Comeback Kid: Why Retirement Is Just Something Boxers Do Between Fights

Tyson Fury claims he will retire after his April bout with Dillian Whyte. In boxing though, retirement doesn't tend to last
10:00, 08 Mar 2022

Tyson Fury says his April clash with Dillian Whyte “is the final fight of [his] career”. The WBC, The Ring and lineal champion has pledged to “buy a massive yacht abroad” once his Wembley Stadium defence is dealt with, and insists that from then on “I’m out”. While Fury is obviously free to step away from the sport he has illuminated at a time of his choosing, it is difficult to believe his words. There is still work to be done for Fury, work that could solidify him as one of the greatest heavyweights there has ever been. 

While unified champion Oleksandr Usyk is bravely fighting for Ukraine in their current plight, the matter of the undisputed title is still a potentially legacy-enhancing element to add to Fury’s resume. A long-awaited domestic scrap with Anthony Joshua is still the biggest all-British fight it is possible to make, despite AJ’s recent loss. Beyond that, names like Andy Ruiz Jr, Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce would all add prestige to the Fury legacy. 

It remains to be seen whether Fury will keep to his word, but the precedent would suggest not. Very few fighters walk away at the peak of their physical and financial powers. Whether it’s the intoxication of fame, the competitive thrill or the ever-swelling bank balance; walking away in your prime is hard to do. Here are some other boxing greats who could not resist the pull of the squared circle, even after they had supposedly ended their career.

George Foreman

The most successful reversed retirement in boxing history, ‘Big” George’s return to the ring after a decade away is responsible for thousands of pensionable sluggers trying to recapture their glory years. Foreman retired in 1977 after a unanimous decision loss to Jimmy Young. He returned almost ten years later to the day, at the age of 38, with a fourth-round TKO over journeyman Steve Zouski. 

In the interim, Foreman had found God and worked as a preacher. The initial reasoning behind his comeback was to raise money for the youth centre he had founded. But as he racked up knockouts over a series of weathered veterans, his desires became more lofty. After taking out former cruiserweight king Dwight Muhammad Qawi and contenders Gerry Cooney and Bert Cooper, Foreman set his sights on the heavyweight crown.

His first two attempts were unsuccessful, as he dropped decisions to Evander Holyfield for the WBC, IBF and WBA straps and Tommy Morrison for the WBO belt. But at the age of 45, it would be third time lucky for Foreman as he came from behind to knock out Michael Moorer in 1994. Foreman lifted the WBA and IBF titles, becoming the oldest boxer ever to win the heavyweight championship, a record that still stands to this day.

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Floyd Mayweather

‘Money’ Mayweather’s influence stretches far and wide in the world of combat sport. The Paul brothers, Adrien Broner, Conor McGregor and Devin Haney all borrow parts of their persona from ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. But perhaps his most enduring legacy in boxing will be that of the spurious retirement.

Floyd first threatened to turn his back on the sport in 2006, in a tearful interview after outpointing Carlos Baldomir for the WBC welterweight title. Mayweather would try again two fights later, after knocking out Ricky Hatton. This one lasted 15 months, when Mayweather returned to outclass Juan Manuel Marquez.

After winning a career-defining showdown with Manny Pacquiao, and a title defence over Andre Berto, Floyd closed the door on boxing. UFC star McGregor came knocking on that door for a cross-codes clash, and Mayweather obliged in 2017 before retiring once again. 

To be fair to Floyd, this final retirement appears to have stuck, at least in an official sense. While Mayweather has not had a sanctioned bout since 2017, he has fought influencer Logan Paul and kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa in exhibition match-ups. 

David Haye

While the timing smacked of Mayweather-lite, David Haye’s reasoning was important to him. ‘Hayemaker’ wanted to retire by the age of 31 due to a promise he had made to his mother. The Bermondsey heavyweight hung up his gloves after losing to Wladimir Klitschko in 2011. 

Haye had already been in talks to return to the ring the following year, when Derek Chisora faced WBC champion Vitali Klitschko. His post-fight fracas with Chisora hastened this plan, and the pair met in a bout famously sanctioned by the Luxembourg Boxing Board. The British Boxing Board of Control refused to ratify the bout after Haye and Chisora had brawled in Munich.  

After crushing Chisora in five rounds, Haye would spend the next four years out of the ring. He was advised to retire by doctors due to a shoulder injury, but never officially did so on this occasion. His comeback belatedly continued with a pair of quick stoppage wins in 2016. Haye’s medical demons would come to collect though, and he ended his career with two injury-hampered defeats to Tony Bellew.

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Sugar Ray Leonard

The man who laid the blueprint for Floyd Mayweather’s multiple retirements, Leonard left the sport on no less than five occasions. 

The all-time great ‘Sugar Man’ first turned his back on the sport after detaching a retina in training in 1982. Famously, he invited Marvin Hagler, a hotly-rumoured opponent, to the press event where he announced he was quitting the sport. This lit a fire under Marvelous that would never cool.

Leonard fought again in 1984, but after suffering the first knockdown of his career against the middling Kevin Howard in his return, he retired again immediately. Despite winning the bout via disputed ninth-round stoppage, Leonard acknowledged he did not have what it took any more.

‘Sugar’ Ray would be back in 1987 to fulfil the long-awaited bout with middleweight supremo Marvin Hagler. Experts and fans warned him against the bout, thinking his surgically-repaired eye would not stand up to the most feared boxer in the sport. Instead, Leonard was punch-perfect, winning a tight decision with a masterclass of defensive boxing. The decision is still debated to this day, but whichever side of the fence you sit on, it was clear ‘Sugar’ Ray was back to his best.

So how did Leonard take advantage of his momentum after winning the biggest fight of the decade? He retired. As you may have guessed by now, it did not last. The North Carolinian was back in the ring the following year, becoming the inaugural WBC super-middleweight champion by knocking out Donny Lalonde. 

After a 1991 defeat to the skilful Terry Norris, Leonard hung up his gloves, which might as well have been on a yo-yo string at this point. They bounced back off the peg again in 1997, when an unedifying beating at the hands of Hector Camacho finally brought about the fifth and final retirement of ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard.

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