If you missed Mike Tyson's return to the ring last Saturday, you missed out on an historic comeback and the possible birth of a "Legends Only" league
As demonstrated by Saturday's massively successful pay-per-view, nostalgia sells.
This is nothing new to combat sports promoters - after all, they've cashed in on aging legends for years by continuing to give them fights long after they should move on to greener pastures - but what is new is the competitors themselves shifting to a new perspective on competition.
The classic veteran-versus-young lion match-up has long been virtually every promoter's go-to when putting together a fight featuring a clearly declining fighter with a big name. It's a win-win for promoters as not only do they draw in crowds with the veteran's name value, but should the young up-and-comer or aspiring contender pick up an impressive victory, they now potentially have a new star on their hands. The vets of course tend to believe they still have "it" and thus seek tough fights even if it is no longer in their best interest to do so.
This style of matchmaking is far from healthy for the aging vets, often resulting in them taking excess damage and suffering brutal knockout losses simply because they can't quite compete at the same level they once did, even if they could still dominate against lesser competition.
As any fight fan knows, the drive and love for the sport that propelled fighters to the top of the heap during their careers is a double-edged sword, a pendulum that propels them to greatness and inevitably swings back to tear them apart. Legends keep returning to action believing they still have what it takes to reclaim their former glory, and may even show flashes of their former brilliance in the process, but they inevitably fall as their decaying bodies fail them against much more durable foes.
For every George Foreman or Bernard Hopkins that can turn back the clock and still compete extremely well at an advanced age, there are countless Sugar Ray Leonards and Chuck Liddells that return only to suffer unneccessary damage and humiliating defeat.
A new mentality has gripped the retired or semi-retired veterans of the combat sports world however, with Mike Tyson of all people leading the charge - rather than attempting to turn back the clock and compete with top-tier fighters still in their prime, Tyson is inspiring other legends to return to competition not to face the current cream of the crop, but to face other legends like themselves.
Now it may seem like a no-brainer to some, but it's rare to find many comeback fights for legends that sees them face similarly aged competitors. Almost always, they come back to face elite, much younger fighters in their weight class, and while they occasionally see some success, it's typically short-lived and more often than not they leave the ring with a ton of damage and plenty of disappointed fans.
Bellator MMA was one exception that recently became known for showcasing 40+ year old veterans of the sport and realized the drawing power in pitting legends against one another rather than continuously having them face much younger talent (though they did that as well). Unfortunately many of these kinds of fights that have "graced" their cage have ended up giving Bellator a bad reputation that they're now trying to get away from - rather than motivated, hungry old-timers that can still move and show off some skills, they're broken down shells of themselves in need of a paycheck.
A "Legends Only" league, whether it feature mixed martial arts, boxing, or both, has been discussed frequently over the past few years, spearheaded of course by Mike Tyson and his old rivals along with several MMA legends like Vitor Belfort, but in order for it to have any sort of long-lasting success, it will need to implement some sort of process to avoid the kind of embarassing performances Bellator's old-timer bouts were known for.
Even Roy Jones Jr., who while clearly losing on Saturday to Tyson, showed he can still move and not embarass himself in the ring, yet he himself was one of the many fighters who stayed competing at a high level for too long, finding himself taking a ton of damage and brutal knockout losses before he realized his time at the top was over. From there, he chose to continue to compete but against far lesser competition, still allowing himself to make solid paydays and remain active in the ring without taking much damage, showing other aging fighters that there is a path to continued competition even in their waning years.
The amount of fighters in their forties and fifties that can still move and compete at anything even resembling a high level is however exceptionally low, making an entire league of such athletes a virtual impossibility. One can however put together occasional legends fights to headline a card and draw in the crowds while showcasing younger talent earlier on the card, something that Bellator tried to achieve in MMA.
The key to success isn't in how many legendary names and rivalries they can usher back into the ring (or cage), but rather in keeping the fights competitive and having strong quality control. Now it may be difficult to turn away retired legends who want to compete, especially if their name carries a lot of drawing power, but in order for such a premise to have any lasting effect and to make sure the athletes are safe, it is crucial.
In the past, simply passing basic medicals has been the baseline for letting someone compete, but as we've seen plenty of times before, that doesn't mean they can fight well. Some sort of subjective requirements would need to be instated and passed before letting a fighter enter the cage; perhaps a panel would observe the athlete during a workout and sparring to determine if they can compete or not. While it may be difficult for some fighters to hear, it's much better for them to hear that in a gym rather than facing grim reality after waking up and picking themselves up off the canvas in front of the world.
This potential endeavour would need to ensure its fights are like the kind we saw between Tyson and Jones Jr. (barring the ridiculous "draw" that was declared). If fans are treated to the kind of depressing fare that was Liddell-Ortiz III, support for such events will quickly fall off a cliff.
Putting in some form of quality control would go a long way in garnering fan approval and creating a sustainable business model, and special rules exhibition matches would also be strongly encouraged.
While there was plenty of misinformation going around prior to the bout, the rules Saturday's fight took place under did a great job of making a gruelling boxing match a bit easier for older competitors. Shorter rounds, an unspoken "rule" between the two athletes to avoid landing anything too heavy upstairs and instead only going full-out on the body, and smaller gloves were all intelligent choices to keep the bout interesting and relatively safe without making it feel like it was just a sparring match.
Increasing the amount of time in between rounds could also help the fighters, and similar concessions could easily be implemented for an MMA version of the format, with three minute rounds instead of the standard five.
Of course some of the fighters may not like the idea of not having an official fight or not going for the kill, in which case normal rules (perhaps with less rounds at least) could still be applied supposing both fighters agreed to it.
As for current plans, there's certainly momentum now that Mike Tyson's return was so successful, and Iron Mike has stated he'd like to fight every two months or so against other legends, but what are some of the most intriguing fights that could realistically be made?
There are plenty of fighters that have retired that may still be in great shape and have an urge to compete should the opportunity arise, but here we'll take a look at fighters that we know are in shape and are either actively still looking to compete or have made it clear they're ready for a comeback.
ANDERSON SILVA VS VITOR BELFORT II (MMA)
We'll start off in the world of mixed martial arts with a fight that does have a solid chance of being booked at some point in the future.
The two Brazilian legends first met nearly a decade ago in February 2011 for Anderson's UFC middleweight title. While they shared a mutual respect for each other's careers and skill, the rivalry grew heated as the build-up to the fight stretched on thanks to injury delays - ultimately the two fearsome strikers faced off inside the Octagon at UFC 126, where Anderson threw a kick heard 'round the world that put Belfort to sleep in the opening round in devastating fashion.
The high-profile striker-versus-striker clash and Silva's incredible finish hot off the heels of his ridiculous comeback over rival Chael Sonnen propelled the Spider to new levels of stardom and added to his already impressive aura of dominance, with his front-kick KO playing in virtually every UFC highlight reel for years to come.
After bouncing back with a few first round stoppages of his own and then giving light heavyweight champion Jon Jones an early scare in a short-notice replacement bout, Vitor would earn himself another crack at the middleweight title following a reign of destruction in 2013, knocking out Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold, and Dan Henderson in a combined time of under ten minutes.
A high profile rematch against Anderson Silva was not to be however, as in the midst of Vitor's rampage Anderson's dominant reign over the middleweight division came crumbling down in a sudden and shocking knockout loss to Chris Weidman. An immediate rematch saw Silva's air of invincibility continue to dissipate as he was dominated in the opening round, only to suffer one of the most gruesome injuries in the sport's history when Weidman checked one of his powerful low kicks in the second, snapping Silva's lower leg in half in the process.
With a Belfort-Weidman fight now looming as Silva nursed his shattered leg, the Nevada State Athletic Commission finally put an end to the extremely controversial testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) exemptions that had become a loophole ripe for abuse, with Belfort its most high-profile user.
Forced to stop taking the treatment and with other medications meant to help one's body go through the dangerous process safely also being banned, Vitor took 2014 off to recover and let his body adjust to the changes naturally.
It didn't adjust very well.
When he returned in May of 2015, the 38-year-old looked as if his body had aged several decades overnight, his muscular frame noticeably lacking and now accompanied by flappy, loose skin. Surprisingly, even in his diminished state Belfort was able to rock Weidman early before getting taken down and demolished on the ground, his frightening knockout streak coming to a sad end long before he stepped into the cage that night.
Both Brazilian legends would struggle mightily in the years that passed.
Belfort's body would eventually recover to a more normal physique, but regardless he went just 2-4 in his next six outings with the UFC, getting knocked out badly in all of his losses against top 10 competition. Those defeats included suffering several knockdowns before being finished by Kelvin Gastelum and eating another highlight reel front kick to the face from Silva's longtime training partner Lyoto Machida before he was released from the UFC.
Silva on the other hand would return just a year after suffering his devastating injury to take part in a rather bizarre but entertaining scrap against Nick Diaz, winning on the scorecards before having his own run-in with performance enhancers. He was sentenced to a year away from the sport courtesy of steroids that would forever taint his legacy and cast his prior accomplishments in doubt, particularly when a "tainted supplement" caused another failure later on in his career.
He would continue to return to the Octagon only to lose three of his next four with his lone win being a highly controversial decision, though it should be noted he certainly had his moments in all of the bouts, particularly in his close and similarly controversial decision loss to Michael Bisping and a surprisingly competetive and fun fight with current champion Israel Adesanya.
An injured leg (thankfully not another broken one) following a low kick by Jared Cannonier once again saw the legend injured and needing assistance to exit the cage in 2019, but Silva remained determined, most recently fighting Uriah Hall on Halloween night.
Silva once again was very competitive and looked sharp early - until Hall managed to clip the former champ at the end of round three. Nearly finished before the horn briefly saved him, the 45-year-old simply never recovered and was unceremoniously finished in the fourth, the once-unbeatable kingpin having just one official win in his last nine outings.
Wishing to continue on regardless, Silva was released from his contract and is currently looking for a new promotion to call home.
There's another fight that's likely on the horizon for Silva and it won't be inside of a cage, but should that fight fall through or he wish to return to MMA after that, Vitor Belfort is clearly the top option in his native sport.
Belfort is currently signed with ONE FC, a promotion based in Singapore with a penchant for developing young Asian talent and picking up some high profile free agents in recent years. Vitor is yet to make his debut in their circular cage but like Silva, the 43-year-old has shown he can still compete and has plenty of life left in him, but his body simply can't absorb the kind of damage that's dished out when competing at the highest level.
That makes a match-up between the two a great proposition - they're both similarly aged, both still exhibit plenty of skill and are in great shape, and both clearly still have the drive to compete. The fact that it's a massive rematch fans had been wanting to see for years just makes the fight between the two legends even bigger.
ONE FC has already expressed interest in picking up the Spider, so time will tell if the promotion can put this together - both strikers are also big fans of boxing and have wanted to compete in the ring in the past (both have also dabbled in pro boxing bouts early in their careers, with Belfort holding a 1-0 record and Silva going 1-1 in the ring) so a purely striking match between the two is also a possibility.
MIKE TYSON VS LENNOX LEWIS II (Boxing)
If you somehow missed seeing Mike Tyson in the ring on Saturday, I'll summarize it for you - the 54-year-old living legend is not only still one scary S.O.B., but he put a lot of much younger athletes to shame with his display of skill, power, and beautiful movement Saturday night.
Outlining his goals of fighting other legends roughly every two months for the foreseeable future, the success of the first PPV has already gotten fans and pundits alike debating who Tyson should face off with next.
One of the top choices Tyson could face in 2021 is 55-year-old Canadian legend Lennox Lewis.
Like one of the other opponents being talked about for Iron Mike's next outing, Lewis has plenty of history with "Kid Dynamite" having knocked Tyson out in the 8th round of their 2002 clash in Memphis.
Lewis, who like Tyson was an undisputed heavyweight champion, had long believed that Tyson was an overhyped fighter who he would beat with his superior boxing and demonstrated just that with his victory 18 ye