There is something dreamy about watching an aging athlete in a moment of greatness. We can see ourselves stopping time, too hitting backhands till we're 80 and never passing up a chance to beat one of those stupid carnival games by knocking down three leaden pins with a baseball as airy as a cream puff.
When a magnificent senior athlete adds an unexpected notch to his belt of honors, we get a marvelous jolt to our senses as if the smell of rosemary had suddenly overtaken K Street. Nolan Ryan pitching his seventh no-hitter an all-time Major League record at age 44. George Blanda extending his pro football career to age 48, playing in more games and kicking more field goals than anyone ever has. Martina Navratilova winning her ninth Wimbledon crown at age 33, just when it seemed as if tennis teeny-boppers had eclipsed her.
So when Jackie Joyner-Kersee called it quits last week, 36 and fit, having scooped up another gold medal at the Goodwill Games, the desire was to applaud ecstatically and then not accept her goodbye. Why should she leave us when she is still on top?
We go through this sort of denial whenever our most distinguished athletes edge toward their end, especially those with cool nicknames like Air and Iron Man and the Golden Bear. Michael Jordan, Cal Ripken and Jack Nicklaus are still among us, but probably not for long. We want to freeze them in their highest moment of accomplishment.
The sensation is exactly the opposite when gray beards insist on bludgeoning us with performances that are both pitiful and pitiable. But that is also our fate. Regrettably, there are fewer stories of triumph by the aging athlete than tales of someone long past prime, or never in prime, who simply won't let go. Such tales are often found in boxing, which turned Jerry Quarry, three decades ago the most hopeful of the "Great White Hopes," into a punched-silly hard-luck case who needs help putting on his socks and shoes. This, after he attempted a comeback at age 47 for $1,050 and got two teeth knocked out.
Two weeks ago, there was the spectacle of two broken-down warriors George Foreman and Larry Holmes feigning and spitting out one-liners like they were a Las Vegas lounge act, promoting a pay-per-view fight that won't take place until Jan. 23, 1999. That's 13 days after Foreman turns 50, two months after Holmes turns 49.
The promoter has dubbed this fight "The Birthday Bash," and Foreman is touting it as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It is tempting to call it "The Battle of the Blubbery Bums," as both men are like walruses on the scales, with skills in such a state of decline that even the untrained eye can spot the massive erosion. But it would seem that these men are at least deserving of some respect. So here it is:
Foreman was the proud American who marched around the ring waving a tiny American flag after winning a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics. Not just a chiseled body with a cement-block right hand, but a national hero. Back in 1974, Foreman and Muhammad Ali had one of the great rumbles of all time.
And Holmes? He held the heavyweight title for seven years. Came within a victory of matching Rocky Marciano's amazing record of 49-0, but blew it and never was the same. Holmes did retire Ali with an act of kindness, holding up "The Greatest" on the ropes like he was a sick uncle, not inflicting more damage than was necessary. Now, he's fighting pugs for chump change at the casinos in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Why do they do it?
The easy answer is the money. Foreman will earn $10 million; Holmes will snag $4 million, his best payday in years.
As for Foreman, at least he knows who he is. He long ago abandoned any pretense. He's not an athlete anymore. He's a hamburger salesman, a muffler salesman, a gelatin salesman, any kind of salesman they want him to be if the dough is right. He's a roly-poly live-action toy for little kids kind of like Barney. He inspires the elderly, uplifts the obese and makes everyone else laugh because he's funny and God-loving and sweet. All the way to the bank. Foreman understands he's not Joe Louis, not Ali, not any of the immortals. He's simply an entertainer.
"Boxing's never been about who was the toughest," he said in a 1995 Playboy interview. "It's always been about: 'Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, see the bearded lady.' It's Barnum and Bailey let's get under the tent. It's never been anything else."
Holmes, however, is more puzzling. Never a showman, he's always resented glib fast-talkers, maestros of the media who could create an image of themselves that outlived their abilities. He owns three-quarters of Easton, Pa., so he doesn't need the money. At least, that's what he's always told us. But listen to Holmes now: "I'm just like that guy from Microsoft, what's his name, Bill Gates. I want more money. . . . Money, man, money. I'm not trying to be the greatest fighter of all time. I'm trying to be the richest."
Holmes telephoned one recent day as he munched a late lunch. He had signed on to his computer and picked up an e-mail requesting an interview.
Are you too old to still be fighting?
"One of the things about it is we all get old because we keep on living. Just because they say I'm old, that doesn't make me old."
Then he started getting serious.
"It's kind of hard not to be able to fight after 28 years. I've taken care of myself, so why give it up if I still can do it? If I was slurring and you couldn't understand what I'm saying, I could see."
But you barely beat a 22-year-old named Maurice Harris, with a record of 9-9. "I didn't look 100 percent. He fought a good fight. If he had fought a better fight he would've won."
How long do you expect to keep fighting?
"When I get 50, I might quit. . . . You're always going to find a lot of professional critics who are going to criticize you when they can't do the damn thing themselves. Writers can write forever. I'm glad I am able to think like this. Right now, I still feel good. My doctor says it's okay. So let me have fun."
Even the legendary Babe Ruth, the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Ruth, hung around too long. His average slipped, his homers dropped and then he refused to accept a minor league managing job, so the Yankees released him to the Boston Braves.
Larry Hawkins has been thinking a lot about all of this. He's director of the Institute for Athletics and Education in Chicago, where he's teaching some of the city's top athletes to consider sports as merely a "subtitle" of their overall learning.
His program is aimed at school kids drilling into them that "there has to be more than one limb on their tree, that they must see athletics as one of a series of people that they are."
In other words, to be like Ernie Barnes, once a pro football player, now a renowned artist whose second career long ago dwarfed his first.
But it's always been the prerogative of the old to lecture the young. What's the lesson for the geezers? You'd think they might have the wisdom of age on their side, but too many still have trouble mastering the ancient dilemma of knowing when to quit.
"You walk away at the top of your game and everybody remembers you at the top of your game," says Hawkins matter-of-factly. Like Jordan, who this year won for the second time a third straight NBA championship. Now he can retire if he wants to. A step slower, no longer the high-flying dunker of his highlight reels, but still the best player in the game. He redefined himself, developed new skills on the court and envisioned a next life. Now he's prepared for any number of futures from playing golf on the senior tour to becoming a corporate mogul.
Such lessons don't come easy for the young or the old, especially when two wasted fighters, who count nearly a century of living between them, can take away $14 million together for a match people will pay actual money to watch on TV. Sometimes the cash doesn't even matter. There will always be athletes prolonging tortured careers or torturing prolonged careers. That is our fate: Fewer Jackie Joyner-Kersees and more busted-up Jerry Quarrys. Because, says Hawkins, "that's a sharp cliff to drop off from. To go from a lot to nothing."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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