By Thomas Hauser
When Roy Jones was young, he glowed. There was an aura about him and words came out of his mouth like bursts of machine-gun fire. The glow is gone now. Roy's face looks old for his 37 years and there's a bit of cotton in his voice.
Jones is scheduled to step into the ring again on July 29th. After a decade of brilliance, he has lost three consecutive fights; two to Antonio Tarver and one at the hands of Glencoffe Johnson. Tarver knocked Roy out with one perfectly-timed punch. Johnson battered him for most of the night before rendering him unconscious for eight minutes in the ninth round.
Jones's next fight will be at the Qwest Arena in Boise, Idaho. That's far from the bright lights of Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden. HBO and Showtime passed on the bout. It will be presented on pay-per-view by a niche promoter called Sports and Entertainment Media. Roy's opponent will Prince Badi Ajamu; an unknown fighter from New Jersey with a record of 25 wins and 14 knockouts in 28 contests.
Last month, Jones flew to Memphis to discuss his future with a handful of writers who were in town for the middleweight championship fight between Jermain Taylor and Winky Wright. First, there was small-talk. Roy predicted that the Dallas Mavericks would vanquish the Miami Heat in the NBA Championship Finals. At the time, the series was tied at two games apiece.
Next, he was asked about his penchant for blowing off HBO production meetings. Jones had been an expert analyst for the cable giant's boxing telecasts. He was good at it, and the assumption was that the job would provide him with considerable income long after his ring career was over. But too often, he failed to appear at pre-fight sessions.
"My job wasn't to come in on Thursday," Jones said by way of explanation. "I don't care about when a fighter came to this country and how many girlfriends he had and whether he just got out of jail and that he loves his mother. I didn't need to know all that. My job was to tell the people watching on TV what was happening in the ring after they rang the bell for round one."
HBO felt differently, and Roy's employment was terminated.
Then the conversation turned to the recent downturn in Jones's ring fortunes. There was a time when one could have asked a hundred fighters to name the best fighter in the world, and virtually all of them would have chosen Roy. In 2003, his star rose even higher when he went up in weight and beat John Ruiz to claim the WBA heavyweight crown.
"When I fought John Ruiz," Jones said, "I knew going in that I was making a sacrifice that would effect my entire career. After that, I went back to 175 pounds, but it took about a year-and-a-half to get my body back and feel right again. The first two Tarver fights, even the Glen Johnson fight; my body still hadn't re-adjusted. It takes a long time."
Roy also addressed the third Tarver fight, which took place in October 2005. In round five, he'd fought like the young Roy Jones, scoring with vicious body blows and some good shots to the head. Tarver seemed confused by his speed and a bit shaken. At the end of the round, Roy was up 48-47 on two of the judges' scorecards and trailed by a point on the third. But at that juncture, he all but stopped fighting and lost a unanimous decision. What happened?
Jones's explanation was that it stemmed from the bickering between Alton Merkerson (who had trained him for most of his professional career) and his father (who'd trained him in the amateurs and early pro years). Roy Jones Sr had been in camp for the third Tarver fight and then, during the bout itself, unexpectedly usurped Merkerson's position as the number-one man in the corner.
"While I'm fighting, people are supposed to be worrying about me," Roy said. "And I was worrying about what was going on in the corner between my father and Coach Merk. Around the eighth round, I realized God ain't gonna let me win tonight because, if I win, the wrong person will get the glory. If I had won, my father would have gotten all the glory and he didn't deserve it. If I had knocked out Tarver, they would have said it was because of him. My father is a good boxing guy. He taught me, but he's not good for me. So I had a lot going on; more than you can imagine. But I didn't see the whole picture until after it had passed me by."
That sounded like rationalization; particularly since, later in the conversation, Jones acknowledged, "Around the eighth round, I realized I needed another fight. I told myself, 'They didn't give you a tune-up, but you got it now. So do what you got to do. Get through this fight and you'll be ready.'"
Roy Jones is now exactly what he promised he'd never be; a fighter who has stayed on past his time. Very few fighters end their career too early. "I don't care who you are," former middleweight contender Robert Allen once said. "If you stick around this sport long enough, you're going to get your ass whipped." That's happening to Jones now.
"Look," Roy said, growing more animated. "If Evander Holyfield had asked me if he should have fought Mike Tyson, I would have told him no. And I would have been wrong. Evander knew what he could still do; and so do I. I'll know when I don't have it anymore; and I know I still do. People say that old fighters can't come back, but I'm different."
"I came from a long hard road," Jones continued. "So where I am now; that ain't nothing to come back from. I like fighting. I want to come back. I want to fight Glen Johnson. I got my reasons, and you all know what they are. I want to go to wherever I want to go. Then, after I prove it to myself, I'm gone."
Every time a fighter steps into the ring, he's borrowing against his future wellbeing. When Jones was asked what he'd learned about the boxing business in seventeen years as a pro, his response was, "Nobody cares about you like you do, so you have to take care of yourself." But he's not doing that now.
And there was one particularly chilling moment. Roy was trying to impress upon those in attendance that he was, to use his phrase, "a fighting machine." To prove his point, he referenced his May 13, 2000, fight against Richard Hall, which he won on an eleventh-round knockout after winning every round on each judge's scorecard.
"I blanked out in the Richard Hall fight," Jones confided. "After the fight, I couldn't remember what happened."
That's a danger sign with red neon lights flashing.
The young Roy Jones sought out new mountains to climb. Now he wants to go back to where he has been before. That's the way things are in boxing. Young fighters dream of the future. Old fighters seek to recapture the past. Roy says he has rededicated himself to the sport and is going to return to doing what once made him a great fighter. But he can't, because he'll never be young again.
At the end of the gathering in Memphis, Roy was asked about his penchant for arriving late, often very late, for press conferences, business meetings, and the like. "I always feel like, if I leave on time, something bad will happen to me," he answered."
But in boxing, if a fighter doesn't leave the sport on time, something bad is likely to happen.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org