For so many troubled young men, boxing provides a way out.
For some formerly young men, it provides a way back in.
It provides a way back into the hearts of the fans, it provides a way back into the good graces of the boxing community and it provides a way back into the spotlight.
In a word, boxing provides redemption.
In ending a 32-month absence from the ring, Felix Trinidad sought redemption for the lifeless way he went out against Winky Wright. Roy Jones sought a similar redemption by fighting on after consecutive knockout losses that turned him from pound-for-pound premier into a pitiable pushover. Andrew Golota is hounded by a life full of misdeeds and meltdowns, and he fights on at age 40 because the ring offers his only hope for redemption.
Trinidad, Jones and Golota all surely know that the past cannot be erased. But they have faith that it can at least be obscured.
On Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, all three faded fighters wrote new chapters that diminished the enduring weight of their lowest moments. All three took steps toward redemption.
The least dramatic steps were taken by Trinidad because, well, he didn't win. But compare what he did against Jones with the utterly passionless way he used his forehead as a place for Wright to rest his jab for 12 rounds, and it almost felt like a win.
Until Tito got knocked down by a right hand to the temple in the seventh round, he wasn't just in the fight against the bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic Jones; he was arguably winning it. I had him taking four of the first five rounds, as did judge Tom Kaczmarek.
And even when the upset bid unraveled over the second half of the fight, we at least got the pleasure of watching Trinidad climb off the canvas twice. If Tito's going to lose, he has to lose right, and that means (a) cranking up a few left hooks, and (b) getting his trunks dirty. He did neither against Wright but both against Jones.
Jones promised us the fight would be over "in fo'," but Trinidad did his best to ensure that Roy was feeding us bad in-fo'-mation.
"I can't believe he stayed in there for all of those rounds with me," Jones said.
Trinidad was supposed to get crushed, but he lasted the distance. If he should decide to retire again and stay retired this time, it will certainly be a more palatable farewell than the way he slinked off into the sunset against Wright.
As for Jones, this was by no means a performance for his greatest-hits DVD. But if you remember the sickening sight of his brain bouncing off the floor against Glen Johnson on Sept. 25, 2004, you must on some level appreciate how the 39-year-old Jones has won three straight fights against non-tomato-can opposition.
Against Trinidad, the former pound-for-pound king started slowly, barely letting his hands go for the first five rounds. Later in the fight, when there appeared to be opportunities to get rid of his overmatched opponent, Jones just kept doing enough to retain control without pushing for a dramatic finish. There was one brief moment when Jones threw his patented triple left hook, but otherwise, if you were looking for combinations, you had to settle for those of the two-punch variety.
As far as redemption goes, Jones' three-fight winning streak against Prince Badi Ajamu, Anthony Hanshaw and Trinidad doesn't come close to nullifying his three-fight losing streak against Antonio Tarver, Johnson and Tarver again.
But Jones never had a prayer of redeeming those defeats all in one night -- at least not against an underdog like Trinidad. What he was able to do at the Garden was take another small step on the path to redemption. What he was able to do was illustrate that he isn't totally used up.
"All my fans around the world said I was done," Jones remarked in the ring after the Trinidad victory.
Actually, Roy, some of your fans kept their faith in you. It was us critics who assumed you had nothing left after the Johnson fight. And with each successive checkmark in the win column, you've shown us that there was indeed reason for you to fight on when we all begged you to retire.
Being begged to disappear is certainly something Golota is familiar with. He was written off after Lennox Lewis dusted him in one round in 1997. He was again dismissed when he quit in the 10th round of a fight he was winning against Michael Grant in '99. Just 11 months later, he disgracefully quit once more against Mike Tyson. An unlikely comeback followed, but it ended in devastating fashion when Lamon Brewster floored him three times in 52 seconds.
But for a pathological quitter, Golota sure doesn't know the meaning of the word "quit." He embarked on another comeback in '07 after 25 months out of the ring, winning two fights by knockout before facing prospect Mike Mollo in the co-feature to Jones-Trinidad.
Golota was once a car thief in Poland. Former trainer Al Certo told ESPN.com's Tim Smith last week that "he's got larceny in his heart." Undoubtedly, Golota has never been shy about stealing the paying customers' money.
But on Saturday night, he stole something he's never stolen before: the show.
Golota's left eye looked like a ripe pomegranate, he was in an exhausting war with an unnervingly brave warrior 13 years his junior and Anxious Andy somehow kept it together and won a 12-rounder that had the MSG crowd on its collective feet at the end.
"I hope nobody will call me a quitter again," Golota said after the brawl. "I couldn't see anything [out of the left eye] after Round 8. I had to box more by feel than what I could see."
"I kept waiting for when he was going to headbutt Mollo or bite his neck or go south of the border," Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer Bernard Fernandez commented in the press room afterward. "He showed remarkable restraint. He actually was begging the ref for a couple of foul calls against Mollo."
The riot-causing, mouthpiece-refusing, talent-wasting wild man from Warsaw will never be able to fully redeem himself for his past transgressions.
But for one night, at least, he was everything a fighter is supposed to be.
Though there are physical risks involved, boxing offers its aging ex-elite an opportunity for redemption.
To varying degrees, Trinidad, Jones and Golota all took the sport up on that offer on Saturday night.
Eric Raskin is a contributing editor and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.