Jones Jr vs. Trinidad: photo by Neil Abramson
By Thomas Hauser
On May 15, 2004, one moment of violence turned Roy Jones’s world upside down. Antonio Tarver landed a single perfectly-timed punch in the second round, and the cloak of invincibility that had led boxing’s reigning “pound-for-pound” king to be mentioned in the same breath as Sugar Ray Robinson was gone.
Jones was somber in his dressing room after the fight. “One shot,” he said, sitting on a chair, looking straight ahead. “I know exactly what happened. I threw a righthand and tried to come back with the left. He read it and fired his gun first. I just got caught. " Roy took a breath and let it out slowly. "Nothing like this ever happened to me before. In your heart, you always know it can, even though you hope it never will. I guess God wanted me to go through this at least one time.”
The door to the dressing room opened, and Felix Trinidad (who’d been at ringside) entered. Jones rose, and the two men embraced. "I’m sorry," Trinidad said in heavily-accented English. “You are a great fighter.”
There’s a fraternity among great fighters. And Jones and Trinidad were great. For much of the past two decades, they were on the short list of boxing’s biggest stars and participated in some of their sport’s most significant fights.
There was a time when Jones was so good that his ring encounters seemed like performance art. At his best, he reduced fighters like Bernard Hopkins and James Toney, to props. “Roy Jones would have been great in any era,” Jake LaMotta acknowledged after Roy dismantled John Ruiz to become the first former middleweight champion in more than a century to capture a piece of the heavyweight crown.
Trinidad had his own moments of glory, toppling Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, and Fernando Vargas. Jones was a craftsman known for his virtuoso performances. “Tito,” by contrast, was a joyous warrior, whose fights were memorable for the roaring crowds that poured forth their adulation each time their Puerto Rican countryman fought.
But fighters get old young. It’s hard to remember a boxer who fell as far as fast in the public mind as Jones did after his 2004 loss to Tarver. Trinidad had his own fall from grace, getting beaten up by Bernard Hopkins in 2001 and being thoroughly outclassed by Winky Wright four years later. Still, both men are legends and, more to the point, successful brand names. There was money to be made in having them fight each other.
Boxing is a business where people ask you to put your money where their mouth is, and Don King is a master of the art. For Trinidad-Jones, first he prevailed upon Madison Square Garden president James Dolan to buy the live gate for $8,500,000. The deal was made over the objection of Joel Fisher (MSG’s senior vice president for sports properties and the Garden’s point man for boxing), who is said to have calculated that, if the fight was properly marketed, the right purchase price would be no more than $6,500,000.
Then King signed Trinidad for a reported $15,000,000. That number was hard to believe. But reliable sources close to the promoter are firm in saying that Trinidad’s contract called for him to receive a check for $7,000,000 on fight night and an additional $8,000,000 on or before February 9th.
That left Jones to be taken care of. “It takes a lot of convincing for me to do anything,” Roy has said. But King played to Jones’s ego and the fighter’s current business advisers, signing him to a contract that called for a small guarantee against a percentage of pay-per-view revenue. “We’re partners,” King said of his relationship with Roy. But one of the partners had his financial bases covered better than the other.
“I never saw the contract,” says Fred Levin (the Pensacola attorney who represented Jones from the fighter’s first pro bout through the glory years). “I do know that Roy felt he needed this fight from an image standpoint. It was important to him to have a big fight against a name opponent in Madison Square Garden on HBO Pay-Per-View. He was aware of the financial risks involved and took the gamble.”
“I came here to win,” Jones said at the final pre-fight press conference; “not to count the pay-per-view.”
Six years ago, Roy Jones versus Felix Trinidad would have defined an era. King genuinely believed that it would still be a blockbuster fight. Both of the combatants are future Hall of Famers. Trinidad has a fervent following, and Jones still inspires respect among his peers. By way of example, at the New York State Athletic Commission rules meeting one day before the fight, Andrew Golota approached Roy and asked if he could have his picture taken with him.
But Jones-Trinidad never caught on as an event. The pieces of the puzzle were there: Roy Jones, Felix Trinidad, Don King, HBO, and Madison Square Garden. But they didn’t fit.
The first problem the promotion faced was that tickets were overpriced. After James Dolan bought the live gate for $8,500,000, he hired outside consultants, who scaled the house with front-row seats costing $15,000. Second row cost $12,500; third row, $10,000; fourth row, $7,500. “Regular” ringside seats were priced at $5,000. The cheapest seat in the house was $100. That created a negative buzz and led people to examine the fight more closely.
Was Jones-Trinidad worth the money? Roy had won two fights (against Anthony Hanshaw and Prince Bada Ajamu) and lost three during the preceding fifty months. Trinidad had won only twice (with two losses) since May 2001, and his most recent victory had been in 2004 against Ricardo Mayorga. Taken together, Roy and Tito were 4-and-5 in their last nine outings with three “KOs by”.
Thus, Jones-Trinidad was derided by some as a match-up between fading legends. One observer likened it to the Army-Navy football game; a once-great spectacle that no longer commands the attention of the sports world. And to make matters worse, the New York media was giving short shrift to the fight.
The only mention of Jones-Trinidad in the New York Times sports section during fight week was a short article on page six of Saturday’s paper. That put Madison Square Garden’s first big fight of the year on a par with rowing, harness racing, and darts; each of which were also the subject of one article. The fact that the Giants would be playing Green Bay in the NFC championship game the following evening was a further blow to the promotion. The Times had seventeen articles about the National Football League in the three days leading up to the fight.
King did his best to put a positive spin on things, calling Jones-Trinidad a fight for The People’s Championship. “Roy Jones is Superman,” the promoter told the media. “And Tito Trinidad is a one-of-a-kind icon. Little old ladies in Puerto Rico were coming up to him on the street with tears rolling down their cheeks, saying, ‘Tito, come back.’ Old men were pleading with him, ‘Tito, represent us.’” That was followed by King advising his listeners, “People who are old and biased are trying to kill this fight, but I’m going over their heads and appealing to the masses. This fight is capturing the imagination of the people. This is a fight for me and you.”
But as fight week progressed, King seemed like the Little Dutch Boy trying to keep a sea of negativity from overwhelming a fragile dike. The Jones camp was troubled by increasingly pessimistic financial reports (remember, Don and Roy were “partners”). And King was moved to declare, “The people who would destroy boxing make money seem more important than the pride and glory of the event. The pride and glory and dignity that come with competing well and winning are more important than any amount of money.”
King also had to keep James Dolan happy. Thus (for one week, at least), the Garden president replaced George Bush as the primary object of the promoter’s public adoration.
The final pre-fight press conference for Jones-Trinidad began when King strode to the podium at Madison Square Garden and proclaimed, “Jim Dolan is a risk taker. The greatest deeds and discoveries of all-time could not have happened without risk; so this is a time to pay tribute to Jim Dolan. I honor and pay homage to Jim Dolan.”
A 33-minute monologue (the writers’ strike was no impediment here) followed before King introduced the first speaker other than himself. The proceedings evolved from there with the promoter talking about family values, pride, love, desire, Cyrano de Bergerac, Hannah Montana, loyalty, manhood, dignity, respect, charity, honor, opportunity, spirituality, The Talmud, glory, God, the Alamo, 9/11, and swimming to freedom through shark-infested waters. He also mentioned Jones-Trinidad from time to time.
The bottom line was, the bottom line didn’t look good. Bob Raissman wrote in the New York Daily News, “King is a master salesman. He’s going to have to be a magician to sell tickets for this fight.”
Finally, one day before the bout, Madison Square Garden took the desperate step of adjusting ticket prices downward and issued a statement that read, "We’ve explored various ticket-pricing options across all price categories for this fight and sales have been brisk. We’ve adjusted some prices in certain locations and are thrilled that boxing fans are so excited about this upcoming event."
But the damage had been done. On fight night, the announced attendance was 12,162. However, New York State Athletic Commission records indicate that the paid attendance was only 9,962 with gross gate receipts of $4,069,236. In other words (after the cost of opening the arena, a $50,000 ticket tax, and other expenses), MSG lost close to $5,000,000 on the promotion.
Meanwhile, there was a fight to be fought on January 19th and Jones was a 3-to-1 favorite. Each fighter had celebrated a birthday earlier in the month. Roy had turned 39; Felix was 35.
“A lot of people think I don’t have it anymore,” Jones acknowledged at the final pre-fight press conference. “I hear what they’re saying.”
But Trinidad had fought only once in the preceding 39 months (against Winky Wright) and looked bad doing it. He’s markedly slower than Roy. And the youthful exuberance that was once his trademark isn’t so youthful anymore.
In the days leading up to the fight, Jones declared, “Tito is one-dimensional, and Tito has always had trouble with opponents who move and give him angles. He’ll be looking to get that one big punch in. That’s the only fight plan he has, but there’s nothing he can do to defend himself. Trust me; he’s not going to go twelve rounds with me.”
Trainer Alton Merkerson (who first worked with Jones at the 1988 Olympics) concurred, adding, “Roy was very motivated during training. I saw some things in this camp that I haven’t seen in three or four years. Roy put a lot of money in the bank; did all the right things. Actions speak louder than words. You’ll see it in the fight as it comes up.”
But two issues were cause for concern among Jones partisans.
The first issue was weight. On the surface, the 170-pound contract limit seemed to work in Roy’s favor. Trinidad’s best days were as a welterweight. The only legitimate world-class fighter above 147 pounds that Tito has beaten was Fernando Vargas; and that was at 154 pounds seven years ago.
But Jones believes that his losses to Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson were in significant part the residue of being forced to lose twenty pounds of muscle after conquering John Ruiz. He hadn’t fought at 170 pounds since 1996. And when he went into training for Jones-Trinidad, he weighed 188.
"I don’t like it,” Roy admitted when asked about the 170-pound contract weight during a conference call to announce the match-up. “For a big fight, you have to do those things. But it’s going to be very difficult.”
Ultimately, Jones weighed in at 169-1/2 pounds, looking cut and fit. He was 179 on fight night. Trinidad tipped the scales at 170 pounds (one-fifth of a pound more, according to some) and appeared to be in less than top form.
But the primary concern among Jones’s fans wasn’t his body. It was his chin, which at times has evoked images of a trapeze artist performing high above the floor without a net. The Jones faithful remember Roy’s knockout loss to Antonio Tarver and his lying unconscious on the canvas for eight minutes after being felled by Glen Johnson. They were worried by the fact that Tito can whack.
Trinidad played on that theme. “One of Roy’s weaknesses,” he said, “is that everyone he has boxed that punches well, he was knocked out. And I punch well.”
Nor were Merkerson’s words on the subject overly encouraging. “Looking at the whole picture,” Roy’s trainer said, “everyone has a glass jaw. Anybody who gets hit right goes. Every fighter’s chin is suspect. If you fight long enough in this game, eventually you’re going to go down.”
On Saturday night, Jones entered his dressing room at Madison Square Garden at 9:45 pm. He was wearing a light-blue warm-up suit. Earlier in the day, the full beard he’d grown during training camp had been trimmed.
There was a different kind of energy in the dressing room than in years past. The eager anticipation of Roy’s younger days was gone. Now he’s a seasoned veteran; an older man who prepares for a dangerous job that takes him down a road he has travelled many times before.
As the clock ticked, Jones rubbed extra virgin olive oil on his legs; then stood still as it was applied to his shoulders and back. Merkerson taped his hands. There was no shadow-boxing or hitting the pads. As a matter of course, Roy does nothing more strenuous than pace back and forth to warm-up for his fights.
At 10:52, the final preliminary bout (Andrew Golota versus Mike Mollo) began. Referee Arthur Mercante came into the room and issued his pre-fight instructions. Jones gloved up.
“All the hard stuff is over now,” Merkerson told his fighter. “It’s your waltz. Have fun tonight. Watch his legs; he’ll get weak quick. When you hurt him, take your time. When you hit him good up-top, go downstairs and get some more.”
But Golota-Mollo wouldn’t end. Roy stood almost motionless, watching the rounds unfold on a small television monitor in a corner of the room.
“We’re ready to go,” Merkerson said in another corner. “I haven’t had a heart attack yet, but this waiting around drives me crazy. Every time Roy fights, I feel like I used to feel in the Army when I was getting my men ready to go out on patrol.”
Finally, Golota-Mollo came to a close.
Jones had fought in The Theater at Madison Square Garden on three occasions but in the main arena only once (against Merqui Sosa in 1996). This was Trinidad’s sixth appearance in the big room, where he has experienced some of his best moments in boxing (against Pernell Whitaker, William Joppy, and Ricardo Mayorga) and also his worst (Bernard Hopkins). The buzz this time wasn’t equal to the electricity that accompanied many of Tito’s past fights. In recent years, Miguel Cotto has stolen some of his thunder in the Puerto Rican community. But when he and Roy entered the ring, everyone understood; yes, they were old; and yes, they were past their prime; but they were still Roy Jones and Felix Trinidad.
It was three minutes after midnight when the bell for round one rang. Each fighter began cautiously, showing respect for the other. Jones didn’t throw much in the early rounds, so Trinidad stepped things up a bit and took four of the first five stanzas, scoring largely with hooks to the body. Then Roy seemed to get his rhythm. Clearly, he was faster and stronger than Tito, whose punches were losing steam.
For those who remembered the fighters as young men on the rise with charisma and talent to burn, there was poignancy in watching them fight. Jones showed bits and pieces of greatness. But he has lost the preternatural speed and reflexes that separated him from everybody else when he was young. Once upon a time, Roy threw punches in bunches faster than anyone could count. Now it’s one punch at a time and he can no longer fight “like Roy Jones” for three minutes a round.
One minute ten seconds into round seven, a sharp right to the temple dropped Trinidad for a count of eight. Thereafter, Roy stalked his foe but was more measured in his attack than he was when he was young. Meanwhile, Tito seemed to have come into battle without a Plan B. Twenty seconds before the bell ending round ten, a jab followed by a grazing righthand put him down for the second time.
Thereafter, Trinidad seemed content to simply finish the fight and collect his $15,000,000 (or whatever the amount was) without suffering further damage. This observor scored the bout 116-110 for Jones. The judges were in accord, delivering a 117-109, 116-110, 116-110 verdict in Roy’s favor.
“It was like the good old days,” Jones said ebulliently after the fight. “I fought like me. I lost that for a time, but the rooster is back. When I fight like this, I’m unstoppable.”
Once again Roy was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do. As Patrick Kehoe observed, “He may currently be without a title, but he’s still Roy Jones. And that makes him president for life of his own constituency: Planet Roy.”
But let’s not get carried away with notions of “turning back the hands of time.” No fighter whose greatness is built on a foundation of speed and reflexes is great at 39. An aging fighter can remember the past; he can’t relive it. On January 19th, Jones looked good against a 35-year-old middleweight who has won two fights since May 2001. The Roy Jones of six years ago, had he gone for the kill, would have knocked out the 39-year-old Roy Jones in six rounds. It would sell Roy’s greatness short to say that he’s as good now as he was then.
It must be hard for Jones to hear people talk about his greatness in the past tense. One wonders what goes through his mind when he watches tapes of himself in the ring when he was young and in his prime. At some point, he’ll have to accept the reality that being the greatest fighter in the world is part of his past and that he isn’t anymore. What does he do when his fighting days are over? Even he knows that, someday, they have to end.
But right now, Jones still needs boxing. It’s who he is. It’s what he does. It’s the environment he lives in. It’s how he defines himself. The permanent rope burns on his back from years of sparring without a shirt are a visible reminder of how deeply the sport is ingrained in his psyche. He’s fighting for his self-identity. “You judge a man by how he fights back when he’s down,” he says.
So for the moment, let’s celebrate the fact that Roy Jones prepared properly to fight Felix Trinidad and did what he had to do. In a perverse way, his diminished skills give him an opportunity to show that his most severe critics are wrong. The cynics have said that Roy lacks courage. Now that the odds aren’t stacked in his favor, he can prove to the world beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has a fighting heart.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com.
January 28, 2008