By Thomas Hauser
Roy Jones Jr is the most gifted fighter of his time. For almost a decade, the pound-for-pound rankings have been divided into Jones and everybody else.
But Roy Jones has not been without critics. The entertainment value of boxing comes from risk. There is a dramatic ebb and flow to great fights. Yet, in the ring, Jones has been so dominant that there has been little drama in many of his fights. One reason for this has been his choice of opponents. Over the years, Jones has beaten Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, and quite a few other quality boxers. But he hasn't always sought out the most dangerous inquisitors. Some say that Jones will never put himself in a situation where he thinks he might lose a fight; that he won't ever take a fight that he's not certain he'll win.
Then there's the matter of how Jones fights. There's always an element of danger when a boxer steps into the ring. But Jones has improvised a style that, given his extraordinary talents, is as close to risk-free as possible.
"Roy Jones," says Lou DiBella, "is the most careful great fighter I've ever seen."
And Larry Merchant recently opined, "I don't get a feeling of magic from Roy Jones anymore. Early in his career, I felt there was a certain magic; that he was a like a brilliant jazz musician running off riffs of punches that nobody had ever seen before. But as Roy moved up in weight, you didn't see that as often. His fights took on a pattern of opponents trying to pressure him, and Roy using his intelligence and very fast hands to discourage them. And what upsets a lot of boxing people is, he won't even try to close the show. That is, we're into the tenth round of a championship fight; Roy is ahead nine rounds to one; and he's content to play it out and walk away with a decision. In Roy's mind, it's, 'Why should I give the other guy a chance? If I try to knock him out, he might hit me with a big punch'. But it isn't very entertaining. Roy sucks the drama out of his fights by dominating his opponents in the first six rounds and coasting in the last six. From an entertainment point of view, instead of building to a climax, Roy builds to an anti-climax. Is it because he's so good? Yes. Is it because he's so smart? Yes. But it turns a lot of people off."
Jones's defenders counter that, over the years, he has fought every challenger of note. They also question the mindset of those who wax nostalgically about Willie Pep winning a round without throwing a punch yet criticize Jones for fighting defensively.
Still, the bottom line has long been that Roy Jones's detractors would never concede his greatness until he proved to their satisfaction that he had a fighting heart. The ultimate question they asked was, "On a night when Jones is brutally tested, when he's hurt, when his body aches, when he feels like he has nothing left; on that night, will Roy Jones just try to survive or will he walk through fire to win?"
Enter Antonio Tarver.
Tarver is a former U.S. amateur champion, world amateur champion, and Olympic bronze-medalist. In April of this year, he captured the WBC and IBF light-heavyweight titles by winning all twelve rounds against Montell Griffin. The sole blot on his record was a decision loss to Eric Harding avenged by knockout two years later. And Tarver is used to going in tough. His six previous opponents before his November 8th fight against Roy Jones had compiled a record of 173 wins against 12 losses and 4 draws.
Tarver is a talker. That much was clear as he set his sights directly on Jones:
* "Bring on the man; the guy with all of the accolades; the guy that's supposed to be unbeatable and invincible and unstoppable. I know what a victory over Roy Jones will give me, and that's what I want."
* "People continue to consider Roy Jones the light-heavyweight champion, and I feel disrespected. There's a new king in town. It's my time; it's my season. I'm anxious to prove myself once and for all as the best light-heavyweight in the world, bar none, including Roy Jones."
* "The majority of Roy Jones’s opponents came for the payday. I’m coming to make Roy Jones pay. He knows my ability. I'm a slick confident southpaw with power in both hands; a defensive wizard and a guy that knows his way around that ring. This time, for the first time in Roy Jones's career, the risk outweighs the reward. Deep down in his heart, Roy Jones knows that. He sees me as a major threat, and that's a fact. I'm focused, hungry, and determined to close the show on Roy Jones."
* "I'm going to destroy him. Instead of Roy Jones's corner people giving him a shower after every round like they do, they’ll have to give him an IV drip so he doesn’t go into shock as I beat his ass."
For good measure, Tarver also called Jones a "country bumpkin." But the 7-to-1 odds in Jones's favor reflected people's skepticism. The general view was that Tarver was the second-best light-heavyweight in the world. But he was about to face a man who might be the best light-heavyweight in history. Jones had won 23 world championship fights. Tarver had fought a total of 22 bouts in his entire professional career.
Also, despite the tough talk, several days before the fight, Tarver relinquished his IBF championship belt. He claimed it was because he wouldn't be able to make a mandatory title defense for at least a year and a wait of that duration would be unfair to Clinton Woods and Glencoffe Johnson, who would be fighting on the eve of Jones-Tarver in a "mandatory elimination" bout. But there was more to this gesture of noblesse oblige than met the eye. By giving up the belt, Tarver paved the way for Woods versus Johnson to become a world championship bout. And more than coincidentally, the winner of Woods-Johnson was committed to making his first title defense against Tarver. In other words, if Tarver lost to Roy Jones, he wanted a chance to get at least one of the belts back.
Meanwhile, if Tarver was talking big, Jones wasn't exactly quiet.
"Can he beat me?" Roy asked rhetorically. "Hell no. Do I think he can beat me? Hell no. Do I take his trash-talking as real disrespect? Nah, that's cowardice. Where I come from, if I got something to say to you, I say it to your face as soon as I see you. Tarver only does it in front of cameras. This guy, outside the ring, he’s boring to me. But when I get in there, I’m going to be excited because I get to tear his ass up. I always, always, keep my damn word. And I’m telling you; I’ll whip his ass. His ass is toast. I'm going to utilize his big mouth for a target all night."
Then, in the days just before the fight, Jones began talking about the difference between the good "Roy Jones" and the bad "RJ". The latter, he claimed, hadn't appeared in the ring since his one-round demolition of Montell Griffin in 1997, but was bubbling to the surface for Tarver.
"I’m bad, but it’s just how I get," Jones explained. "It just happens sometimes. It kind of scares me. I don’t really want it to happen, but it almost seems like it's inevitable. You know what I mean? I don’t ever want to see that because I don’t like to be like that. RJ is a bad dude. I don’t like to mess with him too much. But my subconscious, which is where he usually dwells, seems to be jacked up. Tarver has the type of disposition that will make me be the me that I don't like to be. It ain’t going to be nothing nice. You don’t get to see me like that often."
One man who had an up-close view of Jones's personality transformation was Alton Merkerson. "Coach Merk" was in the Army from late 1959 through early 1990. He and Jones bonded at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, when Roy fought at 156 pounds and Merkerson guided Ray Mercer, Andrew Maynard, and Kennedy McKinney through the games. Merkerson has been Jones's most constant ally throughout the fighter's ring career. He considers himself a teacher rather than a trainer.
"It's now personal for Roy," Merkerson said shortly before the fight. "But I wouldn't necessarily say that it motivates him. Being motivated and being pissed off are two entirely different things."
As for Jones's well-known aversion to taking instruction from others, Merkerson acknowledged, "It was difficult for me at first. In the military, everything was regimented. People did what I told them to do when I told them to do it. But Roy is a control person. He likes being in full control. It comes from his upbringing. There were times when his father made things pretty hard on him. When you're told what to do your whole life and finally you get to draw your own picture, you don't want to give that freedom up. But I know my troops; I trust Roy's judgment. And I understand that, if Roy loses, he wants it to be because he was doing things the way he thought they should be done; not because someone else told him to do it a certain way and he did what they told him. So Roy listens to me. What he does after that is his choice, but I know he considers what I tell him."
Well and good. But as Jones-Tarver approached, Jones found himself in a situation that he couldn't fully control. Six months earlier, he'd gone up in weight to fight John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight crown. That night, he had tipped the scales at 197 pounds. Now, for the first time in history, a heavyweight beltholder was going down in weight to fight for the light-heavyweight title. That meant, thirty hours before Jones-Tarver, Roy had to weigh in at 175 pounds.
Not even Roy Jones can defy the laws of nature.
When Jones fought John Ruiz, his body fat had been a remarkably low six percent. Mackie Shilstone, who supervised Roy's conditioning for that fight, explains, "Body fat is something you carry around. Muscle is something that carries you around."
For Jones-Tarver, Roy opted to do without Shilstone's services. But he wasn't just shedding fat. He had to lose muscle.
Jones called making weight for Jones-Tarver the hardest thing he'd ever done in his life. By his own admission, he'd underestimated how difficult it would be to get down to 175 pounds. "It's one of the worst times I ever had," he acknowledged. "You sacrifice so much, you want to kill somebody. I had to run more, diet more. You're hungry and thirsty half the time. You're mad. You start taking out your frustrations on everybody you come across."
Roy's weight loss added drama to the fight. There were times when he seemed more concerned with making weight than preparing for Tarver. But in truth, the weight problem was his own doing. Over the years, Jones has been great in the ring because his preparation and decision-making outside the ring have been superb. There was a time when Roy was so dedicated to boxing that, every New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight, he was in the gym at Square Ring. And he always seemed to find the right weight division in which to compete. Thus, just as James Toney bore responsibility for being drained from the loss of weight prior to fighting Roy in 1994, so too, Jones had no one to blame for his weight debacle but himself.
But there was another problem that wasn't of Jones's making. In mid-October, he had gone to the dentist to have a cavity filled and another tooth capped. That had occasioned a certain amount of comment within the Jones camp.
"Roy doesn't like needles; they frighten him," says longtime friend Derrick Gainer. "When he was in the hospital for arthroscopic knee surgery and they told him he had to have a shot, Roy told everyone to leave the room. I was going too but he said to me, 'No; you got to stay.' He made me hold his hand while he got the shot. He's gonna kill me for telling you that."
"Needles aren't my favorite thing," Jones admits. "It used to be, when I went to the dentist, I'd ask for gas so I wouldn't have to get a needle. But I'm better about that now."
On his October trip to the dentist, Roy opted for a needle. But less humorously, the filling and cap had bothered him ever since. He hadn't returned for corrective dentistry out of fear of making the situation worse. But for the three weeks leading up to Jones-Tarver, the pain had interfered with his sleep.
On Friday, November 7th, at 2:00 pm, Jones weighed in at precisely 175 pounds. Then he went upstairs to his suite and began sipping from a bottle of fruit juice. At first, his thoughts centered on the fight ahead.
Tarver was the WBC light-heavyweight champion. Technically, Jones was the challenger. For weeks, they had battled over who would enter the ring and be announced first. Finally, it was agreed that the matter would be settled by a coin toss officiated over by Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner. Then, moments before the toss was to occur, Jones deferred to Tarver.
Now, in his suite, Roy acknowledged, "I never ever planned on a coin toss. Ninety percent of what goes on before a big fight is mind games. I never cared about who went in the ring first. Against Ruiz, I went in first. But Tarver was counting on the coin toss. He figured that was where he had a fifty-fifty chance. If he won the toss, he'd be saying, 'Okay; things are going my way.' So I took that away from him and now he's shook."
Then the conversation turned to a law banning the possession of fighting animals that had been passed recently by the Florida legislature. Jones owns seven hundred fighting cocks that he breeds, trains, and takes to fights in neighboring Louisiana, where cock-fighting is legal.
"I'm not giving up my birds," Jones said. "I wake up in the morning hearing them. If I have to, I'll move to Louisiana" His anger began to build. "They're killing twenty million chickens a day to eat, and not one of those birds has a fighting chance. You put me on earth and ask me what kind of bird I want to be; a fighting bird or one they eat. That's an easy choice. We got kids dying in a war in Iraq, and the politicians are worrying about game roosters. People don't understand. They just don't understand."
A pensive look crossed Roy's face, and one couldn't help but think of some thoughts shared by Stanley Levin. Levin is a Pensacola attorney who, with his brother Fred, guided Jones for much of the fighter's amateur run and professional career. During a period when young Roy and his father were fully estranged, Roy lived in Stanley's house for a year.
"Roy was thirteen when I met him," Levin reminisced recently. "On the surface, he seemed happy enough. But there was something in his eyes that made him different from anybody I'd ever seen. There was a determination there and also a way of looking at you that made me feel as though he was probing into my mind; as though he wanted to know what I was about before he let me in. And there was a sadness in his eyes, a loneliness that pulled me to him. It was as though he was in need, and I wanted to help him. Roy has the world at his feet now. But I still see that sadness, that loneliness, when I look at him. Not in the days leading up to a fight or when he's on the basketball court or playing with children. But when he's in an alone space, that sadness is still there. And a lot of me hurts for Roy because, deep down inside, I don't think he's happy. Inside of Roy Jones, there's the most beautiful young man I've ever known. But I think now he's trapped into playing a roll of rap impressario, movie star, superstar this and superstar that. He's young, good-looking, wealthy, a great athlete; but there's still a sadness there."
* * *
On Saturday, November 8th, Roy Jones arrived at the Mandalay Bay Arena at 6:40 pm. He was wearing a white warm-up suit, red jersey, white socks, and sandals. A headband with an Air Jordan logo graced his brow. At his request, he had been assigned to a dressing room with Gabe Brown, Vernie Torres, Julian Townsend, and Lemuel Nelson; four fighters from Pensacola who were slated for undercard bouts. The room was large with three straight-backed chairs and wall-to-wall wood benches.
Upon his arrival, Jones circled the room, shaking hands with close to two dozen friends. Then he hugged Alton Merkerson, who had been at the arena with the undercard fighters since four o'clock. Take away Merkerson and a few others with gray hair and the room had the feel of Peter Pan surrounded by the lost boys as he readied to do battle against Captain Hook.
The contemporary rock music that had been playing changed to rap. Roy sat down on a bench, took a pair of blue-and-white high-topped boxing shoes from a Kronk Gym bag, and set them down on the bench. Larry Merchant entered the dressing room with HBO production coordinator Tami Cotel for a brief pre-fight interview. Ken Bayless, who would be refereeing Jones-Tarver, followed with pre-fight instructions. Roy put on his shoes. Mario O'Francis rubbed vaseline on his arms and legs. Then Jones took two bands of silver tassels from a clear plastic bag, tied them around his shoetops, and walked the length of the room to see how they felt.
Merkerson began taping Roy's hands. When that was done, Jones laced up his protective cup and donned a pair of cobalt-blue boxing trunks with white trim. At 7:40 pm, Cotel returned and announced, "Seventeen minutes." Everyone in the room joined hands. Al Cole led them in prayer. Then Roy gloved up.
It all seemed low-key and routine; like another day at the gym in Pensacola. But boxing isn't pre-scripted. It's not a computer game. When two fighters enter the ring, regardless of what they might have done before, they start even at the opening bell every time.
Also, Jones had a problem, After the weigh-in on Friday, despite being famished, he had eaten lightly. He didn't want the type of stomach cramps that Roberto Duran is believed to have suffered from in his "no mas" fight against Sugar Ray Leonard. Nor did he want to come in bloated as James Toney had done in their 1994 encounter. "It's been so long since I ate a lot," Roy explained. "I didn't want to take a chance and eat too much and have a problem."
But on Saturday, there was a problem anyway. Merkerson had speculated that Roy would enter the ring just shy of 190 pounds. However, an hour before the fight when Jones stepped on the HBO scale, it registered 186. That included five pounds of clothes and personal accessories. In other words, Roy weighed 181 pounds. His stomach had been queasy all day. He had barely eaten. He would be entering the ring in a depleted physical state.
Every great fighter has a night when he engages in battle and just doesn't have it. November 8th was that kind of night for Roy Jones.
In the early rounds, both men fought cautiously, feeling each other out and showing respect. But unlike previous fights, Jones was unable to dictate the pace and do what he wanted to do. And unlike some of Roy's previous opponents, Tarver belonged in the ring with him.
Jones looked sluggish from the start. At the halfway mark, he was ahead four rounds to two but tiring badly. Then, in round seven, the unthinkable happened. For the first time in his career, Roy Jones lost form. He lost control of what was going on in a boxing ring.
Rounds seven and eight were probably the most difficult rounds of Jones's life. Tarver began pressing the action and landed legitimate power punches. In the past, the ropes have been a sanctuary for Roy. Boxing fans have grown accustomed to seeing him retreat and then strike back hard when an opening presented itself. Now, when Jones went to the ropes, he got pounded.
Jones's only defeat as a professional was a disqualification loss against Montell Griffin. In that bout, he lost rounds but wasn't getting beaten up. He simply had to change tactics and become more aggressive to alter the flow of the action and prevail. He was disqualified as he stood on the verge of knocking Griffin out.
This was different. Tarver was strong and began stepping things up. By the end of round eight, Roy's left eye was closing and he was exhausted.
"When a rooster's got one eye," Roy Jones once said, "he becomes dangerous because he knows every lick could be his last; so he puts everything he's got into that lick. Same with boxing. Every punch from a man with one eye is going to have kill in it." Then Jones had added, "I don't go anywhere to lose. Remember that."
So in round nine, Jones dug deep to unveil a new weapon in his arsenal; his heart. And in rounds nine through twelve, he showed the world that "RJ" isn't a front-runner who blows out opponents. RJ is a fighter who summons up strength where there appears to be none, sucks up his guts, and does what has to be done on a bad night to win against a strong skilled opponent.
Jerry Roth scored the fight even. Glen Hamada and Dave Harris gave the nod to Jones by margins of 117-111 and 116-112. This writer had it 115-114 for Jones.
After the fight, Roy returned to his dressing room and sat down heavily on the same bench he'd been on a little more than an hour earlier. "That was tough," he said wearily. "I had to bite down hard tonight."
The skin around his left eye was discolored and swollen. Alton Merkerson began pressing an Enswell against the wounded area.
"That was tough," Jones said again. "I'm through with 175. It's too hard to get down. The only thing I want to do next is fight Tyson. Then it's over."
A satisfied look crossed his face. "People thought, if the going got tough, I'd quit. But I dug deep tonight. All you can do is all you can do, and that's what I did. You tell the world, the Roy Jones show ain't over yet."
So what comes next?
Jones has been fighting as a professional for fifteen years. That's a long journey and the end is in sight. It wasn't just the weight that handicapped him against Tarver, although certainly weight was a factor. Roy is getting older. He'll be 35 in January. More than anything else, his quickness and speed are the assets that have separated him from other fighters. He says that he was in his prime when he fought at 168 pounds. Now his speed and quickness are starting to diminish.
A look at history's other great light-heavyweights puts things in perspective. Billy Conn's last victory came at age 31. Ezzard Charles lost 17 of 27 fights after the age of 32. Bob Foster never won a title-fight after the age of 34. Only Archie Moore flourished in the light-heavyweight division at an age older than Jones is now.
A Jones-Tarver rematch at 185 pounds would be interesting; and probably a convincing win for Jones. And then there's Mike Tyson. "Fighters want to fight for titles," Roy said earlier this year, "but not as much as we want to fight for money."
There is, of course, considerable skepticism that Jones will actually get in the ring with Tyson. "Roy started talking about fighting heavyweights in 1996," notes Larry Merchant. "And it took him seven years to find John Ruiz, who was a safe heavyweight to fight." Also, Tyson hits exponentially harder than anyone Jones has fought. "If Mike hits Roy right," says Mark Breland, "they can cancel Christmas in Pensacola."
Still, as Jim Lampley observes, "The way Roy Jones conducts his career continually confounds people because you expect the behavior of a normal athlete and there is absolutely nothing about this guy that's normal or predictable."
So if Jones is offered, say, thirty million dollars and Tyson starts salivating at the thought of Roy going to the ropes . . . Who knows?
Meanwhile, it should be said in closing that Jones-Tarver was something new for Roy Jones. In all of his previous fights, he entered the ring with physical gifts that were superior to those of his opponent. But on November 8th, the superior physical arsenal belonged to Antonio Tarver. Roy Jones won the fight, not because of his physical gifts, but because he did what great fighters are supposed to do. He was courageous and brave. And his will was stronger than Tarver's.
Some fighters grow larger through the prism of history. Roy Jones will be one of them.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauserthauserrcn.com