maybe of all time. The fight to this day is one full of controversy, after nearly a half-decade out of a boxing ring, Leonard returned to defeat Hagler by split decision, an incredible feat you would have to say even if you are of the opinion Hagler won the fight, it cant be debated that Leonard not only returned in fine form but did so against a fighter who at the time was the best around.
I find it sad that when the name Foreman is mentioned in conversation the younger generation immediately thinks of a grill, funny but often true. It no secret that Big George made a lot of money draining the fat from meat but before all this, he was a monster of a heavyweight who would eat up opposition like he would a Sunday BBQ.
Initially, when I thought about my favourite comebacks, the first name that popped up was George’s, although he retired a few times his last was probably the most impressive.
Having walked away from the squared circle, George was no longer the hulking, muscular presence, instead, he was more round around the midsection, the telltale signs of someone letting it all hang out and enjoying the fruits of their labour.
Aged 45, George decided he would have another go at winning another world title, in his crosshairs was Michael Moorer in 1994. For ten rounds George plodded around the ring looking for something sufficient to stem the attacks of the younger man, coming up short on most occasions but as the rounds faded away, in the contests 10th he found something, a picture-perfect right hand that dropped Moorer to become at the time boxings oldest ever world champion.
To this day it’s a fight that has stayed with me, okay he wasn’t the Foreman who was a stone-cold killer in his heyday but this version was one that the public could identify with, a fighter who became loved by many, who is one of the most popular fighters of all time.
Holyfield is one of very few that can be considered one of the best Cruiserweights and one of the best Heavyweights of his era, his tussles with Riddick Bowe and one of the greatest Cruiserweight encounters against Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986 are masterpieces of boxing folklore.
It was in 1994 that Evander would step away from boxing with a heart problem the deciding factor, but he was doing so with his legacy already cemented.
As is mostly the case with fighters, an itch to return became all-consuming for the ‘Real Deal’ and after a little over a year away from the squared circle he returned by winning a decision over Ray Mercer before a loss in the rubber match to Riddick Bowe.
In 1996, Holyfield was put in front of the ferocious Mike Tyson, a fight which had been five years in the making, Tyson starred into the dark eyes of the abyss of Holyfield who was one of very few who found no fear in the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ showing as much as he cut through Iron Mike before stopping him in the eleventh.
Holyfield became only the second man alongside Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight title three times until he outdid the ‘Greatest’ to become a four-time world champion in beating John Ruiz.
Holyfield career wasn’t has memorable afterwards but he had done what no other had done before him, quite amazingly he did so after dominating the cruiserweight division.
These are five of my personal favourite comebacks to which I’m sure I will be inundated with plenty more. Please feel free to let me know your recollections.