Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Aging & the Other Bernard

Last month there was a lot of hullabaloo when 38 year old Bernard Lagat ran a very fast 2-mile (8:09) indoors at the Millrose games in New York City.  On March 9th 48 year old Bernard Hopkins won the IBF light heavy weight boxing title.   Hopkins has a “grew up hard” story that is typical of many fighters and some would say boxing is not what it used to be.   However, I can only think of one athlete, the cyclist Jeannie Longo, who did as well as Hopkins has in their later 40s in a sport that requires a champion be in truly superior physical condition.   Unfortunately at least the end of Longo’s career has been tainted by all too familiar evidence of performance enhancing drug use in cycling.

The golfers Jack Nicklaus won the Master’s at age 46, Julius Boros won the PGA at age 48, and Tom Watson (incredibly) tied for second at the British open at age 59.   The pitcher Jamie Moyer played major league baseball at a high but not dominant level into his middle 40s and won a game at age 50 (he was outstanding in his early 40s).  Martina Navratilova played in the mixed doubles competition at Wimbledon in her late 40s.  Hockey fans know about Gordie Howe who played well in the NHL at age 52, and hockey unlike golf is a test of conditioning.

Is there anyone Bernard Hopkins compares too?  The short answer is Archie Moore (1916?-98), who like Hopkins was a boxer with a troubled past and fought long, hard and incredibly well into his late 40s and held a world title at around age 46.   Moore was self-educated, an icon in the civil rights movement, and became something of a renaissance man/humanitarian.  Here is a link to an extended interview with Moore from the early 70s that aired on the Public TV interview show “Day at Night”.  Moore defies the stereotype of the inarticulate boxer who says little and thinks less.

When we think about those who beat the clock during middle age we tend to focus on endurance athletes or those in skill sports and not about boxing where some of the most notable examples come from.  Any middle aged champion has to overcome all sorts of odds and obstacles, but the boxer also has to confront what must the incredible fear of entering the ring and actually having to fight his way out.  Boxing is nuts and maybe it should be banned as an archaic, brutal and frequently corrupt spectacle.   However, never doubt the courage, heart and (incredibly) the intelligence of some of these men.  Anyone who does should read Shadow Box by George Plimpton who said:


“Shadow Box is the best of my works because it gave me a chance to enter a very strange, but likeable and interesting fraternity; that of the boxing world.”


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