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18 DECEMBER 2014

 

Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver


The third meeting (pic Tom Hogan)
The third meeting (pic Tom Hogan)

By Thomas Hauser
Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for me to watch fighters I care about in the ring. Maybe that's because I've seen two men beaten to death in front of me. Maybe it's because, as I've grown older, I've been imbued with a greater sense of mortality coupled with a fuller understanding of loss. When Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson in Memphis, I sat ringside and felt my heart pounding. During the early rounds of Jermain Taylor versus Bernard Hopkins, my hand was shaking so much that my notes were an almost-illegible scrawl.

In that vein, there came a time when I felt that Roy Jones Jr should retire from boxing. "You're not Roy Jones in the ring anymore," I told him. "I'd like you to stop fighting while you're still Roy Jones out of it." Roy thanked me for my concern. Ultimately, he fought again.

On the night of October 1, 2005, I was in Roy's dressing room as he readied to fight Antonio Tarver for the third time. "Tom Hauser," Roy said, looking across the room at me. "I thought about what you said. I ain't got good sense, but don't worry about me. I'll be all right."

Roy Jones at his peak was one of the most gifted fighters of our time. He gave the impression of being able to ride bareback on a tornado without wrinkling his gleaming satin trunks. He could fight an opponent as good as James Toney and make boxing look like a game instead of the brutal competition that it is. He stood for the proposition, "When I go in the ring, that space is mine."

Given proper motivation, Jones went in tough. He did it against Bernard Hopkins when he wanted the middleweight crown. He did it against James Toney to establish his "pound-for-pound" credentials. Many of Jones's lesser opponents were greater risks than he has been given credit for. Eric Harding was good enough to beat Antonio Tarver. Julio Gonzalez beat Dariusz Michalczewski. Clinton Woods stopped Rico Hoye and fought Glencoffe Johnson to a draw.

And there was Jones's domination of John Ruiz in 2003 to capture the WBA heavyweight belt. Even Roy's most severe critics had to acknowledge his skills that night. Ruiz isn't pretty to watch but he beat Hasim Rahman and Evander Holyfield. "I don't hit that hard," Jones said mockingly after the Ruiz bout. "Everyone knows that. So when you fight me, go ahead. Charge! Attack! It was a punch from the referee that broke John's nose."

"When the heavyweight thing happened," Jones said later, "that felt so good."

The biggest edge that many great fighters have is their ego. But ego is the greatest flaw that many fighters have too. Ego can lead a champion to undertrain for a fight. Ego allows a fighter to get careless in the ring against an opponent who's more dangerous than thought.

After Jones beat John Ruiz, he trained less arduously than he should have and won a narrow decision over Antonio Tarver. Six months later, in Jones-Tarver II, Roy learned that any fighter can be knocked out. Next, he stepped into the ring with Glencoffe Johnson after hardly training at all. Against Johnson, Jones was Frank Sinatra fumbling the lyrics and Luciano Pavarotti unable to hit the high notes. In round nine, he was knocked unconscious. He lay on the canvas for eight minutes and sat on his stool for 24 minutes more before leaving the ring.

Those two knockouts shook Jones to his core and threatened to undermine his belief in himself. They became the dominant factor in his life. "Forced humility," writer Tim Graham called it. The question was, would Roy return to the ring?

"If I was looking at this from the outside," Jones acknowledged one week after the Johnson fight, "I'd say to myself, 'He was good; he did his thing; now it's time for him to move on to something else.' This is a killer game. When I was hungry and in the hunt, nothing could stop me. But I don't have that hunger anymore and reflex-wise I've lost something. People say, 'You can't go out like that.' And I say, 'Yes, I can if I want to.' I don't feel like I have to fight again. I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. So unless I do, I won't. I'll take some time off and decide what I want to do. But whatever I do, my life is exactly what God planned for me. God doesn't make mistakes."

"I really thought Roy was going to retire after the Johnson fight," Alton Merkerson (Jones's longtime trainer) said recently. "That's what he told me, and I believed it. Then, in June, I went out to his farm. Roy wasn't there. I asked where he was, and his uncle said that he was out doing roadwork. A few weeks after that, Roy got the gym cleaned up. Then he started training; and the next thing I knew, there was a fight."

If Jones wanted public vindication, either Antonio Tarver or Glencoffe Johnson would have sufficed as his opponent. Roy opted for Tarver, the tougher of the two challenges. "If I can't beat the best, I don't want to be in there," he said. That was ironic in that, when Jones was at his peak, the knock against him in some quarters was that he fought too many soft touches. But the other side of the coin was, in some respects, beating Tarver would be an even bigger conquest for Roy than his victory over John Ruiz.

"I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do this," Jones said. "Do you want me to jump off a building or do you want to see me fight?"

To some observers, those options were similar.

Antonio Tarver presented a formidable challenge. He was born in Orlando to a single-parent mother who raised him and three daughters on her own. "She and my father never lived together," Antonio remembers. "He was a Vietnam vet. It's hard to say he was my father because he was never there. Biologically, he donated but that's about all. We never saw much of each other, just a phone call here and there, so I never had that male figure in my life. That was a void I had to live with."

Tarver learned to box at the local Boys Club when he was ten years old. "Kids would get into fights," he recalls, "and the way the director dealt with it was to put us in the ring with oversized gloves that were as big as we were. That happened to me a few times. After a while, the director saw I was good and I liked it, so he directed me to the Boys Club boxing team. In my first amateur fight, I knocked my opponent out in forty-five seconds. I was lefthanded but I fought in an orthodox stance back then and I had a hellacious left hook."

Tarver and Jones met in the ring for the first time as 13-year-olds at the 1982 Sunshine State Games. "I won the first round," Antonio asserts. "Roy won the second. The third round was close and he got the decision. Then, when I was fourteen, my mother moved us to a better section of Orlando that was thirty miles from the Boys Club. There was no way for me to get to the gym, so I gave up boxing and concentrated on other sports. I played quarterback and wide receiver in football and shooting guard on the high school basketball team. In my mind, I was good. But I wasn't as good as I thought."

That led to problems. Like many inner-city youths with athletic dreams, Tarver was ill-prepared to deal with the future. After high school, he was passed over in the hunt for a college athletic scholarship and began to drift. He fathered a son (who he spends time with and supports financially). He went from odd job to odd job. And he got into drugs.

"I abused drugs for about seven months," Antonio admits. "It started in the summer of 1987 when I was nineteen years old. I was out of school, running around with the wrong crowd. I was doing lace [a mixture of crack and marijuana]. And what happened was, in my mind, the drug became the only value that mattered. I was involved in something that I'd lost control over. My responsibilities become secondary to the drug. I began to change as a person. I was acting crazy. Finally, one night, I went into my mother's room when she was sleeping, woke her up, and told her, 'Mom; I'm in trouble. I have a problem.' She was like, 'What are you talking about?' And I said, 'Mom; I'm messed up. I'm using drugs.' We cried all night. She was very hurt, and I felt horrible because of the shame and hurt I was bringing her. Neither of us was educated on the matter, but we found out where I could go to get help. I went into a residential rehab program for six months. I had to do some rebuilding. They educated me about my problems and my purpose in life, and I'm a better person now because of the experience. I learned from my mistake and put it behind me. I could have given up on myself. I know people who have battled drugs for years and never kicked the habit. But I beat it. It never resurfaced, and I'm very proud of that."

Then came a defining moment. In 1988, Tarver saw Roy Jones on television at the Seoul Olympics. "It touched me, " he says. "Because in my heart, I knew that I was just as good as Roy was when we'd fought. And I could see how he was advancing with his career while I was doing nothing."

Motivated again, Tarver resumed boxing. Eight years later, he made the United States Olympic team and won a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Then he turned pro, but it was a difficult passage.

"The talent and skill were always there, but I took shortcuts," Antonio acknowledges. "If I made weight, I thought I was in shape. I won my first sixteen fights on talent alone. Then I fought Eric Harding. That was a wake-up call. He broke my jaw. I knew I was hurt bad. There was pain from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. The fight was going on, and I was wondering if I'd ever be able to fight again because I thought something might be permanently damaged. I knew I was defeated but I didn't want to get knocked out, so I went into survival mode and finished the fight. Then, after the loss, I asked myself, 'How bad do I want it? What am I willing to do to get it?' I started taking better care of my body and working harder. I worked my way back to being the number-one contender. I could have just sat back and waited for a title shot. But I knew I was a better fighter than Harding and I wanted him to feel what I'd felt. So I signed to fight a rematch against him and knocked him out."

On April 26, 2003, Tarver decisioned Montell Griffin to pick up the WBC and IBF 175-pound titles that had been vacated when Roy Jones went up to heavyweight to fight John Ruiz. At that point, Antonio had been watching Jones do his thing for fifteen years and telling himself, "I can beat him." On November 8, 2003, he got his chance but Jones prevailed on a split decision. Six months later, they met again. Moments before the bell for round one, Antonio earned a spot in boxing's sound-bite hall of fame.

"I gave you your instructions in the dressing room," referee Jay Nady told the fighters. "Do you have any questions?"

"I got a question," Tarver said. "Do you got any excuses tonight, Roy?"

"I thought about it the night before," Tarver explained later. "And decided I didn't want to do anything that would cost me points or get me disqualified. But then we got in the ring and the adrenaline was flowing and the stage was set and I felt it was my night." A bemused look crosses Antonio's face. "It's a good thing I won. Can you imagine if it was me that got knocked out that night?"

After defeating Jones, Tarver lobbied for a rubber match between them. "If I got knocked out and didn't try to even the score," he said, "there's no way I'd be able to sleep at night. I'd even things up or get knocked out again trying."

Jones wouldn't bite. So in December 2004, Tarver opted to fight Glencoffe Johnson, who by then had defeated Jones. Johnson is a one-dimensional fighter, but opponents don't beat him by just showing up. He makes them earn it. Against Antonio, Glencoffe fought aggressively, throwing punches in bunches and going to the body throughout the night. Meanwhile, Tarver seemed in less-that-top shape and fought like a man who knew how to win rounds but wasn't willing to pay the price. He spent much of the bout in retreat, jabbed less frequently than he should have, and didn't let his hands go often enough. Antonio had superior technical skills but Johnson outworked him and won a narrow split decision. Six months later, Tarver avenged the loss with a 116-112, 116-112, 115-113 triumph.

"Good things happen when you believe," Antonio said afterward. "A long time ago, I had a vision. I don't just want to be a champion. I want to be a superstar. I have the ability to be spectacular every time out. I did without for a long time. I struggled; I came up on the dirt road of boxing. I'm a hard worker; I'm goal-oriented. When I set a goal, I'm totally consumed by it. Failure isn't an option."

The kick-off press conference for Tarver-Jones III was scheduled for August 9th in New York. Everything went as planned except for one small detail. Jones didn't show up.

Roy can be gracious and generous with his time, particularly when school children are involved. But over the years, his penchant for arriving late (and sometimes not at all) has ruffled feathers. His failure to appear in New York aggravated HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, who took the microphone and declared, "I'd like to admonish Roy Jones for not being here. Hopefully, on October 1st, he'll get his little rear-end to Tampa."

That left the stage to Tarver, who is on the short list with James Toney and Bernard Hopkins as boxing's best sound-for-sound talkers. Among the thoughts Antonio offered were:

* "I've mastered my trade. I'm on top now. This is the pinnacle but the roles have been reversed. Once upon a time, Roy was that king lion on top. Now I'm the king lion, and it's up to him to knock me off my throne. They say it's lonely at the top, but I like it here and don't plan on coming down any time soon."

* "It was never personal for me as far as Roy was concerned; only business. I think Roy is a good person. He takes care of his kids and does a lot of good things. And I respect Roy for the champion he was. He set the bar high and gave me something to reach for. But I find it hard to respect Roy now because he's showing me no respect. It bothers me that he hasn't been able to say, 'Hey; I got beat by a better fighter that night.' I don't know why he won't give me my due. He didn't give me credit for the first fight either. Roy needs to recognize that there has been a changing of the guard."

* "If you don't believe, you can't achieve. I challenged Roy like no fighter ever challenged him before. Do you think Michael Jordan lay in bed at night telling himself he wanted to be almost as good as Dr. J, or did he tell himself he wanted to be better?"
Was Jones shot?

"That remains to be seen," Tarver answered. "Roy didn't give himself enough time off before he fought Glen Johnson. Now he's had time to rest, physically and mentally. He looks good; we know he's serious. A desperate fighter is a dangerous fighter, and Roy is desperate now. If he loses this fight, it's all over for him so he's going to prepare like he's never prepared before. I'm training for the best Roy Jones ever. If he's less than that, so be it. If he's a shot fighter, I'm the one who shot him."

But Tarver also expressed resentment and would continue to do so in the weeks ahead. The source of his anger was the belief that he was toiling in a perpetual shadow that existed as a consequence of the media in general, and HBO in particular, creating and then showcasing a select few superstars.

"I didn't proclaim Roy to be the greatest thing since Sugar Ray Robinson," Tarver declared. "You all did. The media and the politics made Roy out to be what he is. Roy Jones's greatness is a myth. Sometimes I think the people at HBO have dementia. They're the ones who have made the great Roy Jones an icon, but I never looked at Roy Jones through the media's eyes."

Still, even Tarver was forced to concede, "This fight is more about what Roy Jones lost than what I took, and that's a bittersweet pill to me. I feel that I don't have the respect that I deserve when you look at all the things I've accomplished. I'm fighting to settle the issue of my own legacy."

As the fight approached, those who believed that Jones was never a great fighter were picking Tarver in a walk. Those who took a contrary view weren't so sure. Many in the latter group felt that Roy had lost to Johnson because he hadn't trained properly and that, against Tarver, he simply got caught.

"As strange as it sounds, Roy wasn't motivated for those two fights," Alton Merkerson said. "Roy is either self-motivated or he's not motivated at all. For those fights, he was bored. He was tired of pleasing other people. The second Tarver fight; he figured he'd beaten Tarver the first time when he was weak and had trouble making weight so now it would be easy. I didn't get what I should have gotten out of him in camp. And with Glen Johnson, it was the same thing. You can't make a fighter train if he doesn't want to. He might come to the gym but he won't work right while he's there."

"This camp, we had the Roy Jones I saw when I first started training him," Merkerson continued. "He's energetic; he's focussed. He put a lot of things to the side for this fight. If you take an exam without studying for it, you might get by or you might fail the test. When you really want to pass a test, you study harder. Training for a fight is the same thing. Roy's attitude has changed for this fight. This time, he's ready."

'We expect Roy to be ready," countered Tarver's trainer, Buddy McGirt. "But Roy just didn't get beat last time. He got knocked out. He didn't get TKO'd. He got KO'd. If Antonio fights Roy three more times, he'll beat Roy three more times."

Tarver was in accord. "I'm here to tell you; I don't think that at any point in Roy Jones's career, ever at any time, was he able to beat me," Antonio declared. "I'm not expecting to knock him out with one punch. Lightning only strikes once. But I will go in there, back him up, put pressure on him, and break him down. I know Roy will make adjustments from what he did in our last fights. But there's a limited number of mistakes he can make because, if he makes the wrong mistake, it's over."

Boxing fans are fond of saying that an aging great fighter who's on the decline often has one last great fight in him. But in truth, that's seldom the case. It's rare for a great fighter to come back after having been perceived as over-the-hill. Evander Holyfield did it at age 34, when he beat Mike Tyson after dismal performances against Michael Moorer and Bobby Czyz. And of course, George Foreman scored a one-punch knockout over Michael Moorer to become heavyweight champion at age 45. But boxing is a sport that eats its young, and the old have even less of a chance.

The conventional wisdom was that, at some point in fight, Tarver would crack Jones on the chin and the fight would be over. Clearly, Roy had trained harder for this encounter than for any fight in years. But there are no exercises a fighter can do for his chin.

Also, to some, Jones was acting strangely. There were reports that he had injured his left hand while training, which led to rumors that he might pull out of the fight. And after failing to appear at the kick-off press conference, he remained largely invisible. Not since Mike Tyson readied to fight Lennox Lewis had a boxer been so disrespectful toward the commercial imperatives of promoting a major fight.

Jones, by his conduct, said, "You're paying me to show up and box. Nothing else matters." That reduced Tarver-Jones III to its essence, and it certainly was "Roy being Roy." But for HBO, the fight was first and foremost a television production. Jones has a lucrative TV contract that can pay his bills far into the future. And some people thought it wasn't a good idea to shortchange the business end of things and piss off the man (Ross Greenburg) who hires and fires for HBO. Word leaked out that the cable giant had auditioned several boxing personalities, including Hasim Rahman, for a new boxing series that's on the boards for 2006. The word also was that one of the new hires might replace Jones.

Then, for good measure, Jones blew off the final pre-fight press conference. Earlier, he had demanded and received the concession that he and Tarver would meet separately with the media. That led Buddy McGirt to observe, "If you could get Ali and Frazier in the same room, you should be able to get anybody in the same room."

Regardless, two days before the fight, Jones walked into what was supposed to be his final press conference at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. It was his only public appearance since the fight was signed. He hadn't shaved in seven weeks. His beard was shaggy and unkempt. He strode to the microphone, looked out at his audience, and said, "How ya'll doing? I ain't really got much to say. My hand is fine. I ain't got no excuses. I got no reason to be here but one reason. That's to kick ass. That's what I came for. That's all I've got to goddamn say." After seventeen seconds on stage, he left.

"I think it's a slap in the face to all the people that have pumped him up and glorified him over the years," Tarver said at his own press conference an hour later. "The guy has given nothing to the game. The guy has no compassion for the sport that made him a wealthy man and an icon. Roy Jones disrespects the fans. He disrespects the media. He disrespects the sport. Shame on him." Then Tarver added, "I don't think Roy is as confident as people make him out to be. He seems to be very fragile right now."

The whole thing bothered a lot of observers.

"Do I fear for Roy's safety?" HBO commentator Jim Lampley told writer Eric Raskin. "Absolutely. How could you watch him lie still on the canvas for such a long time after getting knocked out by Glen Johnson, watch his feet quiver like that, and not be concerned? He couldn't be any worse than he was against Glen Johnson. I don't rule out that he could beat Antonio Tarver. I just don't think it's worth taking the risk. I would prefer not to see him get hit in the head again."

Others took a harsher view. Kevin Iole of the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote of the fight, "You'll get an arrogant over-the-hill light-heavyweight who thinks so little of the fans that he shuns them consistently and who has been knocked out cold in his last two fights against a guy who is bigger, stronger, and, quite simply, better. Why HBO is allowing this fight to happen is a mystery. The Florida Athletic Commission should be ashamed of itself for sanctioning the fight. Jones doesn't deserve your money; there doesn't seem to be a way the fight can be competitive; and the specter of a disaster looms large. Save your money. If Roy Jones Jr. wants to kill himself, you don't have to pay fifty bucks to watch him do it."

And the most impassioned words came from Tim Smith of the New York Daily News, who declared, "Leavander Johnson will be buried on Saturday in Atlantic City, eight days after paying the ultimate price for participating in his sport. Later in the day, Roy Jones Jr. will take on Antonio Tarver in Tampa, ostensibly to regain his status in the same sport. The parallel of those two events disturbs me greatly. I remain saddened by Johnson being beaten to death in a sanctioned sporting event and Jones, who has been knocked out in his last two bouts, willingly putting himself in the same position. I don't understand why there was a need for Tarver-Jones III. I saw everything I needed in the second match when Tarver knocked out Jones in the second round. After Glen Johnson left Jones lying on the canvas with his arms folded across his chest like he was in a coffin for 24 minutes, I never wanted to see Jones in the ring again. That image keeps flashing in my mind. Humanity is lacking in boxing. What do you expect in a sport in which the purpose is to render your opponent unconscious? But when did common sense take a holiday? Someone convinced the executives at HBO Pay-Per-View that a third match against Tarver was a good idea. It isn't. It never was. It is a shameful disgrace. I will cover Jones-Tarver III. It is what I do. I'm not proud of that, and I do so reluctantly. Jones may get into the ring against Tarver and be masterful again. But I'm not going to say I was wrong or that I'm sorry for not wanting Jones in the ring again. I'm ashamed that I cover a sport in which humanity is lacking and common sense is on permanent vacation. Forgive me, but I never want to see another man killed in a boxing ring."

State of mind is more important in boxing than in any other sport. To some, it seemed as though winning this fight had become a matter of personal survival to Jones. They thought that everything he believed about himself and had created in the first 36 years of his life was on the line. But the assumption in some circles was that Jones was on some sort of weird mental journey. And even in boxing, mind can't overcome matter. Thus, the question was asked, "Is Roy Jones living in a fantasy world? The Matrix? Mind over matter?"

"The frame of mind that Roy is in now," Alton Merkerson said in response, "is that he's tired of talking; he's tired of listening. He's not going to tell Tarver what he's going to do. He's going to show him. Roy wants to prove to everyone, and especially to himself, that he's not washed up; that he's still capable of being pound-for-pound the best fighter in the world. He's in the same state of mind now that he was in the early 1990s."

How would the two previous knockouts affect him?

"Soldiers have to deal with emotions like this before they go into battle," Merkerson answered. "You can be the best soldier in the world; but if you stay in combat long enough, you'll get hit. What you do then, if you survive, is you soldier on and hope it doesn't happen again. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't."

And there was one final element in the psychodrama. After years of estrangement, Jones was training again with his father.

Roy Jones Sr ("Big Roy" as he's known in Pensacola) owned a farm when Roy Jr was growing up and also did some long-haul trucking. There was a time when he put considerable time and effort into teaching youngsters, including his son, how to box in a makeshift gym without plumbing. When he took the kids to out-of-town tournaments, they ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on the road and slept eight in a room.

Big Roy trained his son for thirteen years. Then they had a falling out. Alton Merkerson had trained Roy for twelve.

Meeting Roy Jones Sr for the first time can be a disarming experience. When he chooses, he's friendly and utterly charming. But Big Roy can also be a gruff forbidding presence. He lives by the code, "You do it my way or get the hell out of the way." He has a saying: "If you break a plate at my table, you're never coming back."

Big Roy trained Roy Jr to box from the time he was six years old. He put a lot of pressure on him, sometimes taunting him and forcing him to fight back. There are oft-told stories of Big Roy whipping his son's legs while he did roadwork and shooting Roy's dog.

"I met Roy's father once," says Jim Lampley. "And I think that Roy's relationship with his father is still at the heart of what Roy does. But at the end of the day, he's trying to prove himself to a father he'll never really please."

"My father had his way of control," Roy says simply. "It wasn't nice; and when I was in his house, I had to take it. But I vowed that, once I got out from under my father's control, I'd never be controlled by anyone again."

In the weeks leading up to Tarver-Jones III, Roy ran in the mornings, had breakfast with Merkerson, and went to his father's gym to train. Then, late in the day, he'd go to the Square Ring Gym and train with Merkerson. Big Roy attended the latter workouts as well.

"I'm still with Coach Merk," Roy explained. "My father said he wanted to come in and help out. I'm not going to deny him that because he's my father. He's the one who got me into this and he understands me better than anybody. It has made a little bit of difference, him being there, because it's brought out some of the older things that I used to do that I pretty much don't do any more. Bringing pops back to the corner has been good, but I'm still with Coach Merk."

"Roy needed me; he needed my help," Big Roy said. "I'm his father and I'm there for him and always will be. He told me that he signed to fight Tarver and that it would happen within eight weeks and that was that. He's my son. I don't see where Roy needs to do much different than what he used to do. What he needs to do is be better prepared. Roy only trained four or five good days for Glen Johnson. You just can't do that. If Roy is prepared, I don't think Tarver can beat him. If he trains hard and touches up his skills a little bit and goes in there with the right mindset, you'll see a different outcome."

That put Merkerson in a delicate situation, but he handled it with grace. "If Roy wants his father back, that's fine with me," Merkerson said. "It's working fine. Big Roy has his job, and I have my job. He does the things that he does, and I do the things that I do. We're both helping Roy."

Who would be the chief second during the fight and speak to Roy between rounds?

"That's up to Roy," Merkerson answered. "He hasn't told us that, and I don't know that it matters. I cannot fight for Roy, and Roy Senior cannot fight for Roy. Who's in charge doesn't matter. As long as it's a winning team, no one cares who's in charge."

On the night of October 1st, Roy Jones entered his dressing room moments after 9:30. He was wearing blue-jean shorts, a green-black-and-white horizontally-striped polo shirt, and white sandals. The mountainman beard was gone, replaced by a neatly-trimmed goatee and mustache.

The setting was familiar. A large room with industrial carpet, blue lockers set against white cinderblock walls, a dozen grey-metal folding chairs with blue cushions, and a mahogany-colored leather sofa. There were two small television monitors, both without audio.

Jones circled the room and touched fists with everyone. The first televised fight of the evening, Brian Minto versus Vinny Maddalone, was underway. The roar of the crowd was audible through the walls.

Roy took off his shirt. The day before, he'd looked remarkably fit, weighing in at 175 pounds. His biceps had biceps.

Larry Merchant came in for a brief HBO interview. Moments after he left, the television monitor showed a tape of Tarver entering the arena. Roy watched impassively. Then he put on a black undergarment, white socks, black-and-white Air Jordan shoes with matching tassels, and black trunks with white trim.

Andre Ward versus Glenn LaPlante (the second televised fight) began. LaPlante, a 37-year-old bellhop, had no business being in the ring with Ward, and everyone knew it. At the end of round one, Ward knocked him woozy. The fallen fighter lay flat on his back as medical personnel rushed to care for him. Jones turned away from the screen. Alton Merkerson stepped in front of the television monitor.

The cornermen for the night would be Merkerson, Roy Jones Sr, Lemuel Jones (Big Roy's best friend), and Dr. Richard Lucey. Each of them was wearing black warm-up pants, black shoes, and a black jacket with "RJ Jr" inscribed in white on the back. Merkerson was doing all the hands-on work; helping Roy get dressed, rubbing Vaseline on his body.

At 9:55, Roy Jones Sr spoke up for the first time.

"It's quiet in here."

Rhythmic clapping began

"Whose house?" Merkerson demanded.

"Jones house!" the chorus replied.

"Whose house?"

"Jones house!"

"Whose house?"

"Jones house!"

"It's all over but the shouting," Merkerson cried.

Roy stood up, walked to the center of the room, and started circling as though he were in a boxing ring.

Applause and cheers sounded.

Roy looked happy. "There's been a lot of talk for a long time," he said.

More cheers.

It was ten o'clock. Except for his hands, which had yet to be taped, Roy looked ready to fight. But the earliest he would be called to the ring was 10:55.

Nate Campbell versus "Kid Diamond" began. Jones looked at the television monitor. "Get that bullshit out of the ring," he demanded. "I got something I got to do tonight."

Again, there were cheers followed by chants and rhythmic clapping.

"Uh-huh!"

Clap-clap.

"Uh-huh!"

Clap-clap.

Roy began to shadow-box, his hands moving like lightning. "Too fast," he shouted.

"Uh-huh!"

"Too fast."

"Uh-huh!"

"Too fast."

"Uh-huh!"

"Whose house?" Merk demanded again.

"Jones house!"

"Whose house?"

"Jones house!"

"History is going to be made," Big Roy shouted in a voice that rose above the din.

At 10:10, referee Tommy Kimmons came in to give Jones his pre-fight instructions. Quiet fell. Roy sat on a chair. Kimmons waited for a signal from the HBO cameraman.

"Speed it up," Merkerson said. "We're in a flow."

Kimmons (who would do an excellent job of refereeing the fight) began, was interrupted by feedback from HBO's sound equipment, waited for another signal, started anew, and proceeded to recite what seemed to be every rule in the book. He left at 10:20, and the chanting resumed.

"Whose house?"

"Jones house!"

"What time?"

"Jones time!"

Merkerson began taping Roy's hands.

"Whose house?"

"Jones house!"

"What time?"

"Jones time!"

At 10:30, the taping was done. Roy stood up, raised his fist in the air, and bowed his head. "Come together, everyone," he said. A circle formed around him. Those who could not touch him touched those who could. There was a prayer with the "amen" at the end sounding like a battle cry.

Roy circled the room again, shadowboxing with greater intensity. "We got about thirty minutes before you see it all," he promised.

There were cheers followed by voices.

"That boy's so fast, he'll hit a ghost in the head."

"Tarver ain't been where you're gonna take him tonight."

"You done the work. The fun part is coming up now."

On the television monitor, Nate Campbell emerged victorious over Kid Diamond. Merkerson patted Roy's brow with a towel, sat him down, and gloved him up.

At 10:50, Roy circled the room one last time and embraced everyone. One wondered if he was harboring any self-doubt. The dressing room was safe. A boxing ring isn't.

Ten minutes later, Jones entered the main arena to a thunderous roar. Tarver followed to more boos than cheers. In Antonio's hometown, the sell-out crowd of 20,895 belonged to Jones. For the first time in his career, Roy was an underdog. The odds were 9-to-5 against him. When the bell rings, a fighter can't live on his past.

Round one was a feeling-out process with Tarver the aggressor. There was drama but little action. Antonio landed only three punches and Jones one less.

Then came a surprise.

"Going to the ring," Merkerson said later, "I was the guy who was supposed to be inside the ropes between rounds. And after the first round, Big Roy just pushed his way past me and got in. I didn't like it but it wasn't the time to make a fuss." For the rest of the fight, Big Roy was in the ring after every round. "We couldn't both be talking." Merkerson acknowledged. "That would be like having two men in one household. We all know that doesn't work. So I figured one of us had to be man enough to step back, and I was that guy."

In round two, Tarver remained the aggressor. Near the end of the stanza, he pinned Roy in the corner and seemed to hurt him. Jones looked to be headed toward another "KO by."

Round three saw Tarver continuing to stalk while Jones remained elusive. Round four was more of the same, but Roy got Antonio's attention with some good body shots near the end.

In round five, everything changed. For one shining interlude, Jones looked like the original Roy Jones Jr again. He scored with vicious body blows and some good shots to the head interspersed with taunting moves like one of his fighting cocks. With a minute left, Tarver seemed confused by Roy's speed, a bit shaken, and was up against the ropes. Then, instead of pressing his advantage, Jones backed off. At the end of five rounds, Roy was up 48-47 on two of the judges' scorecards and trailed by a point on the third. It seemed as though he could win, would win, the fight.

In the old days, Roy Jones had eight or nine rounds per fight like round five. This time, he had one. Round six marked the final turning point in Tarver-Jones III. Antonio came out aggressively and took control again. In the previous round, he had been hit with Roy's best, and Roy hadn't been able to break him. Once again, there was a feeling in the air that Tarver could dramatically change the flow of the fight with one punch and Jones couldn't.

Rounds seven through ten were copies of one another. Tarver moved forward behind a stiff jab, while Roy seemed reduced to gimmicks and tricks. In the past, Jones's speed was his greatest offensive weapon. Opponents didn't have time to think against him. They were always under siege. He could strike at any time. But here, Roy used his speed largely for defensive purposes. He circled the ring, stayed out of harm's way, and avoided the ropes. He wiggled his hips, stuck out his tongue, feinted, and smiled a lot. What he didn't do often enough was punch.

Jones landed only one punch (a jab) in the entire seventh round. In rounds seven through nine, he connected a total of seven times. Meanwhile, Tarver fought a patient fight. On occasion, Roy scored with blows that made Antonio think twice about being overly aggressive. But for most of the night, Jones let Tarver engage when he wanted to engage and rest when he wanted to rest. As the fight went into the late rounds, it looked as though Roy was fighting to go the distance, not to win.

With two minutes left in round eleven, Tarver staggered Jones with a big right hook. Roy was badly hurt. For the next thirty seconds, Antonio battered him from post to post. But Roy took it and came back as Tarver appeared to tire. At round's end, Antonio appeared to be in a bit of trouble.

The logical time for a fighter who wants to win to gamble is when time is running out and he's hopelessly behind on points. That's when he should try to land his most powerful punch, even at the expense of defense, when the slightest opening presents itself. After round eleven, some listeners expected to hear Roy Jones Sr. tell his son, "You've got to suck it up and dominate this motherfucker. He's tired now. Knock him out."

Nothing of that nature was said. Roy won the twelfth round on two of the three judges' cards, but it wasn't enough. The scores were 116-112, 116-112, and 117-111 in favor of Tarver. This observer had it 117-112 (scoring the first round even and giving Roy rounds four, five, and twelve). Antonio threw 620 punches to Roy's 320 and outlanded him 158 to 85.

After the fight, Tarver was jubilant. "Roy is a great fighter and Roy beat some great fighters," he said. "I've benefitted from what Roy accomplished before he fought me. I hope that, when people look at our fights, they use them to build me up and not tear Roy down. After all, if Roy Jones is everything in the ring that his fans think he is, where do you put Antonio Tarver?"

But face-to-face competition isn't the best gauge of comparative greatness in boxing. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were roughly even against one another. However, few observers place them on equal footing when ranking the greatest heavyweights of all time. Ali is usually mentioned with Joe Louis and, sometimes, Jack Johnson. Frazier, despite his accomplishments, resides on a lower level.

Meanwhile, after the bout, Jones was incongruously satisfied. "This is a new beginning for me." he said. "It's the first time I've felt good in the ring in a while. Tarver took advantage of a few things. My reflexes are slower. He wouldn't have beaten me in my prime, but he always would have given me trouble. There's a few more things I need to do. I was a little rusty but I felt like I was getting my old self back again. I liked what I saw. It became fun again. I think, if I continue to go on and get myself up, I can come back and be who I was. I hate to lose but I feel good."

Alton Merkerson left the dressing room quickly after the fight. He said nothing but the disappointment of the moment was etched on his face. "Roy was tentative," he said later. "We all know that things change as you get older, but he could have done more. He could have won the fight. Tarver was confused by Roy's speed; and to be honest with you, I think Tarver is a bit overrated. But if you've been knocked out in your last two fights and you're fighting one of the guys who did it, things go through your mind."

"I've been in combat [as a career military officer in Vietnam]," Merkerson continued. "And believe me; once you've been hit, you do things different. If Roy had been busier and fought every round like he fought the fifth, he would have won. But I'm proud of him, and he still has a lot left. The next fight, if he fights again, you'll see more of the original Roy Jones Jr."

What about Big Roy taking over in the corner?

"Big Roy was trying to help his son," Merkerson answered. "He knows Roy as well as I do. There's things I might have said to Roy during the fight that were different from what Big Roy said, but that's the way life is sometimes."

Roy Jones was once a great fighter. His history can never be taken away from him. But Roy has now lost three fights in a row and hasn't won since November 2003.

Jones lost to Tarver for a number of reasons. First, Antonio is very good. Second, Roy hadn't been in action for over a year and there was a modicum of ring rust. Third, Jones is growing older. There were times when Tarver was open for counters and Roy didn't let his hands go. Whether it was physical ("I realize I lost a step," he conceded afterward) or mental, the counters weren't there. He couldn't, or wouldn't, pull the trigger for most of the night.

That, of course, leads to the supervening issue. In the past, Jones gave the impression of a fighter who would do what he had to do to win. In his first fight against Tarver, Antonio was physically superior. Roy was physically depleted but he was the mentally tougher of the two men. He walked through fire and won.

In Tarver-Jones III, the roles were reversed. Roy was in superb physical condition but Tarver's resolve was stronger. Indeed, there were times when it looked as though Jones wasn't fighting to win but rather to meet a certain standard of his own satisfaction. It was as though he wanted to prove to himself that he could still be Roy Jones in the ring; if not for a whole fight, at least for a few rounds. And above all, he didn't want to get knocked out. The two prior knockouts had changed him. He was unwilling to walk through fire again.

In sum, Jones was in his own parallel universe with his own private agenda from the beginning to the end of Tarver-Jones III. It's hard to recall another great fighter being as satisfied as he was after a loss. The fact that Roy treated his defeat as a moral victory speaks to how down he had been before the fight. But he did what he felt he had to do, and he's at peace with himself now.

That much was clear in the dressing room after the fight. Roy was sitting on a folding metal chair. Big Roy was talking at the far end of the room.

"Roy fought that fight for himself," Big Roy said. "I could have pushed him more in the corner but it was his fight. He knows his way around the ring. He's been fighting since he was a little boy. There wasn't anything I could tell him about the judges' scorecards that he didn't already know. The victory for him is in what he did. Tarver won the fight; but in his heart, Roy won."

Then Big Roy made his way through the well-wishers to his son's side. "That one was from his soul," he told the room at large. "Roy came back from two knockouts and a year off. Can you imagine what was going through his mind in the ring? Son; you're the best fighter I've ever known. Ain't nobody else I know could have come back from those things and performed like you did tonight."

Big Roy extended his hand, and Roy grasped it.

"I'm proud of you, son."

Roy's face lit up.

"Take a picture with me, son. I want something I can look at when I think of tonight."

Roy Jones Jr stood up and Big Roy draped an arm around his shoulders. Little Roy was smiling but there was mist in his eyes.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com.



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