x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Michael Schumacher should drive off into the sunset

Two sporting greats retired for a second time last week - let us hope Michael Schumacher and Ricky Hatton resist temptation to return.

Michael Schumacher, right, was all smiles as he witnessed Sebastian Vettel win his third Formula One world drivers' title on Sunday. Jens Buettner / EPA
Michael Schumacher, right, was all smiles as he witnessed Sebastian Vettel win his third Formula One world drivers' title on Sunday. Jens Buettner / EPA

Very few of us know what it is like to be the best in the world at something. Not the best little boy or girl to a loving mother, or the best boyfriend in the world to a love-struck teenager. No, truly the best in your given field.

And nowhere is being "the best" more quantifiable than in the world of sports. Medals, titles and world rankings, after all, leave little room for argument.

On Sunday, Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel became the youngest three-time winner of the Formula One drivers' championship. Few would counter his claim to be the world's best driver.

The same day sadly saw another German finally call time on a glittering career. Again. Quietly, from the back of the grid, eight years after his last championship and six after retiring for the first time, Michael Schumacher has presumably driven off into the sunset for the last time.

Of course Schumacher not so long ago was the undisputed best on the track, and considered one of F1's all-time greats, alongside the likes of the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio and the Brazilian Ayrton Senna.

Schumacher was a driver ahead of his time, and very often just ahead of the field.

His seven-title haul remains one of the many F1 records he holds, others being the most race victories and pole positions. He was also one of the first drivers to follow a strict physical training regime to ensure his body could handle the stresses and strains of F1's g-forces.

A potentially successful return had precedent, too. Both Niki Lauda and Alain Prost enjoyed comebacks that ended in title wins.

But when Schumacher returned to racing in 2010, after a three-year hiatus, he found a sport dominated by young men in peak physical condition. In his absence, F1 had sped ahead, and he found it hard to catch up. The weekend brought another sporting retirement, but in a far more brutal fashion.

The boxer Ricky Hatton, having battled back from depression and drug addiction, was beaten at Manchester Arena by Vyacheslav Senchenko inside nine rounds on Saturday night. After a three-year break, this defeat marks the end for the former world champion.

With boxing, failed comebacks tend to be the most heartbreaking for obvious reasons, as anyone who saw Hatton's face at the post-fight press conference will testify.

Unfathomably, or perhaps inevitably, it keeps happening again and again. To the best of the best.

More often than not with boxers financial woes in retirement leave them with no option but to step back into the ring long after their reflexes, like their so-called friends and agents, have deserted them.

Take Joe Louis, one of boxing's earliest heavyweight superstars. Money troubles meant he was caught in a spiral of increasingly unprofitable and damaging comebacks until he was granted a final payday against Rocky Marciano in October 1951 at the age of 37. Marciano battered his hero for eight rounds and when it was over said: "I'm sorry Joe."

Muhammad Ali, the greatest of them all, did not know when to walk away either, and was ushered into retirement on October 2, 1980 by his former sparring partner Larry Holmes. (Who later was savagely beaten by Mike Tyson, who would later suffer the same fate himself.)

Ali, incredibly fought again just over a year later, a sad, lonely defeat to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas putting an exclamation mark at the end of the most remarkable sporting career of all.

Not all comebacks end painfully. Michael Jordan had two; the first resulting in three more NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls; the second, a two-season stint with the Washington Wizards from 2001, on the other hand petered out unsuccessfully, although it must be added, not without a lot of fanfare.

Diego Maradona's late career, tainted with drug allegations and suspensions, was also characterised by dismal comebacks at Sevilla in Spain and Newell's Old Boys in Argentina before finishing off at his beloved Boca Juniors.

Still, history has been kind to both Jordan and Maradona, arguably the greatest individual exponents of both of their sports.

Schumacher's retirement probably belongs in that category. At only 43, with money and good health, he can now enjoy his second retirement - and the memory of those glory days when he was undisputedly the world's best.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

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