Boxing's old-timers prove they still have what it takes to compete -- and win

Don't tell this to Joel Casamayor, right, but he was supposed to be washed up by now. Craig Bennett

Last week, Verno Phillips outpointed Cory Spinks in St. Louis to become a major player in the junior middleweight division. That he accomplished this at 38 years of age would have been seen as extraordinary just a generation or two ago.

Today, it hardly registers in a sport whose athletes are performing at the highest levels in their mid-30s and beyond. In today's fight game, 40 really is the new 30.

Consider: Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe, the world light heavyweight and super middleweight champions, who will meet in a mega fight later this month in Las Vegas, are 43 and 36 years old, respectively. Joel Casamayor and Nate Campbell, the lightweight champion and his top contender, both impressive winners in recent big fights, are 36. So is Shane Mosley.

Antonio Tarver, still a force at light heavyweight and facing titlist Clinton Woods on April 12, is 40. The man he deposed five years ago, Roy Jones, is 39, the same age as Glen Johnson, who fights Chad Dawson in a couple of weeks. Winky Wright is 36, Vernon Forrest, 37; Oscar De La Hoya, a relative baby at 35.

Contrast this with some stars of the relatively recent past -- say, 25 years ago.

Sugar Ray Leonard didn't produce a good performance after he turned 34. Marvin Hagler was a shell of his former greatness at the ripe old age of 33 (hence his loss to Leonard). Thomas Hearns was finished as a world class fighter by the time he was 34.

Of the great light heavyweights of that era -- Michael Spinks, Marvin Johnson, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Dwight Qawi, Matthew Saad Muhammad -- all were either retired or should have been by their 35th birthday.

Lighter-weight stars, like Wilfredo Gomez, Edwin Rosario and Alexis Arguello? Done at 33, 34 and 34, respectively (Arguello did launch an ill-timed, two-fight comeback at the age of 42).

Go back a few more decades, and it's the same thing. Very few fighters in the modern history of our sport have been able to compete at a world-class level past their 35th birthday. Bob Fitzsimmons was an exception. Jersey Joe Walcott won the heavyweight title at 37, but managed just one defense and retired two losses later.

George Foreman broke Walcott's record by winning the title at 45. And of course, one of Foreman's early trainers, Archie Moore, had some of his best and most memorable fights after the age of 40. Roberto Duran fought at a high level well into his mid-30s, as did Sugar Ray Robinson.

But for the most part, this has always been a young man's game -- until today. What's going on?

"So much is dependent upon a fighter's heredity, anatomy, training and fighting regimen," Dr. Margaret Goodman, the former Nevada State Athletic Commission Medical Advisory Board chairman and chief ringside physician, told ESPN.com in an e-mail.

"These are all things that can increase or decrease one's susceptibility to chronic brain and physical injury. These days, fighters don't fight nearly as often, and if they were to adequately care for themselves between fights, like stay in shape, maintain their weight, and not abuse drugs and alcohol -- they would have even longer careers."

This all makes sense. Hopkins credits his astounding longevity to eating nothing but whole, natural foods and never getting more than a few pounds above his fighting weight. But special attention is paid to Goodman's reference to today's fighters not getting in the ring as frequently as past generations. Harold Lederman, HBO's "unofficial" ringside judge who has been around the fight game for several decades, made the same point.

"Guys like Sugar Ray Robinson used to fight once or twice a month and guys just don't do that anymore," he said. "A lot of these guys fight once or twice a year. How many times is Hopkins going to fight in 2008? How many times did he fight in '07? How many times will Floyd Mayweather fight this year? Once? Twice, maybe? They just don't fight as much so they're able to extend their careers over a longer time."

It sounds reasonable. But do amateur fights count?

Casamayor had better than 400 amateur bouts on the Cuban national team. Tarver, Mosley, Jones, De La Hoya and Forrest all started boxing at very young ages and had long, celebrated amateur careers that included hundreds of fights, and never at a one-per-year clip. In some amateur tournaments you can fight three times in a week -- sometimes more than that.

Can it simply be a matter of volume? The evidence says no. Wladimir Klitschko is 32 years old and has had 50 pro fights after a long amateur career. From all appearances, he's either right in his physical prime or a hair past it. At the same age, Muhammad Ali was thought to be washed up going into his fight with Foreman in Zaire. He had 46 pro fights. He wasn't washed up, of course, but clearly wasn't the fighter he'd been even three years earlier against Joe Frazier, never mind the whirlwind he was in his prime.

At 32, Lennox Lewis was smack in the middle of his prime. At 35, he was overwhelming Michael Grant, David Tua and Frans Botha. Compared to Lewis, Ali, at 35, looked downright desiccated against Alfredo Evangelista and Earnie Shavers.

Mustafa Muhammad, today a respected trainer who counts Dawson among his charges, points to two things that have changed since he retired in 1988: sports science and the big money that can be made by fighters who keep their noses clean.

"Times have changed," he told ESPN.com. "Today you have vitamins and treadmills and all kinds of supplements and special equipment. Chad has a nutritionist and a strength and conditioning coach. We didn't have nutritionists and physical therapists and one guy to run with you, another guy to work out with. Even what they put in the food today is different. All I ever got was a One-a-Day vitamin."

Certainly a better understanding of human physiology as it relates to training has helped. Ali, Frazier and most of the fighters of that period wore work boots when doing roadwork. Back in the 1930s and '40s, the fighters ran in dress shoes, of all things.

Muhammad believes advances in sports medicine are only part of the equation.

"It's the way you preserve your body," he said. "You have to live the Spartan lifestyle. There's so much money to be made today that these guys are willing to live that lifestyle because of the way they're going to get paid."

Another trainer, who requested anonymity, observed that no one knows how many fighters are taking human growth hormone and other steroids and that lax testing in the sport means it's essentially a free-for-all. "There's supposed to be testing after every fight, but no one's getting tested," he said. "It's in all sports, why wouldn't it be in boxing too?"

Finally, there is the theory that these "old" fighters -- as tough, smart, and capable as they are -- are able to hang on to their positions at the top of the game through simple attrition, and there simply aren't enough skilled, young fighters prepared yet to send them into retirement.

"Right now, there aren't enough good, young amateurs around turning pro to knock these guys off," said respected trainer Ronnie Shields, a crafty welterweight contender in the 1980s before an elbow injury forced him to retire at the age of 26.

"I had 263 amateur fights and after my fifth pro fight never fought anything under a 10-rounder," he told ESPN.com. "Today's young [American] guys can't do that because they don't get that kind of amateur experience. Because of the scoring system in the amateurs and the way they're run, they want to turn pro right away, at 17, 18 years old. So they don't learn. The amateur program in America is really bad right now and it has been for a while."

Indeed, of all those 35-plus-year-old fighters still hanging around at the top, only Calzaghe calls another country home (Casamayor defected from Cuba). That's either a testament to the longevity of the best American fighters or an illustration that America's grip on the fight game has all but vanished, that these graybeards represent a species -- the memorable American prizefighter -- nearing extinction.

Either way, Shields thinks that with age comes wisdom for these fighters -- and more discipline.

"They don't go out and abuse their bodies, these older guys," Shields said. "You never see them out at the clubs abusing alcohol and partying all night. They're more disciplined than these younger guys are. These kids win a small fight and they want to run out and drink all night. These older guys, they paid the price to get where they are and they figure, 'I made it this far, maybe if I work a little harder maybe I can stay around for a while.'"

Now more than ever, it appears they can.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.