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Now Michael Jordan has come out of retirement, and he's looking a little punch-drunk.
With a sore foot, bruised ribs, a weight problem, and an unwillingness to stay retired, he looks more like a struggling old prizefighter trying to win back a title than a veteran basketball player ready to roll.
Like Sugar Ray Leonard, who came out of retirement three times only to lose to the ridiculous Hector Camacho, and Joe Louis, who fought well past his prime, Jordan refuses to acknowledge it's over.
"People are jumping ahead of themselves, saying I don't look like I should," Jordan said after a shaky preseason game. "A lot of these comments were preliminary comments. I look for fuel any way I can get it."
Jordan will need the energy. He retired the first time to pursue a professional baseball career in 1993 and retired a second time in 1999 to become part owner and GM of the Washington Wizards, jobs most people would sell their souls for. (Yes, even to run the Wizards.)
But Mike struck out in baseball, and he lost interest in the GM job, rarely going to games and reportedly never attending meetings. He probably sat at his desk all day dreaming of dunking on Shaq.
"They're blind to their faults," says veteran sports columnist Dave Anderson, who helped Sugar Ray Robinson write his autobiography. "Ex-champions are the worst. Once they're champion they think they can always be champion. They have no one around them telling them it's over. They think they can always come back."
For Jordan to come back successfully against players half his age, he will have to make up for his dwindling athleticism by becoming even craftier. Boxers know all about that. They also alter their styles as they get older. They tend to slow down and fight more flat-footed. They hold more because they tire more quickly.
But they also learn that they can take a few more punches on the chin and absorb more punishment than they used to. Before Muhammad Ali was forced out of boxing at the age of 25, he had never been hurt in the ring. When he returned in 1970 at the age of 28, that changed.
In bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Ali, instead of dancing away from danger, would lie against the ropes absorbing punches, just so he could land his own. He was slowing down and winning ugly.
It happens to practically all of the great ones. They fight until they embarrass themselves. It happened to Pernell Whitaker in his final bout last April, when he lost to Carlos Bojorquez due to a shoulder injury, and it will eventually happen to Jordan.
When Jordan gets dunked on a couple of times, it may be OK at first, but when it becomes routine, it will become humiliating. The end will come when his body gives in to injuries, when he can't compete with the MacGradys and Iversons, when he gets tired after 20 minutes of action. The end finally happened to Sugar Ray Robinson when the light-hitting Joey Archer knocked him down in their 1965 bout, Robinson's last. The 45-year-old Robinson looked like he wanted to crawl underneath the ring.
Jordan's ending may not be as dramatic as a knockdown, but it will be just as sad. And he'll no longer be winning ugly. It won't be as pretty as that.