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As comeback opponents go, Mayweather’s is unusually tough

13
Sep

The greatest of all-time is back. The comeback begins next weekend. And HBO is prominently involved.

Oh, and Floyd Mayweather is returning to the ring too.

You see, Mayweather might like to refer to himself as “the greatest of all-time,” but nobody in their right mind believes it (probably not even Mayweather himself). The only G.O.A.T. returning next weekend is the greatest sitcom of all-time, Seinfeld, whose road to reunion begins on HBO Sunday night with the seventh-season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were gone for 11 years, but in a massive subscription-generating move for HBO, they’ll be reunited over the course of the season, building toward a faux reunion show within the show. Seinfeld never played by the previously established rules of cookie-cutter television, and the show’s return is being handled in typically unorthodox fashion.

And that unorthodoxy is something it has in common with Mayweather’s return. The fact that “Money” took some time off and then came back is par for the course in boxing. But the level of opposition he’s returning against more closely fits the “exception” category than the “norm” heading.

First, let’s look at the orthodox part: taking a break from boxing and then returning. Roger Mayweather, Floyd’s uncle and trainer, was kind enough on a recent media conference call to give us all a history lesson.

“The greatest fighters in the world have had layoffs. What do you think Sugar Ray Leonard had?” Uncle Roger said. “Sugar Ray Robinson was laid off three years and that’s the greatest fighter on the globe. (Muhammad) Ali was laid off three years. So Floyd ain’t the only guy that’s been laid off. Most of the greatest fighters in the history of boxing have one thing in common: They’ve been laid off.”

Indeed, the fact that the former “Pretty Boy” has taken a 21-month sabbatical from boxing makes him part of a not-so-exclusive club. Lots of greats have taken lengthy breaks for one reason or another, then launched comebacks. But it’s Mayweather’s choice of opponent that makes this return stand out from the crowd somewhat. He’s fighting Juan Manuel Marquez, the lineal lightweight champion of the world and the No. 2 fighter on the planet, pound for pound.

History shows that a superstar ending a layoff and returning against an opponent of that caliber is a relatively rare occurrence. Yes, it’s happened. But more often than not, when looking at layoffs as long or longer than Mayweather’s for Hall of Fame fighters who are still close enough to their prime to compete at a championship level, it begins with a tune-up.

The greatest of them all, Robinson (even Uncle Roger admitted that, not exactly endorsing his nephew’s G.O.A.T. claims), retired for 31 months while still more or less in his prime, then returned against Joe Rindone, who was 35-13-4 (8 knockouts) and would never fight again after Robinson stopped him in round six (a feat Robinson had previously accomplished five years earlier). It was a pure tune-up. Sugar Ray’s next fight, against Ralph “Tiger” Jones, was also supposed to be a tune-up, though Jones outpointed the living legend unanimously over 10. It wasn’t until Robinson’s seventh comeback fight that he fought Bobo Olson and regained the middleweight championship.

When Ali came back from his 43-month exile in 1970, his opponent was far tougher than Rindone, but given Ali’s talent level, Jerry Quarry still could be considered a safe, get-your-feet-wet return foe. An excellent heavyweight who was unfortunate to compete in the best heavyweight era ever, Quarry lost on cuts in the third round. Ali-Quarry was a certainly a fight and not a farce, but Quarry wasn’t a pound-for-pound entrant the way Marquez is.

If it’s a farce you’re looking for, Mike Tyson vs. Peter McNeeley fits that bill. In his first fight back after jail time and a 50-month absence from the ring, Tyson found himself a sacrificial lamb with a meticulously manufactured 36-1 record. Though McNeeley lost in the first round when his trainer ran into the ring to save him, the fight was a huge moneymaker, illustrating the difference between what a boxing superstar like Mayweather can get away with on pay-per-view and what a mainstream superstar like Tyson could.

There have been plenty of others who took gimmes in their first fights back after long layoffs. The legendary George Foreman’s comeback (after 10 years out of the game) began with a fourth-round KO against 25-11 trial horse Steve Zouski. One of the many champions who missed time in the ’40s due to World War II, Tony Zale’s first bout back after 47 months was against Bobby Giles, who had lost 10 in a row, eight by knockout, before Zale stopped him in four. Reigning featherweight champ Sandy Saddler was off 22 months in the early-’50s due to an Army stint and he came back with a ninth-round win over decent but unthreatening Bill Bossio.

Eder Jofre also eased back into action after a 39-month retirement, scoring a sixth-round knockout over Rudy Corona, who had 27 losses and only 10 KO wins in 76 prior fights. Long before he became heavyweight champion, Jersey Joe Walcott was out of boxing for 36 months in the early-’40s, and started up again with an eight-round decision win over 14-31-5 Felix Del Paoli. And while Walcott used an eight-rounder to get back on track, Carlos Zarate returned from an 80-month break by decisioning 12-fight novice Adam Garcia in a four-rounder.

There are, however, a few legends of the fight game who didn’t take it easy at all in their return bouts. Chief among them is Leonard. After going the tune-up route once prior, facing Kevin Howard following a 27-month mini-retirement, Leonard took on the reigning middleweight champ and, to most observers, the pound-for-pound champ, Marvin Hagler, at the end of a 35-month layoff. Regardless of whether you think Sugar Ray deserved the decision that went his way, you have to regard this as boxing’s greatest first-fight-back performance ever, considering the time off and the quality of opposition.

Two ex-heavyweight champs met with less favorable results when they ended brief retirements by taking on the reigning champs. Joe Louis returned after 27 months off and, though he probably knew he didn’t have it anymore, he needed the money and took on Ezzard Charles, losing a 15-round decision. And Larry Holmes was an ex-fighter for 21 months when he came back and got blown out by a prime Tyson in four rounds. However, when Holmes began his next comeback 39 months later, he began in the more traditional manner, with an easy first-round wipeout of Tim “Doc” Anderson.

Perhaps the comeback most similar to Mayweather’s was that of Vicente Saldivar in 1969. Like Mayweather, he retired as champion, was off 21 months, and came back tough. Saldivar was knocked down in the third round by ex-titlist Jose Legra, but rallied to win a 10-round unanimous decision.

Mayweather’s selection of Marquez as an opponent is interesting because, despite Marquez’s Hall of Fame-worthy resume, exceptional skill and P-4-P status, there’s a size issue that limits the credit Mayweather will get if he wins. Some might suggest Mayweather is coming back outrageously tough for a guy who hasn’t fought in nearly two years. But others will say he cherry-picked the safest guy he could find who would still sell well on pay-per-view. Certainly there are fewer people picking Marquez to win than there would be picking Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto or Shane Mosley if Mayweather had chosen to fight any of them in his ring return.

Mayweather-Marquez strikes many observers as a case of the easiest tough fight “Money” could buy. Especially because the layoff hasn’t been that long and most believe that, at age 32, Mayweather won’t show any ill effects.

“I think Floyd’s going to look spectacular on Sept. 19. Historically, guys of his caliber -crafty, skilled fighters – they come back good,” said Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward. “Layoffs do some fighters good. The time away heals the body up.”

“I don’t think the layoff is going to affect Mayweather. He’s a natural fighter,” trainer Buddy McGirt agreed. “He’s picked a real tough guy to come back against, but I don’t think he will have any problem on fight night.”

In other words, to borrow a famous Seinfeld phrase, Mayweather should still be master of his domain on Sunday morning.

Marquez is a great fighter. There’s no denying that. But like so many who came before him, Mayweather has picked a comeback opponent he fully expects to beat.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

RASKIN’S RANTS

ÔÇó If not for the fact that my wife is 39 weeks pregnant and won’t let me venture more than 200 yards from the house in case she goes into labor, I would definitely be spending this Saturday night in Atlantic City, N.J., for the Arturo Gatti tribute card. If you’re a serious Gatti fan who was moved by the experience of watching him in Boardwalk Hall, this show at Bally’s seems like a great way to celebrate the memories with others who shared in the Gatti magic.

ÔÇó Time to go on the record with an official pick for Mayweather-Marquez: Mayweather on points, fairly comfortably, about 118-110 or 117-111 on the cards. And it’s not the size advantage that wins it for him (although that may help him take Marquez’s punch, which has been knocking some first-rate lightweights). Mayweather wins because he’s a half-notch better, not because he’s 10 pounds bigger.

ÔÇó Wasn’t that strange, how this week’s episode of 24/7 featured footage from 1995 of a party in Floyd Mayweather’s mom’s house? I mean, that footage had to be 14 years old, right? I refuse to believe that anyone is actually still rocking out to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” in 2009.

ÔÇó I like that Ivan Calderon is showing some versatility in these latter stages of his career, adding the “Tech. Win 7” to go along with the “W 12.”

ÔÇó Normally, I’m opposed to tune-up fights building up to bigger ones (see Zahir Raheem-Erik Morales or Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Sturm to explain why). But I must admit, in their respective blowout wins Saturday night, Mikkel Kessler and Andre Ward got me even more excited for their meeting in the first round of the “Super Six” tournament. I think the winner of that fight becomes the favorite to win the whole event.

ÔÇó Sometimes a name just fits a person perfectly. If I were writing a movie about a fictional North Dakota club fighter, I couldn’t do any better than naming the lead character “Shelby Pudwill.”

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected]

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