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Sergio Martinez and the late bloomers of boxing

Derek Bonnett, inspired by the comeback of Sergio Martinez, lists some other boxers who found their best form in their thirties

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While boxing fans aren’t exactly sure what it means or how boxing’s latest comeback will crescendo, former pound-for-pound contender Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez is back.

The Madrid-based Argentine fighter counted himself a winner twice in 2020. Most recently, Martinez defeated Jussi Koivula by ninth-round TKO on December 19. Martinez didn’t look poor. He moved around the ring well enough and still possessed enough athletic reflex to carry his hands low. He did plant his right leg firmly out front to protect the knee injury which paused his career for nearly six years. During a leg tie-up, the former world middleweight champion cautiously retreated so he could reset his balance. At 45, it’s quite easy to dismiss Martinez due to his age and how he performed against Miguel Cotto in 2014.

However, Martinez counts himself among boxing’s late bloomers. The southpaw really didn’t hit his recognised stride until around 2008 when he was already thirty-three years old. Around this time, he was catching HBO’s attention with a stoppage win over Alex Bunema. Then there was his dominant performance against Kermit Cintron in which Martinez seemed to win twice, once by stoppage and then on points, only to hear a draw announced. He traded knockdowns with Paul Williams only to lose narrowly in 2009. However, at age 35, he topped Kelly Pavlik in his next bout for the world middleweight title. The next three years accounted for the best stretch of the champion’s career as he defeated the likes of Williams, Serhiy Dzinziruk, Darren Barker, Matthew Macklin and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. A decline was evident in his bout with Martin Murray, but was it age or the knee injury sustained against Chavez? Cotto made it look like both.

Will “Maravilla’s” comeback amount to anything? Whether he can repeat his victory over Chavez Jr, defeat a comeback wannabe in Oscar De La Hoya or unseat Canelo Alvarez, most of us will be shocked considering how he looked before calling it quits. Martinez’s comeback is hardly a unique situation, but Sergio is special for other reasons.

Martinez’s ilk is not common in the sport of boxing, but he hardly stands alone. The following are more late-blooming boxers who hit their primes and scored their best wins in their thirties.

Frankie “The Surgeon” Randall (USA)
After Randall’s passing on December 23, his accomplishments in the sport beyond 30 cannot be overlooked. Randall did not see himself crowned world champion until he was 32. The boxer from Morristown, TN defeated Julio Cesar Chavez as a huge underdog. In snapping the Mexican’s 90-bout unbeaten streak, he solidified his name in boxing history. One week before his 33rd birthday, Randall become a two-time world champion by outpointing Juan Martin Coggi. Randall was just shy of his 35th birthday when he regained a portion of the 140-pound title with his trilogy win over Coggi. Randall retired 58-18-1 (42).

Sonny Liston (USA)
Ironically, it’s been well-documented that there is no official birth record for the former heavyweight champion, who cultivated a fearsome presence in the ring before the likes of George Foreman and Mike Tyson. Liston was allegedly 32 years of age when he captured heavyweight glory by dispatching Floyd Patterson in a single round. Liston was likely closer to 34. Liston’s heavyweight rise accelerated in 1960 with stoppages of Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley. Liston also managed to outpoint Eddie Machen that same year. The most modest date would still put Liston over 30 for those victories which contributed greatly to his Hall of Fame status. Liston finished his career 50-4 (39).

Daisuke Naito (Japan)
The Japanese former world champion’s late bloom is most evident by his four-fight series with Pongsaklek Wonjongkam between 2002 and 2008. Naito’s first challenge of Wonjongkam lasted just 34 seconds, a record for fastest flyweight world title bout. In 2005, he lost a seventh-round technical decision to the champion. In 2007, Naito became a world champion with a unanimous decision over Wonjongkam. Later that year, Naito outpointed Daiki Kameda in another career best victory in his 32nd year of life. In the following year, Naito still managed to draw with Wonjongkam and stop future world titlist Tomonobu Shimizu. At nearly 35, Naito posted a victory over another future champion in Chao Zhong Xiong. Naito ended his career at 36-3-3 (23).

Amnat Ruenroeng (Thailand)
Ruenroeng, like Liston, learned to box in prison, while serving 15 years for robbery. He was released for good behaviour, but committed numerous fouls inside the ring throughout a surprising career given his circumstances. In fact, Ruenroeng did not even turn professional until he was already in his 32nd year of life! At 33, the former inmate captured a vacant flyweight world championship by decisioning Rocky Fuentes in 2014. In his career-defining victories, Amnat won split decisions over Kazuto Ioka and McWilliams Arroyo later that same year. At 34, he defeated Zou Shiming, who represented the entire Chinese boxing franchise at the time. A dirty, foul-infested victory over John Riel Casimero followed. Casimero easily stopped Ruenroeng in their rematch, but the Thai fights on and still steps in with world-class opposition at 41. In 2020, he even put in a creditable showing against Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and defeated Pungluang Sor Singyu in an eight-rounder. Ruenroeng currently stands at 21-4 (6).

Stuart Hall (United Kingdom)
If ever there was an unlikely world champion, it was ‘Stuey’ Hall. He had proved durable in domestic losses to Jamie McDonnell and Lee Haskins, but the Darlington, County Durham native won a world title with a surprisingly wide unanimous decision over Vusi Malinga just about two months shy of his 34th birthday. A single defence against Martin Ward ended in a second-round technical draw. Hall was relieved of his belt by Paul Butler and failed at another go with Randy Caballero, all in 2014. Even still, in his 36th year, Hall defeated former titlist Rodrigo Guerrero before losing rematches to Haskins and Butler, along with a defeat to Gavin McDonnell. Hall hasn’t fought since 2018 and left his record 21-7-2 (7).

Muhammad Rachman (Indonesia)
Whether you prefer “Predator” or “Rock Breaker” as his moniker, Rachman is undeniably a late bloomer. He was an 11-year professional before he tried for his world championship at age 33 in 2004. He was already a veteran of over 60 bouts. His title-winning split-decision nod over Daniel Reyes was set up by an eliminator stoppage of Noel Tunacao the year before. Rachman defended three times including a KO of Omar Soto and a Technical Draw with Fahlan Sakkreerin. Rachman would be dethroned in an excellent contest against Florante Condes in 2007. He defeated contender Edrin Dapudong in 2008 before hitting a rough slide. However, in 2011, he had a belt around his waist again after stopping Kwanthai Sithmorseng in nine rounds. The unbeaten defending titlist was twenty-nine to Rachman’s 40. Rachman retired at 65-13-5 (35) in 2016.

Vince Phillips (USA)
“Cool” Vince’s rise gained some speed following defeats over crafty and dangerous veterans such as Harold Brazier and Jaime Balboa, but he would get set back by a cuts stoppage to Anthony Jones in 1993. After adding the pelts of some more veteran gatekeepers, Phillips met Ike Quartey for his welterweight title. Phillips was decimated in three rounds. The following year he dropped a sloppy split decision to Romallis Ellis, which was contested. Regardless, he met a rising 140-pound champion in Kostya Tszyu just months later in 1997. Tszyu was prepping for a mega-showdown with Oscar De La Hoya. Phillips was just shy of 34 when he pummelled Tszyu into his first defeat and out of a genuine blockbuster payday. Phillips went on the best run over his career, stopping Micky Ward, Freddie Pendleton and Alfonso Gomez in successive defences of his championship. In 1999, Phillips would lose the belt to Terron Millett in five rounds, citing the weight strain of making 140. Phillips fought on, mostly as a stepping stone, until 2007. However, as he neared 40, he was still too good for Nick Acevedo, a prospect and future Contender participant eleven years his junior. “Cool” Vince hung up the gloves with his record at 48-12-1 (34).

Antonio Tarver (USA)
In 1996, Tarver won Olympic bronze at the age of 28, when most successful contenders have already tried for a professional world championship. A year later he turned professional, but it was a patient rise to contender status as he turned back Rocky Gannon and Ernest Mateen by 2000. Later that year, Eric Harding outpointed him over 12 rounds to send him back to the drawing board. Soon after, Tarver put together a strong run, defeating Reggie Johnson, Harding and Montell Griffin all after his 34th year on earth. He gave Roy Jones Jr his toughest fight as a professional, but lost a majority decision weeks before his 35th birthday. The following year, Tarver drilled Jones in two rounds to become light-heavyweight champion. Tarver would split a two-bout rivalry with Glen Johnson, another late bloomer, who was considered for this list. He also added a defeat of Jones to close out their trilogy. Bernard Hopkins sent Tarver back down a notch or two, but Tarver still rebounded to defeat Clinton Woods at age 40. Tarver couldn’t get the better of Chad Dawson in two affairs, but he stopped Danny Green in 2011 and Jonathon Banks in 2014, rising up through cruiserweight and heavyweight as he pleased. Tarver finished his career with a draw against Steve Cunningham in 2015, but looked as though he had a lot left to offer in the ring. He retired at 31-6-1 (22).

Adonis Stevenson (Canada)
Stevenson, like Tarver, did not turn professional until his 29th year. The big-punching super-middleweight was a prospect to watch until he met Darnell Boone and was iced in two rounds in 2010. Already 33, experts had to wonder what type of career the Haitian-born hitter might have. Nevertheless, Stevenson rebuilt by knocking out Derek Edwards, Aaron Pryor Jr, Donovan George and Boone . As he neared 36, Stevenson blitzed Chad Dawson to win the light-heavyweight title in a just over a minute in 2013. Tavoris Cloud and Tony Bellew were defeated in title defences later that same year! Until 2017, or age 40, Stevenson held onto his title with victories over quality contenders in the division. He appeared lucky to keep the belts with a draw against Badou Jack in 2018. Stevenson was lucky to keep his life following a brain injury in his title loss to Oleksandr Gvozdyk at the close of that year, though is thankfully now in far better shape than he was. Stevenson’s dossier was complete at 29-2-1 (24).

Giacobbe Fragomeni (Italy)
The Italian cruiserweight did not turn professional until his 32nd year out of the womb. Domestically, Fragomeni rose in stature to earn a shot at the European cruiserweight belt. He gave David Haye one of his toughest battles as a professional in 2006 at the ripe age of 37. Moral victories aside, it seemed a tad late in the game for Fragomeni to be breaking ranks, but the following year he won the European belt by outpointing Vincenzo Rossito. After defending it twice, Fragomeni because the oldest boxer to receive his first world title shot at 39! On top of it, Fragomeni won a technical decision over Rudolf Kraj to become world champion. He defended it with a draw against Krzysztof Wlodarczyk the following year. Although defeated, Fragomeni fought close with Zsolt Erdei in 2009. He was then stopped by Wlodarczyk in a 2010 rematch. In 2012, Fragomeni put on a Fight of the Year contender with his draw against Silvio Branco. He defeated Branco to close out that year when he was 43 years old. The pace he sustained in those 24 rounds alone should be humbling to many other younger contenders. Fragomeni fought on until 2017. He was 48 and riding a four-bout win-streak. Fragomeni retired with a ledger of 36-5-2 (14).

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