When Is a Boxer Too Old?

By George Thomas Clark on April 21, 2015
When Is a Boxer Too Old?
Two aging warriors named Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are ready to rumble.

The masses love violence, and I’m part of the illness since I used to spend plenty to see people fight in person and on pay-per-view…

As two aging warriors named Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao get ready to rumble, I wonder, “When is a Boxer Too Old” to fight?

This evening I pried through dusty file boxes to retrieve an article I wrote titled “When Is a Boxer Too Old?” Now I’d answer everyone’s born too old for a sport dedicated to brain busting. I’m not advocating a ban on boxing or mixed martial arts. That’s unrealistic since the masses love violence, and I’m part of the illness since I used to spend plenty to see people fight in person and on pay-per-view. So I’m simply reviewing a sliver of the record: the once voluble Muhammad Ali hasn’t spoken intelligibly in thirty years; the Quarry brothers, Jerry and Mike, proud contenders in the heavyweight and light heavy divisions, respectively, finished their lives as invalids and were buried in their fifties; Wilfred Benitez began his career as the slickest of defensive fighters, won his first world title at age seventeen and his third at twenty-two but soon slowed and became a slender target, and has been wheelchair bound and almost incoherent for years; Greg Page won a heavyweight title but fought too long and left his last fight paralyzed and died several years later; Duk-Koo Kim never opened his eyes after being battered on national television in 1982; more fighters than you can name barely speak today and will die much sooner than most contemporaries.

Let’s assume that like ancient gladiators people will always fight professionally. Therefore, as I wrote in the 1980 story amplified here, it is unanimously acknowledged the aging process will eventually render all athletes incapable of competent performance. The uncertain issue has always been at what point the final disability occurs. Rudy Lester insisted his strength and durability still qualified him to be an amateur boxer despite being forty-three. Otis Grimble, who directed an amateur boxing tournament that week in Sacramento, thought Lester’s athletic ability had declined to an unacceptable level and that’s why he wouldn’t let him enter the event. The state of Lester’s health was a subjective matter that might never be agreed upon, even by physicians. But the boxer from Woodland claimed his constitutional right of due process was abrogated when Grimble denied his entry into the tournament: “I showed up for the weigh-in on Thursday morning, after filing my application on time, and Otis said, ‘Hey, man, you’re too old. You should be an official.’

“I told him I’d worked very hard and starved myself to get my weight down from one eight-five to one sixty-five and that this might be my last fight.  Otis kept telling me how bad I looked getting knocked out.  I asked him how it looked when young fighters got knocked out.  It shouldn’t matter what Otis thinks because I have a valid State Athletic Commission license and here it is.  It wasn’t fair for him to arbitrarily deny me the right to fight.  Otis carries a vendetta because of a disagreement over renting a ring from the Police Athletic League (over which Grimble presides.)”

Grimble was presented Lester’s arguments and responded, “I had to use my own judgment as tournament director. The welfare of all the participants is my responsibility. Rudy’s too old. I’ve seen him fight and his legs get shaky every time he gets hit. Young guys could take those same punches without any problem.  And I certainly don’t have a vendetta against Rudy. He was a year late paying for the ring, but that was all right. We let Rudy ride back with us in our van from a boxing tournament in New Mexico. Is that a vendetta? The ring-renting incident happened in early 1978 and I allowed Rudy to fight in the 1978 and 1979 tournaments. He’s been knocked out bad a few times.”

At this point Bob Surkein, chairman of the National AAU, entered the discussion and said, “That’s not Otis’ decision. The tournament should have had a doctor state Lester was not qualified. If I’d been at the weigh-in, I’d have said you can’t legally keep a guy out because of maximum age.”

Then Grimble, himself a muscular man of forty-three, described another phase of the Rudy Lester case, “We held a Pacific AAU meeting in March and discussed Rudy for a half-hour. It was decided that he had to be examined by a doctor approved by the State Athletic Commission before he could fight again. Rudy didn’t do that, so he couldn’t fight.”

“In that case, Otis acted properly,” Surkein said. “Even though Lester has a valid license until October 1980, his eligibility status can change from fight to fight. A fighter can be hurt bad enough in an instant to permanently disqualify himself from competition.”

Rudy Lester still wanted to fight. He was proud of his 1978 tournament performance against a large heavyweight who twice decked him in the first round. Lester wobbled around the ring, holding onto his opponent and the ropes until the bell. Then, in the second, he landed a flashing right cross that knocked the young man unconscious. In the 1979 tournament, Lester led a light heavyweight in the third round when he caught a right that left him incoherent but on his feet. He was also stopped in a Carson City fight in February 1980.

“I can beat a lot of younger boxers. Almost everyone is knocked out once in a while,” said Lester.

A generation later, I’m impressed by the vigor of this boxing debate. The fighter’s health is the essential issue, not whether he can win. Rudy Lester was right: he could, and did, beat many young opponents, but Otis Grimble was correct about a more important issue: Lester had already taken too much punishment and needed to be prohibited from fighting anymore. I wish professional boxers in the twenty-first century had to heed this irrefutable logic.

Incidentally, during the interview, Rudy Lester told me that he was seriously considering “kicking Otis’ ass.”

Since I’d seen Lester coldcock the heavyweight two years earlier, I worriedly conveyed his thoughts to Otis Grimble. 

Extending muscular arms and squeezing my hands, he smiled and said, “What’re you talking about? I’d whip Rudy’s ass.”

I’d still pay to see those two rumble, and that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Editorial note: At age fifty Otis Grimble placed a gun to his head. The newspaper article said only that he’d been having problems at home and work. He was a police officer and had recently done a public service television ad for the department. I was surprised how he’d grayed and by the sad expression of a man I’d considered gregarious. Grimble had boxed some as an amateur but probably not enough to sustain a serious brain injury. On the other hand…

George Thomas Clark is the author of Paint it Blue as well as Death in the Ring, a collection of boxing stories, and The Bold Investor, a short story collection. See the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.

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  1. Kid Blast 12:10pm, 04/22/2015

    bikermike has the beat

  2. The Fight Film Collector 08:48am, 04/22/2015

    I agree with Bikermike.  Mayweather has taken 14 years to have 48 fights.  Ray Robinson had 48 in his first 4 years, Jimmy Wilde 3 years, Ezzard Charles in 6, Joe Louis in 8, Julio César Chávez in 5, just to name a few.  “It’s not the age, it’s the mileage.”  Great article George.

  3. KId Blast 05:28pm, 04/21/2015

    It’s called “The New Norm.” But neither of the guys are on the left side of the bell shaped curve. Pac is more shop worn IMO.

  4. bikermike 04:19pm, 04/21/2015

    today’s medical skills/surgical tools alone, have made it possible for things like detached retina, damaged sinus problems/breathing , torn rotatar cuff…...to be mended/fixed , and extend careers

  5. bikermike 04:11pm, 04/21/2015

    Today….few NAME Fighters have fifty fights…There is no urgency to fight often…especially if you are a NAME FIGHTER.
    Name Fighters get to ‘widen the envelope’ when it comes to accepting a Challenge….some call this ‘hand picked opponents’
    With today’s ..not so physically demanding schedule….coupled with modern training methods..nutrition and vitamins, gasp..perhaps some steroid use..

    I fighter can perform well…for a longer time, than if he had to fight three times a year or more !!

    I’ll want to see the fight…before I’ll comment ,one way or the other, about the age of either pacman or pbf.

  6. matt 01:28pm, 04/21/2015

    George, is that you this is Maxie Atwaters son how are you? I really enjoyed the article hollar back when you get a minute. You sound good, I hope all is well with you? I’m living in Baltimore nd the past ten years. I know you were good friends with dad. He always spoke very highly of you.

  7. NYIrish 08:45am, 04/21/2015

    If two millionaires In their high thirties that can draw this kind of gate they are not “too old.” Some guys are ‘too old” young. Those that have not been taught or have not mastered the basics of punch avoidance are too old. If they primarily function as a shock absorber they are too old regardless of birth date.

  8. matty atwater 07:13am, 04/21/2015

    I’m coming back at 43, I just knocked out 20 one hundred yard sprints!

  9. Eric 05:29am, 04/21/2015

    A 37 & 38 year old fighter would have been considered ancient just a few decades ago, especially in the lighter weight classes. Ali was around this age when he was in the Bahamas losing his last fight to Trevor Berbick. Pipino Cuevas, who began his pro career at 14, was “old” at 25 years of age. Nowadays, a 37 year old world class fighter is more of the norm than the exception. Is it better nutrition? Better training? Less ring wars? Maybe PEDS? I suspect it could be the latter.

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