I stayed up late the other night watching a documentary on HBO on Sugar Ray Robinson, and though I was thrilled at the dizzying heights he reached during arguably the greatest career a prizefighter has ever known, I was more deeply affected by what came later.
Forced to remain in the ring far too long due to financial difficulties, a man good enough to lose just one of his first 131 fights, and graceful enough to at one point pursue a career as a dancer, was punished during his final years in boxing.
Robinson’s sobering descent into Alzheimer’s, diabetes and dementia toward the end of his life was succinctly described by the late and great Ralph Wiley in the documentary: “This is the greatest fistfighter of all-time. If this is what happens to him… this is what happens to them all.”
Anyone who watched Muhammad Ali go through many of those same ordeals after being punished by Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick for his inability to recognize that his time had passed, understands boxers are confronted by lasting physical and mental obstacles unlike those faced by other professional athletes, much less the rest of us.
But the sentiment is pretty much universally the same: None of us are designed to be young forever, and those best able to adjust their mentality and expectations are the ones most at peace with themselves as their careers â€“ and lives â€“ wind down.
To borrow a cue from Grantland, my favorite sports book is When Nothing Else Matters, Michael Leahy’s account of the final act of Michael Jordan‘s playing career, his depressing stint with the Wizards. Leahy is unflinching in his depiction of the willingness of Jordan’s mind juxtaposed against the inability of his body to follow suit.
It’s not that I had previously desired to see Jordan break down; I’ve long been a fan. But in certain ways, watching a humbled Jordan drag his tendinitis-ridden knees around the court was emboldening. Perhaps it helps the mortals among us cope with the gradual tearing down of our youthful invincibility to know that nobody is immune â€“ not even the most gifted.
Even after a three-year layoff and a debilitating finger injury sapped him of his ability to compete at the highest level, Jordan never would admit to himself that he was no longer athletically equipped at 38 to deal with young lions like Vince Carter and Paul Pierce. Jordan would have nights where his body would comply with what he demanded of it, and he’d put up a familiar 40 points. Then the next night, in large part as a result of his hubris, Jordan’s knee and wrist would stiffen and he’d put up a 7-for-21, five-turnover clunker.
If Jordan had adjusted his modus operandi during that first Wizards year, taken on fewer of the minutes and burden as his doctors implored, his final comeback might have been a positive memory instead of a chapter even his staunchest fans basically refuse to acknowledge. But that would have required him to be something less than The Man, and that was the only world he knew.