THE COMEBACK KEEPS US ALL YOUNG

LAS VEGAS — “The way things are now,” sighed Emanual Steward, who has spent his whole life in boxing, “they could take Muhammad Ali out of retirement, set him up to face Mike Tyson, and you know what? By fight time, people would believe Ali could do it.”

He shook his head. We were standing in a ballroom in the spanking new Mirage Hotel and Casino. There were silver plates filled with bread and meats on one side, 100 telephones on the other, press releases, satin jackets, reporters rushing here and there. It was big fight time, “Uno Mas” they called it, the much-hyped reunion of Sugar Ray Leonard, 33, and Roberto Duran, 38, who last fought nine years earlier, when Duran showed the good sense to quit in the eighth round.

No such luck this time. On Thursday night, in the cool of the desert, Leonard and Duran got in the ring, before millions of viewers, and slow-danced. Leonard kicked his feet a few times and stuck his tongue out, to let us know he was alive. Duran, I’m not sure of. He may have been stuffed.

Twelve rounds later, it was over. Leonard won by unanimous decision. Duran didn’t have a scratch. The fans, who an hour earlier had awaited breathlessly the return of their ring warriors, were booing, as if some vendor had sold them a youth potion that turned out to be shoe polish.

What did we expect? When they fade, we fade After the fight, Duran told the press he thought he won. The room broke into laughter. Leonard took the podium and began talking about the “tremendous effort” and “the heart of a champion.” He did not mention his $16 million purse, or the nearly $8 million Duran got for showing up. After a few minutes of this foolishness, Duran rose from his seat, snuck under Leonard’s arm, and said, in broken English, “OK? I go champagne now.”

And he left.

He go champagne now. What did we expect? Why are we so fascinated with old boxers? Or, for that matter, old golfers, old baseball players or, in the case of Mark Spitz — who plans an Olympic comeback — old fish? Americans seem to delight in The Comeback, almost more than we enjoy an athlete in his prime. Tell the truth. Was it a bigger story when Jack Nicklaus won all those Masters

in his 20s and 30s, or when he did it one more time in his 40s? Senior Baseball? Foreman-Cooney? One last glory. Uno Mas. Why do we go rosy for such rhetoric?

Well. For one thing, we watch too many movies. Also, I think it has to do with dying. Not their dying. Our dying — the one fear we share from bleachers to luxury box. We do not want to pass away. As long as the heroes of our youth are out there in the afternoon sun, shagging fly balls, loping in for touchdowns, we, too, can live forever, right?

Take a look around the press box these days. Most of the big city writers and TV journalists are in their 30s and 40s, a perfect age to try to sustain fading sports heroes, much as we try to sustain ourselves. A number of them bought into Duran last week. They predicted victory. They ignored his woeful record in recent years, his ballooning weight, the fact that he employed an ex-cab driver as his personal trainer.

Instead, they wrote of his eyes, such eyes, dark and hungry, like they used to be when he was young. You wonder: Were they seeing themselves in the reflection? Battling the sands of time Not long ago I attended the British Open and saw Arnold Palmer, once the greatest golfer in history, humiliated by a sand trap. He tried to chip the ball out. It plopped back in the sand. A harder whack. Back in the sand. Again. The sand. Again. The sand. His face grew red. The crowd looked away, as people do when someone vomits on an airplane.

Years ago, he would have been out of that trap. But now Arnold Palmer took 10 strokes. Ten strokes? On one hole? He tugged his cap and walked away.

This is reality. Our skills fade. Our muscles loosen. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the boxing ring, where men stand almost naked, their time on earth marked from the slowness of their gloves to the sagging of their bellies. Roberto Duran, who once was so ferocious he punched a horse — and it went down — was a husk of himself Thursday night, propped up by a lot of money and some foolish dreams, ours and his.

And still, we believe. We hope against hope. We adore The Comeback. We stroke it and caress it. Kiss us. Make us young. Could we really fall for Ali-Tyson?

“He’s got the expeeeeerience,” sang Steward, smiling, bouncing back and forth, mocking the PR people who would hype Ali, “he’s got the champion’s heart! He was the master! One last time! He can dooooo it. . . . “

Frightening, isn’t it?

Mitch Albom’s columns appear regularly in the Free Press sports section.

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