There were probably some who were looking forward to seeing Oscar De La Hoya in his comeback oddity fight with former MMA star Vitor Belfort.
It was due to happen on Saturday (September 11) but when the former boxing hero came down with Covid-19 the former world super-featherweight champion was replaced by the former world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
Well, De La Hoya admitted he felt his career was over as a fighter halfway through the Floyd Mayweather fight 14 years ago. Holyfield was telling me in the last couple of years that he knew the right time to get out of the sport came when Andy Ruiz was kicking his ass in sparring.
But now, as the long-retired warrior nears his 59th birthday, he fights again.
This, however, is not just any 58-year-old man but one who has taken thousands upon thousands of blows to the head.
An amateur for 10 years, he boxed as a pro from 1984 to 2011. He was in wild shootouts at cruiserweight and heavyweight. His back catalogue of wars with Dwight Qawi, Riddick Bowe, Bert Cooper, Mike Tyson and Ray Mercer stacks up against just about any other fighter in terms of entertainment. Then there were fights with Michael Moorer, Lennox Lewis, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and, as he got older and slower, John Ruiz, James Toney, Chris Byrd and Nikolai Valuev.
But by the end of his career, you could tell he was no longer the same fighter or the same man. His speech pattern had changed and he simply couldn’t do what he had done in his prime. He was growing old.
Plenty of commissions wouldn’t license him because, ultimately, they feared for his safety.
Yet here we go, boxing in 2021 rolls the dice with sideshow after freak show in events dressed as boxing matches but that are really curiosities rather than true sporting contests.
Florida has ludicrously sanctioned his fight with Belfort and it’s as outrageous as anything that’s gone on in recent weeks, be it the Oscar Valdez fiasco or anything else.
Because even if Holyfield fights, wins, loses or draws and whether the fight is good, bad or ugly a near-60-year-old man shouldn’t be doing this let alone one with Holyfield’s extraordinary mileage.
It’s cliched to say one punch can change anything but that is accurate. It’s also accurate to say there are links from boxing to chronic brain injuries and illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia and ALS. You hate to speculate about who might or might not be at risk down the line but Holyfield should have been tracked by neurologists for more than a decade by now and they should have been able to monitor his brain function through a series of annual cognitive tests.
Damage from contact sports, including boxing, can remain hidden for years but ultimately the build of toxic protein in the brain from repeated trauma will start to compromise brain function and ultimately start to close the body down.
Holyfield has taken enough.
There might be some who think the choice is his to make, and it’s his life. But his age and past history makes him exceptionally vulnerable.
Of course, there are genuinely people who think they are helping these old guys by training them and managing them, that they’re trying to do their best by them and keeping them as safe as possible. Unfortunately, their lack of knowledge makes them both culpable and guilty. They are aiding and they are abetting.
As well-meaning as they might be – and sure, plenty will only be hanging around for money, selfies and a few moments in the spotlight – they are doing more harm than good. Even if no one else wants anything to do with the old timers and the top trainers won’t work with them, the top promoters won’t promote them and the major networks won’t broadcast them and no one is any longer looking out for them, by helping them get another payday, be it sparring or fighting or both, they are making an already bad situation far worse. They’re not allowing the fighter to get on with his life, to start a new trade, to change their focus, they wind up living off past glories doing the one thing they could do but no longer should be allowed to do.
Sure, it still boils down to choice but the risk goes up enormously if a near 59-year-old is boxing rather than a 29-year-old. This is a simple physical fact.
VADA, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association is run by Dr. Margaret Goodman, an experienced voice in boxing, a deserved Hall of Famer who cares about the fighters and, arguably most importantly, is a neurologist. The VADA twitter account tweeted this week:
“After 40 our brain shrinks on average 5% per decade. This means the bridging veins connecting the brain to its coverings are at increased risk of brain bleeds when [the] head is hit.”
Saturday night in Florida is not boxing. This is not sport. This is science and these are facts.
Whoever is enabling this monstrosity – in any way, shape or form – should hang their heads and never be allowed to be involved with boxing again because they clearly don’t give a damn about what should be their priority, and that is fighter safety.