The Forty and over show must go

By Benn Schulberg


The Forty and over show  must go

Two old timers put on their expected sideshow Saturday night inside the Olympic Hall in Munich, Germany with former light heavyweight titleholder Henry Maske winning a controversial unanimous decision over WBA cruiserweight champion Virgil Hill.  If you were lucky enough not to see the carnage then congratulations on not wasting your time and if you were unlucky enough to have bet on Hill to win the fight then make sure you send your bill to the judges who decided your fate.  The highlight of the fight between Hill and former light heavyweight titleholder Henry Maske was an eighth round head butt that sent North Dakota’s beloved son down in writhing pain with blood spurting from a gash above his left eye.  

More than 12,000 fans cheered what they believed was a Maske knockdown when they saw Hill crash to the canvas, but English referee Richard James Davies quickly turned their celebratory chants into boos when he deducted a point from the German for deliberately committing a foul in which he dipped his head down as Hill was charging in. 

Whether the head butt was intentional or not, it clearly turned the fight around for Maske, who was well behind up to that point, at least on my scorecard.  He rallied to win the last three rounds but it had more to do with Hill still feeling the effects of the butt then a dramatic attack by Maske.  Still, I couldn’t find a way to agree with the German fairytale ending which those in Olympic Hall and all over the nation were praying for (I scored it 115-112 for Hill).

Hill’s corner had no doubt that the judges were not going to their fighter any favors.  Before Round 7, Hill was reminded that he wasn’t in North Dakota anymore, but in enemy territory. “We’re not going to get a fair decision here so you have to pick it up.”  Judges Fratini and Hecko scored it 117-110 for Maske meaning that Hill won only two rounds on their cards.  Now unless I missed Maske’s transformation from the robotic, inactive character that I thought I saw for most of the fight into some late-act superhero then how could he have beaten Hill so convincingly?  It defies all rationality except when you consider it within the context of boxing in which we’ve sadly come to expect a dirty hometown decision.  Virgil Hill didn’t look impressive and wasn’t nearly as active as he’s been in the past, but he still did enough to win the fight.

Commentator Benny Ricardo unknowingly provided the much needed comedy act of the evening to supplant the lack of entertainment that was going on in the ring.  Early in the fight, he chimed in that watching Maske and Hill measure each other up was “like watching a cobra and a mongoose.”  Actually, it was more like watching two old cats walking around in circles for three minutes, swatting at each other occasionally, and then taking a minute break to catch their breath.  My favorite Ricardo line though came during the sixth round in which he explained to his audience, “Even though Hill and Maske aren’t throwing many punches they are using a lot of energy in the thinking process.”  Well most of their energy was used in the thinking process then because not a helluva lot of energy ever went into the punching process, which gives you a sense of what a boring fight this was.

Unless you’re a fan of meaningless forty-and-over boxing rivalries, then there was no reason to care about today’s PPV-mockery rematch between Virgil Hill and Henry Maske.  The former champ has been busy running his McDonald’s franchises in Germany, fattening up thanks to a lucrative career that fueled a ten-year hiatus from the ring that began unexpectedly after his 1996 split-decision loss to Hill for light heavyweight supremacy.  That fight was nothing to write home about except that it marked Maske’s only loss as pro and it happened on his seemingly unconquerable home turf.  Despite the loss and subsequent retirement, Maske was still considered one of Germany’s greatest fighters whose success helped re-popularize the sport of boxing in his nation.

More than 20 million loyal German fans and many more PPV subscribers worldwide watched the reunion of these two boxing relics.  Not all Germans though were overly thrilled with Sir Henry’s decision to test his age and pull a Big George.  Foreman finally passed his comeback test with a trademark right to the jaw of Michael Moorer to regain the heavyweight crown, but Maske’s biggest problem besides his deteriorated skills was the fact that he never had a powerful left hand to begin with (Maske is a southpaw).

Well if you’re curious as to what a decade of retirement does to a 43-year-old then you probably bought the PPV telecast and found out for yourself, and your curiosity quickly turned to boredom and anger for wasting your money.  The spectacle unfolded exactly as I’d imagined, as two 43-year-olds surprised no one by looking their age.  An aging German looking older and slower than his equally old American counterpart, who had the distinct advantage in that he’d at least been oiling his rusty parts for the past ten years, whereas his formerly retired opponent had moved on to full-time civilized life.

Sven Otke, another German boxing idol and now retired super middleweight champ, dreaded the moment that Maske made his return to the ring, saying, “This is not good for the sport.  If things go normally, Henry doesn’t have a ghost of a chance.  He can’t have any reflexes left.”  Luckily for Maske, as it turned out it wasn’t the reflexes that he needed as much as the judges’ blessings.

Hill’s WBA cruiserweight title wasn’t on the line similarly to when a WWF champ leaves his belt aside to fight that “special attraction” or whatever cockamamie name they give it.  If the WBA had weaseled its way into calling this 40-and-over bout a title fight it would’ve brought its credentials down another notch if that were even possible.  Hill didn’t have his title on the line considering Maske hadn’t fought in a decade and he got a home-cooked meal in Munich, Germany in front of 12,000 of his closest friends and three nostalgic judges.  An appeal to change the Italian, Belgian, and Czech judges by Hill’s camp was denied despite their valid concern that Maske would clearly benefit from having three European judges.  They had a damn good argument. 

Here’s how I called it before the fight.  “So if our American cowboy can’t find a way to send Old Henry to the canvas for good I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a robbery on the German Autobon.  You could count on one hand how many Hill supporters there will be in Munich and that includes his own camp.”  If I were smarter I would’ve made a wager on the controversial decision coming true.  But I thought we might get the right decision here rather than the popular one you see in the movies in which the hometown hero returns from retirement to pull out the victory against the only man to beat him.  Hollywood came to Munich Saturday night as Maske’s beloved German fans were granted their happy ending.  The Olympic Hall shook with applause for the great Henry Maske as he paraded around the ring with arms raised and then made his way down to the floor to embrace his wife.  They fell to the ground with tears flowing as they knelt in each other’s arms.  I can see the movie now, in German of course.

So it turned out that if Maske could tie his shoelaces and lift his arms he’d have a shot at victory knowing how our beloved judging system works mysteriously wonders for the house fighter.   Can’t you see it now?  Hill-Maske III, I can’t wait for it:  The battle for the ages and the rapidly aging.  Talk about PPV extravaganza; forget De La Hoya vs. Mayweather, who wouldn’t jump for joy to see an even older Hill and Maske battle one last time.  Okay I’m kidding, I’d actually rather see Holmes and Foreman fight right now then watch these two oldies go at it again. 

It was only $24.95 to see today’s rematch, quite the affordable sum as you figure PPV wanted their paying customers to be content with the lower price before they witnessed the geriatrics show.  Anybody who watched that fight and was content paying for it must have either been too drunk to care, too rich to care, a German citizen, or just have no clue about boxing. 

Critics have said Maske was going to come back to embarrass himself and damage his reputation as one of Germany’s most beloved boxers.  Give him a break, he did look pretty bad in there (not to the judges of course) but he was tired of McDonald’s and the fast-food life so why not make some serious dough doing something he loves even though he did our sport no favors by gracing us with his presence.  Remember though, this was his chance to avenge his only professional defeat, the motivation he said he needed to shed the business suit and the pounds that went with it for the trunks and gloves at least one last time.  Now that he’s “beaten” Hill who knows whether he’ll decide to pocket some more cash before heading back to McDonald’s.  Rumor has it that Maske’s business ventures had been heading south to the point that a return to the ring was necessary for his financial stability.  If that’s the case then he joins the unfortunately long list of retired fighters who were forced to come back and sacrifice their worn bodies and reputations for that all-important paycheck or two or three…

He had nothing to lose at least in terms of his paying customers at McDonald’s; it’s the respect of his nation and his legacy that he needed to worry about coming into his fight with Hill.  That legacy has now been sanctified in Germany thanks to his hard-fought respectable effort and the judges’ unsurprisingly pathetic effort. 

How much longer now can Virgil Hill go on for?  Just saying his name equates the past decades considering he’s been doing this now for over twenty years.  After watching him fight yet another twelve rounds it’s evident that his age has caught up to his skills.  The effort was there as it always is with Hill but the speed wasn’t there and he looked like slowed-up sparring partner who spent most of the fight dancing and feinting. 
Despite sub-par performance, he still did enough to beat Maske no matter what the German fans say.  

He’s neck-and-neck now with Evander in terms of old thoroughbreds still racing on the same track.  They’re vintage energizer bunnies, but characteristically they never seem to run out.  Hill is a timeless creature, an enigma in boxing that make you scratch your head and say, “How can he still be doing this!”  He still has fairly reputable skills that will likely keep his career alive though he is clearly no “Quicksilver” anymore as his nickname equates. 

Yet, as evidenced by capturing the cruiserweight title from previously undefeated Valery Brudov, a victory that led to Maske’s decision to come back for a major payday and a chance for redemption, Hill still can compete with the best in the world (at least in the cruiserweight division).  Despite his recent success and Holyfield’s for that matter, I think of them as men who’ve outstayed their time in grammar school and won’t leave. There’s just an oddity to it based on the premonition that fighting is not meant for the 40-and-over club.

The ghosts of Archie Moore and Jersey Joe Walcott, among other great fighters who won titles during their later years are likely screaming at me in defense of the oldies competing around the world, but generally old men aren’t supposed to compete in this young man’s game of hit-and-not-be-hit because we see how age catches up to even our most brilliant of athletes (think Roy Jones) and shoddy reflexes and tired legs too often let them down and eventually put them down for good.  Let’s hope this is the swansong for both fighters before we have to watch one of these old timers get beaten into retirement like so many before them.