By Thomas Hauser
The main arena at Madison Square Garden is a nice place to make history. On November 8th, Joe Calzaghe
and Roy Jones Jr
did just that, although the results were far more gratifying to Calzaghe.
“The Battle of the Super-Powers” (as the bout was styled) marked the intersecting arcs that have defined the careers of two great fighters.
Jones was once mentioned in the same breath as Sugar Ray Robinson
and other ring immortals. When he was in his prime, his performances had the look of an action hero in a video game. Years ago, George Foreman
observed, “The better Roy is, the less people understand it.”
Jones has been fighting professionally for two decades. He won his first world championship by outclassing Bernard Hopkins
fifteen years ago. He went from blazing young prospect to champion to superstar, peaking in 2003 when he defeated WBA titlist John Ruiz to become the first former middleweight champion since Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897 to capture a piece of the heavyweight crown.
Jones dominated a lot of good fighters (e.g. James Toney and Reggie Johnson). There were highlight-reel moments that encapsuled his brilliance. He knocked out Virgil Hill with a single punch; a right hand UNDER the jab. Against Glen Kelly, standing with his back to the ropes and both hands behind his back, Roy flashed a right hand that put his opponent down for the count. In effect, he knocked Kelly out with his hands behind his back.
But like a modern-day Icarus (whose father fashioned wings from wax and feathers so they could escape exile on Crete), Jones flew too high and too close to the sun. The Ruiz fight was his greatest triumph, but it also held the seeds of his destruction.
Jones put on twenty pounds of muscle to fight in the heavyweight division. When he moved back to 175 pounds, his body was slow to readjust. He showed grit and heart in a 2003 victory over Antonio Tarver. Then he lost to Tarver, was brutally knocked out by Glen Johnson, and lost to Tarver a second time. Jones was now beatable. Worse; in his own mind, his sense of invulnerability was gone.
Then Roy got old. He could no longer do the same things in the ring that he’d done before. He was left for road kill by the boxing establishment. But as Angelo Dundee noted in explaining why Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard kept coming back long after their time, “Nothing takes the place of being the best in the world at what you do.”
Thus, Jones kept fighting. He resurrected his marketability with victories over Prince Badi Ajamu, Anthony Hanshaw, and Felix Trinidad. At age 39, reaching for the brass ring one more time, he signed to fight Calzaghe. “Continuing to fight is not by choice,” Roy said recently. “It’s in my blood; I was born to fight. My mother told me, ‘Boy, you’re getting older; you better quit fighting.’ I say, ‘I know; but I can’t quit just yet.’ I’ll fight till I can’t do it anymore.”
Calzaghe joined the ranks of professional boxers four years after Jones turned pro and was little more than a footnote during the years that Roy reigned as boxing’s pound-for-pound king. He had none of Jones’s pedigree or promise. Rather, he was an obscure fighter from Wales with a neophyte trainer (who was also his father). “Dad talks like a raving lunatic at times,” Joe says. “But he knows his stuff. We understand each other.”
At first glance, Calzaghe is an unlikely fighter. It’s hard to imagine him in a boxing ring. There’s an almost fragile quality about him. But if Joe doesn’t look like a fighter, surely he fights like one. “Joe has a heart second to none,” Enzo Calzaghe proclaims. “The harder the fight, the better he performs.”
Prior to facing Jones, Calzaghe was undefeated in 45 bouts. His signature performances were victories over Jeff Lacy, Mikkel Kessler, and Bernard Hopkins
. Each of these triumphs was more impressive than the one before. But his credentials were still questioned. Lacy was “overrated.” Kessler was “one-dimensional.” Hopkins was “an old man.”
Calzaghe was unfazed. “Either I’m doing something right in the ring or all my opponents are having off days,” he said.
There was a school, of thought that Calzaghe-Jones should have been in London or Cardiff (where 50,000 fans have turned out on a given night to watch Joe fight). But HBO (which was televising the bout on pay-per-view) wanted it in the United States and offered a three-part “24/7” series in exchange for a domestic site. That was fine with Calzaghe, who’d always wanted to fight in Madison Square Garden. Jones, who was undefeated in five Garden fights, had no objection either.
Square Ring (Jones’s promotional company) and the newly-formed Calzaghe Promotions agreed to a fifty-fifty split on all revenue and expenses. Roy suggested that the contract call for the fighters to weigh-in at 168 pounds so they could fight for Calzaghe’s 168-pound title; then drink some water, step back on the scale, and weigh-in for Calzaghe’s 175-pound Ring Magazine
belt. Such is the credibility that attaches to titles in boxing today. Ultimately, the match was made at 175 pounds.
The fondness and mutual respect that the fighters had for each other was evident during the build-up to the fight. At the September 16th kick-off press conference in New York, one could all but hear the lyrics to Mutual Admiration Society
wafting through the air.
“I’ve watched Roy Jones Jr
his whole career,” Calzaghe told the media. “I’ve been a Roy Jones fan for a long time. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get any bigger than fighting Roy Jones in Madison Square Garden.”
Jones responded in kind, saying, “Joe is an outstanding person and a great fighter.”
Indeed, at the close of the press conference when the fighters posed for the ritual staredown, the stare lasted for about a second. Then Roy’s eyes twinkled, his mouth curled upward, and Joe’s face broke into a broad smile.
But the fight was a hard sell. The press conference in New York took place one day after the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 504 points and Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. That was a bad omen. When tickets went on sale, an unusually high number of prospective buyers went online to Ticketmaster.com and looked but did not buy. The prices (US$1,500 to $150) were too high.
Also, the November 4th presidential election sucked most of the air out of media coverage of the fight. It was suggested that, instead of Michael Buffer introducing the fighters on November 8th, Joe and Roy simply go into the stands and shake hands with everyone.
Last minute ticket sales boosted the gate. The announced was a better-than-expected 14,152. But a lot of those tickets were sold at significantly discounted prices. And a source at HBO says that pay-per-view buys were “between dismal and a disaster.” One inside estimate puts the number at “less than 225,000.”
As for who would win; the first issue was age.
“Sooner or later,” Lennox Lewis has observed, “age catches up with everyone.” That’s particularly true of a fighter like Jones, whose greatness was founded upon speed and reflexes.
Prior to facing Calzaghe, Roy maintained that the only concession he’d made to age was, “I’m a little more economical in the ring now than I was before.” Then he’d added, “I’m a much smarter fighter now than I was before and I’m stronger mentally than I was before. I’m a new-born soul back at the top of my game. You saw that against Felix Trinidad.”
But Jones’s victory over Trinidad was a source of false hope. It had been a competition between two old athletes hoping to be young again. Calzaghe put it in perspective, saying, “Roy didn’t turn back the clock to beat Felix Trinidad. With all due respect, Felix Trinidad was a blown-up welterweight who was well past his prime.”
The most interesting facet of Calzaghe-Jones was that, in the past, each man had always been quicker than his opponent. This time around, Alton Merkerson (who coached Roy at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and has trained him for most of his pro career) acknowledged, “Calzaghe’s hands are as fast as Roy’s and he’ll throw a lot more punches.”
Thus, the Jones camp was relying on what it believed was Roy’s superior punching power. “Roy has more snap on his punches,” Merkerson said. “And his punches are more effective.”
“I know that the quality of my punches will overcome his quantity,” Jones added. “I would never be able to match the punch output that Joe will throw. But this is pro boxing, so I don’t have to match his output. I am definitely the stronger puncher.”
However, even assuming that was true, Calzaghe was presumed to have the better chin. Much better.
Then there was “the Bernard Hopkins
factor.” Hopkins was the one common opponent that the two men had faced, and each man beat him (although at different stages of their respective careers). Jones fought Hopkins in 1993 when Bernard was green and Roy was young. Calzaghe bested a mature Hopkins earlier this year.
“I thought he was a fool before the fight,” Calzaghe said of Hopkins when Bernard refused to give Joe credit for the victory. “Now the only difference is that the whole world knows he’s a fool. He’s self-centered. He’s got no manners and no appreciation for other people. The words ‘cheating coward’ sum him up best.”
But worse from Calzaghe’s point of view, his victory over Hopkins was diminished by the perception that Bernard was an old man. “Where is the respect?” Enzo Calzaghe raged. “It’s always, ‘Joe needs another fight to seal his legacy. Joe needs another fight to seal his legacy.’”
Then, on October 18th, Hopkins beat Kelly Pavlik over twelve one-sided rounds. That fight gave Calzaghe a huge boost. Suddenly, Bernard didn’t seem so old anymore.
“I was happy with Hopkins’s win,” Calzaghe acknowledged. “I’m not friends with him, but I was happy he beat Pavlik because it showed how big my win over him was.”
And finally, there were the intangibles.
“You find out what a man is made of by what he does when he’s down,” Jones says. “I’ve been down; and when I was, a lot of people said a lot of bad things about me. But I’m still here.”
Signing to fight Calzaghe was an act of faith and a statement of Roy’s belief in himself. But the reality of the situation was, in recent years, Jones has learned how to lose. He knows the feeling of being an undefeated fighter from past experience. Calzaghe is experiencing it now.
Thus, Calzaghe (who has never tasted defeat) confidently declared, “Roy Jones is still Roy Jones. He still has speed; he still has power. I’m not underestimating this guy. But I’m not really concerned with what Roy Jones brings to the table. I’m concerned with what Joe Calzaghe
brings to the table. If I bring my ‘A’ game, then it’s game over.”
And several days before the fight, Enzo Calzaghe declared, “Roy Jones has been stopped before. He’s a great fighter, but talk is cheap. It’s the soul searching when the moment of truth comes that means the most.”
Cus D’Amato (the legendary trainer who put a foundation under Mike Tyson) was fond of saying. “Great fighters in the twilight of their career often have one last great fight left in them.”
That might sell tickets and pay-per-view buys, but it’s rarely true. As fight night approached, Calzaghe was a 5-to-2 betting favorite. The feeling among boxing insiders was that Roy might “be Roy” for fifteen seconds a round. But Joe could give him those fifteen seconds and win the other two minutes forty-five seconds of each stanza.
Roy Jones entered his dressing room at Madison Square Garden at 9:18 on Saturday night and settled in front of a television monitor to watch the first pay-per-view fight of the evening; Dmitriy Salita vs. Derrick Campos. A few minutes later, Daniel Edouard (who’d won an eight-round decision over Alphonso Williams in an earlier preliminary bout) knocked on the door and asked if he could come in. Permission granted.
“I just wanted to meet you,” Edouard told Jones. “I’ve watched you fight ever since I started boxing. You’re an icon. It’s an honor to shake your hand.”
“Thank you, man. I appreciate it.”
Roy checked his cell phone for messages and chatted with members of his team who had gathered around him.
The room was hot. Throughout his career, Jones hasn’t warmed up before fights in the conventional way. Rather, he sits in an almost sauna-like atmosphere, warming his body and conserving energy. He rarely stretches, shadow-boxes, or hits pads.
Salita-Campos ended. Roy drank a half bottle of orange juice and took a pair of high-topped orange-and-black Adidas shoes out of his gym bag. The shoes were new. The cardboard and tissue packing that came from the manufacturer were still in them.
McGhee Wright (Jones’s business advisor) came into the room. They talked briefly. Roy went back to checking his cell phone messages; then took two sets of tassels from a clear plastic bag and tied them around the tops of his shoes. His mood was quiet, almost somber. He seemed detached from the storm ahead.
At 10:15, referee Hubert Earl came in and gave Jones the ritual pre-fight instructions. After he left, Roy turned again to the television monitor to watch Frankie Figueroa vs. Emanuel Augustus. Augustus, as is his way, was gyrating and wobbling around the ring in exaggerated fashion. Roy shook his head when Figueroa imitated his foe. “They call that a drunken master,” he told the room. “You don’t play with a guy like that because he does it better than you.”
Roy took a small container of Vaseline and greased up his own face; then put on a pair of orange trunks with black trim. Alton Merkerson taped his hands. Billy Lewis (a longtime friend from Pensacola) led the group in prayer. Merkerson gloved Roy up.
At 10:58, Jones began hitting the pads with assistant trainer Alfie Smith, throwing three, four, and five-punch combinations with fifteen seconds in between each burst.
There were cries of encouragement from around the room.
“Those will hurt . . . They don’t believe. We got to make some believers.”
Jones joined in the commentary: “Old man fighting here.”
Burst of punches.
From the chorus: “Oooooh!”
Jones: “I am an old man, but this old man is gonna bite him.”
Burst of punches. . . .
Chorus: “Yeah! It’s showtime at The Apollo.”
Jones: “Feels good to be back.”
Chorus: “That boy is fast.”
Alfie Smith flicked out his left hand and the edge of his pad caught Roy directly in the right eye.
Jones turned away and grimaced in pain.
Merkerson took a towel and wiped Roy’s face.
Then the action resumed, coming in five, six, and seven-punch combinations.
Jones: “It ain’t over. I’m bringing it back.”
Burst of punches.
Chorus: “Oooooh! The magic is back.”
Jones: “Don’t want to cool off now.”
Burst of punches.
Chorus: “It’s a Roy Jones night.”
The padwork lasted for a full half-hour.
“It’s whatever Roy feels,” Merkerson said when it was over. “He hasn’t done it like this before. He just feels like doing it now.”