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Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009
Naito, Jones can learn lessons from disgraceful last bouts of legends
For something so often referred to as the "sweet science," few sports routinely dole out as sour an ending as boxing.
Daisuke Naito and Roy Jones Jr. became the ruthless competition's latest casualties this past week.
Naito was battered and bruised for 12 rounds by challenger Koki Kameda in their WBC flyweight title bout last Sunday in Saitama, losing his title via unanimous decision. A few days later, Jones' fall from grace continued with a humbling first-round TKO at the hands of Australian Danny Green.
Naito was a proud champion and bona fide superstar, even striking up a popular friendship with yokozuna Hakuho. Prior to his defeat, he had lost just twice in 40 fights and was carving out his spot among Japan's great flyweight champions.
Jones, meanwhile was once a global sensation. Arrogant and brash, he backed up his voracious trash talk outside of the ring by simultaneously trashing and taunting his opponents inside the ropes.
Now both face uncertain futures after humbling setbacks that may have sounded the death knell on two great careers.
Naito left his fight pondering retirement as Jones likely did as well. Bowing out with a loss is a tough pill to swallow but the ring has been much tougher on those who linger too long.
Unlike some other athletes, not many boxers are afforded a last glorious ride off into the sunset. They're usually left a battered and bloodied mess.
Some are able to find the right time to walk away and leave on top. The rest are beaten into retirement, suffering a final defeat at the hands of a younger and stronger opponent.
Sports is littered with many examples of aging stars hanging on a bit too long, from Michael Jordan's comeback with the Washington Wizards to the NFL's now-annual Brett Favre drama.
But Jordan wasn't ducking punches and Favre doesn't have haymakers crashing into his head.
Former NFL great Jim Brown, who retired at age 29, once spoke about the right time to leave.
"You can never top yourself," Brown said in a 1999 New York Times interview. "When it becomes the old you against the young you, the old you always loses."
Even so, walking away has always been especially hard for boxers.
Few professions have been romanticized as much as boxing. It's regarded as the sweet science largely in part for the way it combines raw power with agility in a mix that at times can be as beautiful as it is violent.
Its flurry of jabs, ferocious uppercuts, dekes, feints, deft footwork and colorful personalities have all meshed to create a graceful, explosive dance.
The sport demands a steep payment of blood, sweat and tears but in return makes superstars out of its heroes.
From legends such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson to Japan's own International Boxing Hall of Famer Masahiko "Fighting" Harada, great boxers are the stuff of lore.
Except that all too often, age turns the prince back into a pauper.
Ali was the self-proclaimed "greatest" and may very well have been just that, defeating nearly every top heavyweight of his era.
But the aging Ali's final two fights were losses, by 10th-round TKO to Larry Holmes in a WBC heavyweight title fight in 1980 and finally by unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick a year later.
Louis was knocked out by Rocky Marciano in his last bout, while Robinson, often cited as the greatest boxer of all time, also lost his final bout.
Ali, Louis and Robinson were so large in stature they were remembered for their legendary triumphs rather than their final moments in the ring. At the same time, their endings were far from glorious.
There are exceptions, however. Marciano went out on top (49-0), as did Lennox Lewis.
Naito and Jones may very well shun retirement and continue to push forward. Currently 35 and 40-years old, respectively, they may choose to continue trading punches with men nearly half their age in search of that final lasting image of glory.
However as sweet as boxing is to its stars, most who enter the ring in search of a fairy-tale ending are stuck with the frog instead of the prince.