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Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr.: What history tells us about fighter comebacks

It is a fairly common practice in boxing now to dub a significant bout “The Fight of the Century.” It’s been used so much over the years that it’s lost its meaning.

But the first Fight of the Century came on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, when Jack Johnson defended the heavyweight title against former champ James J. Jeffries.

Johnson dominated the fight and stopped Jeffries in the 15th round.

It was only a big fight because of race. Johnson was Black, and white Americans were outraged that a Black man not only held the belt, but was as cocky as Johnson acted.

Jeffries had won the lineal heavyweight championship on June 9, 1899, and successfully defended it seven times before retiring after a second-round TKO of Jack Munroe on Aug. 26, 1904, in San Francisco.

White American sports writers of the day urged Jeffries to return to the sport to regain the belt from Johnson. He was offered a purse of $40,000 and was signed to a personal services contract worth $75,000 to return, a sum that in 2020 dollars would be nearly $4 million.

Jeffries never fought again after being pummeled, but he set a precedent that scores of boxers followed over the years. It’s almost a joke when a fighter announces his retirement because most fans and media are skeptical about the decision.

Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr., two of the greatest fighters of the 20th century, aren’t exactly coming out of retirement since their bout on Saturday at Staples Center in Los Angeles will be an exhibition. But Tyson is 54 and hasn’t fought competitively since 2005, and Jones is 51 and hasn’t had a fight since 2018.

History largely hasn’t been kind to fighters coming back after lengthy layoffs. Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey defeated Luis Angel Firpo in front of 85,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York on Sept. 14, 1923, in a wild bout. He did not fight again until Sept. 23, 1926 when he defended the belt against Gene Tunney.

He lost the fight by decision. They rematched a year later at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 22, 1927, and it was the famous “Long Count Fight.”

A rule instituted before that fight noted that a fighter scoring a knockdown must immediately retreat to the furthest neutral corner. But Dempsey did not and had to be ordered to the corner by the referee. Tunney managed to survive and won another decision in what turned out to be the final fight of Dempsey’s legendary career.

The great Joe Louis’ boxing skills were quickly deteriorating after his service in World War II. He had back-to-back wins over Jersey Joe Walcott, the second being an 11th-round KO at Yankee Stadium on June 25, 1948, that happened because Louis won their first bout by controversial split decision.

Louis retired after the second Walcott fight, but came back two years later to fight Ezzard Charles for the title because Louis was in significant debt and needed the money. He was beaten by Charles. A year later, on Oct. 26, 1951, he was outclassed and stopped by new champion Rocky Marciano when Louis was only a shell of his former self.

WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES:  Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson sinks to the canvas after being pushed by Kevin McBride of Ireland in the sixth round 11 June 005 at the MCI Center in Washington, DC.  McBride was declared winner when Tyson quit after the sixth round.   AFP PHOTO/Paul. J. RICHARDS  (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
Mike Tyson sinks to the canvas after being pushed by Kevin McBride in the sixth round on June 11, 2005 at the MCI Center in Washington, DC. McBride was declared winner when Tyson quit after the sixth round. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Tyson was only a shell of his former self when he lost to Kevin McBride in his finale in 2005. But the legendary Muhammad Ali was able to return not after a retirement but after a three-year exile caused by his refusal to accept induction into the military service.

After defeating Sonny Liston in what at the time was regarded as a massive upset on Feb. 25, 1964, to win the heavyweight title, Ali defended it nine more times. He raised his record to 29-0 on March 22, 1967, when he stopped Zora Folley in the seventh round of a scheduled 15-rounder.

At that point, Ali may have been the greatest fighter who ever lived, an almost untouchable boxer who had size, speed, movement and power.

His title was stripped from him and he was prevented from boxing for refusing to be inducted into the service. He objected on religious grounds, and later won a Supreme Court decision.

He was out of boxing until 1970, when he returned and defeated Jerry Quarry. But Ali was never as good as he was prior to his exile, even though he won the title on two additional occasions following his return.

Perhaps Ali’s biggest win after his return was his 1974 upset of “Big” George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa, when he won by eighth-round knockout to become only the second man at the time to lose and then regain the heavyweight title.

Foreman was 40-0 and heavily favored, and he went into a tailspin of sorts after the fight. He won his next five fights, but on March 17, 1977, was upset by Jimmy Young in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Foreman retired after that bout and went into the ministry. He stayed retired for 10 years until he returned. Seven years into his comeback, he knocked out Michael Moorer in Las Vegas to recapture the belt in one of the sport’s most iconic moments.

It’s unlikely that Tyson will ever return to actual competition, let alone win the title, but history should show him that if he ever thinks of trying, it’s going to be a long, hard and difficult road.

Tyson has been down this path once before. After a June 28, 1991, victory over Donovan “Razor” Ruddock in their rematch, he was arrested and convicted of raping Desiree Washington, a beauty pageant contestant. He did not fight again until he met lightly regarded Peter McNeeley in Las Vegas on Aug. 19, 1995.

But this layoff is nearly four times as long and at his advanced age, he’s likely to face problems he never did previously.

Jones will find issues as well, but Tyson was 13 years into his retirement when Jones last fought, so Jones is well ahead in that case.

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