The morning after Evander Holyfield lost to Riddick Bowe for the undisputed heavyweight championship in November 1992 his management team called time. "It's over for Evander," Lou Duva said. "He's done enough, made enough." Holyfield, then 30, turned a deaf ear. A year later, he narrowly outpointed Bowe for the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation titles.
Since that victory, sound advice has soared over Holyfield's head like a wild swing. On the one hand accumulated riches, on the other slurred speech and evidence of impaired reflexes. "I've seen everything it is possible to see in boxing," he told the Guardian writer Donald McRae. "I know this business better than anyone. So I live and die by my own decisions."
Whether Holyfield knows enough about himself is another and worrying matter. On Saturday in Las Vegas, the man whose reputation as one of the most natural of ring warriors was vividly enhanced in contests against Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson (Holyfield twice outgamed Tyson and was considered unfortunate against Lewis in their second contest) returns to the ring against James Toney, 35, whose own faltering career was revived when he defeated the IBF cruiserweight title holder Vasily Jirov in April.
More than performers in any other sport, paradoxically in the hardest sport of all, fighters find it difficult to let go, to confront the often unmanageable effects of anti-climax. "You ignore the signs," the former heavyweight contender Earnie Shavers, one of the hardest hitters of his generation, recently told me. "You miss with punches, get caught with punches, remember the fighters who stayed in there too long, and know deep down that you are at the end of the road, but accepting it isn't easy."
Boxing is littered with the debris of over-extended careers, often the sad result of financial imperatives. But no such problem existed for the multiple champion Sugar Ray Leonard when he was tempted out of a six-year retirement to face Hector Camacho in 1997. "I guess I was missing the limelight," Leonard ruefully said after being stopped in the fifth round.
At 37, the cerebral former Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland captain Danny Blanchflower was hardly old. Never touched alcohol, never smoked. He was well conditioned and brown haired, and every movement suggested physical grace. Most would have called him a young man. But because he was an athlete, his time was closing down. He had won great fame, and now he was paying with a kind of senility. "If Danny's near when you get the ball then run it past him," Sir Matt Busby told the players of Manchester United before a match at Old Trafford. Even a man of Blanchflower's intelligence was blind to the truth. "Just one of those days," he argued. It was the last of his days on the field.
Time rings for athletes with a coarse cadence. Prematurely retired at 27, the Welsh fly-half Barry John could not conceal a drink problem. Choosing to quit tennis at a similar age, Bjorn Borg found adjustment difficult, and for a while insurmountable. John Charles, who ranks alongside George Best in the pantheon of British footballers, wallows in nostalgia. In his struggle to cope with the dying of the light, Best has been close to death.
Over the years I have explored concentration and distraction, professional life and professional death - in short how the athlete grows older. Generally those I spoke to were honest and direct. Away from cameras, one on one, athletes speak more honestly than entertainers or politicians. "The first time anything was written about my age, I was 30," Franz Beckenbauer said. "I thought, what do they mean by ageing. I'm a young man. And I went out to play harder. It stayed a challenge until I accepted what time can do and got out."
To most of the retired athletes I have spoken to, sport was no small sliver of the consciousness; it dominated them. The former British welterweight champion Colin Jones, who challenged three times for the world title, retired at 28 on the advice of his mentor Eddie Thomas. "I gave it a lot of thought but once my mind was made up there was no going back," he said. Financially secure, Jones regularly works as a radio pundit for BBC Wales. He has no regrets. "Although it was disappointing not to win a world title there was never a real possibility of a come back. For a while boxing left a void in my life but no more."
It is tempting to conclude with too much certitude on so-called qualitative distinctions among the experiences of various athletes ageing into the prime time of other men. If insulated against the stark financial considerations that occupied their predecessors in retirement, modern sports stars cannot avoid a confrontation with reality. At an age when people in other professions and trades are still rising they face the first of two deaths. The death we all face and the death of a career.