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Enough Nhlapho © SuperSport

At what age is a fighter past his best?

An interesting question that has emerged in professional boxing is, at what age is a fighter past his best?

In recent years some of the modern-day boxers are, on average, markedly older than those of 35 years ago.

In years gone by a fighter was considered past his best, even approaching the end of his career at the age of 30. There were exceptions, however, such as Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Sonny Liston and Jack Britton,

It recent years fighters have continued to campaign successfully and even won titles beyond the age of 30. The most famous is George Foreman who, at the age of 46, knocked out Michael Moorer in November 1994 to win the WBA and IBF heavyweight belts.

Bernard Hopkins is the oldest world champion in boxing history, a record he is likely to hold for many years.

Hopkins broke his own record when he took the IBF crown from Tavoris Cloud in March 2013 a couple months after his 48th birthday.

Jersey Joe Walcott was thought to be older than 37 when he beat Ezzard Charles in March 1951 to win the world heavyweight title.

Robert Duran was nearly 38 when he beat Iran Barkley for the WBC middleweight belt on a split decision in Atlantic City.

Only 18 years ago Evader Holyfield was just two months short of his 38th birthday when he beat John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight belt.

Daniel Zaragoza was nearly 38 when he won the WBC junior-featherweight belt with a points victory over Hector Acero-Sanchez in November 1995 and Azumah Nelson was 37 when he claimed the WBC junior-lightweight belt with a fifth-round stoppage win over Gabe Ruelas in December 1995.

Muhammad Ali was close to his 37th birthday when in September 1978 he beat Leon Spinks in a return bout to win the WBA heavyweight belt.

In July 2017, English fighter Steve Ward, who was born on August 12 1956, made a claim to being the oldest active boxer when he had his last fight in December 2015.

In The Ring magazine ratings for December 1982 one sees Larry Holmes, the heavyweight champion, was 33 and top contenders such as Michael Dokes, Gerrie Coetzee, Greg Page, Pinklon Thomas and Tim Witherspoon were all around 24 years old.

In the December 2002 Ring, one reads Lennox Lewis is the champion at 37 and among the top contenders are Chris Byrd, 32, Evander Holyfield, 40, John Ruiz, 30, and Mike Tyson, 36.

Cast your eye over the other divisions, and you see the trend continues. Leading fighters in the light-heavyweight division in 1982 were Dwight Braxton, 29, and Michael Spinks, 26. Recently, Roy Jones and Dariusz Michezewski are older than 30.


The most outstanding fighter for longevity in the modern age was Mexican junior-flyweight Ricardo Lopez who was 36 and had his last fight on September 29 2001.

As a strawweight he won the WBC, WBA and WBO belts. He defended the WBC belt 19 times before going on to win the IBF junior-flyweight belt.

In an 18-year professional career he remained unbeaten in 51 fights (37 knockouts). The only blemish on his record is a technical draw against Rosendo Alvarez in March 1998 when he sustained a bad cut over the eye.

Fighters such as Johnny Tapia, 35, Virgil Hill, 38, Thomas Tate, 37, Javier Castillejo, 34, Verno Phillips, 33, Micky Ward, 37, James J Leija, 36, Artur Grigorian, 35, and Melchor Cob-Castro, 34, were still listed in the Ring magazine and in the rankings of some of the boxing organisations.

One must wonder about the trend. How can modern fighters continue well into their 30s when in earlier years a fighter was considered at the end of his career when he approached his 30th birthday?

Is it the modern training methods and diet or are the standards slipping? Certainly times were harder, fighters had to box more often and conditions were tougher back in the 1930s or 40s, but the 80s were already part of the modern era.

So one has to ask whether some top fighters in 2025 will be older than 40; even 50? And will it be in the interest of the boxers to continue fighting for more than 20 years?

Looking at the damage some fighters suffer in only ten years in the ring, one does not want to see some of them after 20 years of pro boxing.

So the next question must be whether boxing authorities will, at some stage, have to introduce a compulsory retirement age for professional boxers, to save the fighters from themselves and from some promoters.

South Africa has also had a number fighters who boxed on well past the age of 30.

Over the years, including the early years, South Africa has had its exceptions and a fair share of fighters who fought on well past the age of 30.

Among them were a number of fighters who fought on well past 30 like Corrie Sanders (42), Mzonke Fana (44), Steve Khotle (35), Jack Lalor (44), Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga (44), James Mathatho (41), Sarel Aucamp (35), Daan Bekker (36), Tiger Burns (43), Baby Jake Matlala ((40), Joe “Axe Killer” Ngidi (38), Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo (40) and Simphiwe Vetyeka (37).


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