By Thomas Hauser
For ten years, Roy Jones Jr. has been a dominant force in professional boxing.
Jones captured his first world title in 1993 with a unanimous-decision win over Bernard Hopkins. Since then, he has dominated the middleweight, super-middleweight, and light-heavyweight divisions. The sole blot on his record is a 1997 disqualification against Montell Griffin. In their rematch, Jones knocked out Griffin in the first round.
Words come out of Jones's mouth like rapid machine-gun fire. His punches seem just as fast. To a degree, Jones has been a victim of his own success. There hasn't been anyone between 160 and 190 pounds good enough to test him. But Jones has contributed to his own image problems to the extent that many of his opponents have been mediocre.
Prior to Jones's last title defense, against Clinton Woods, Steve Bunce of The Guardian wrote, "This is not part of a sporting tradition. It's just the latest Jones fight where he has taken the most money for the least risk. Larry Merchant of HBO observed, "Roy Jones seems to think that stiff competition means fighting only stiffs." And Thom Loverro of the Washington Times added, "Roy Jones is an artist, but he doesn't want to get any paint on himself."
Jones has long been aware of the criticism. And he has kept an eye on the heavyweight division as a source of rebuttal since the mid-1990s when he first considered fighting Evander Holyfield or Mike Tyson. In late 2002, he signed to fight WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz.
The fight was promoted by Don King as a modern-day version of David versus Goliath, although at times it was Jones who seemed like the giant. "Roy Jones is challenging destiny," King declared at the December third kick-off press conference. "He's undaunted in spirit. He has indomitable courage. He's not ordinary Roy Jones; he's Superman Roy Jones. Roy is faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound."
Jones concurred, adding, "I've accomplished all that I can at light heavyweight. People are tired of seeing races between a Porsche and a Volkswagen. They have to take me out of my weight class to even consider someone beating me."
The bout was Jones's first in Las Vegas since he defeated James Toney in 1994. The odds were 9 to 5 in his favor; and clearly, he was the attraction. But despite an endorsement deal with Nike, a best-selling rap CD, and a featured role in Matrix II, Jones chose to cast himself as unloved in the days leading up to the fight. "People want to see me get hurt, bleed, get knocked out," he complained at the final pre-fight press conference.
Why was he talking that way?
"Ego can take you down if you believe the hype," Jones explained that night. "Talking about being knocked down and bleeding keeps me in tune with reality."
One of the attractions of the fight was that boxing insiders were evenly divided on the outcome. In fact, a lot of people who considered Jones number one in the world "pound-for-pound" thought that Ruiz would inexorably wear him down. That belief rested in large measure on the logic that, in Jones's previous four bouts, he had fought Derrick Harmon, Julio Gonzalez, Glen Kelly, and Clinton Woods, while Ruiz had been up against Kirk Johnson once and Evander Holyfield three times. "John Ruiz is easy to beat when you're watching him on television in your living room," Holyfield himself opined.
"People say that Johnny has never seen anyone like Roy Jones," Ruiz's manager, Norman Stone added. "But there's nothing in Jones's background that can prepare him for Johnny. I've watched every fight that Roy Jones has fought. And you know what? He hasn't changed a bit from his amateur days. He's like Shane Mosley. Mosley got away with it until someone caught up with him. It was the same way with Naseem Hamed. Then you get a big tough guy in front of you who can take what you give, but you can't take back. I see Johnny knocking Jones out within seven rounds."
At times, Jones himself added to the doubts. "I didn’t take a lot of light heavyweights down with one punch," he acknowledged. "And this guy can take a lot more than those guys could. The average fan with any sense can’t expect me to knock this big guy out. People have to look at the realistic picture, which is a big guy pounding on me. Can I take it for twelve rounds? Can I take it if he hits me on the chin? How well will I stand up under that type of punch? This is a big ass dude. I can’t be stupid. I’ve been in fights when I was dazed. I know how it feels to be dazed, and you just deal with it. I’m a survivor, but Ruiz is a big guy. He's capable of knocking me down. I may have to recompose myself at some point."
Still, when all was said and done, Jones remained confident. "I'll do what I have to do to win," he promised. "If I need to attack, I'll attack. If I need to box, I'll box. A lot of people say that Ruiz's punching power will change my mind, but I'm going to be asking chin questions too. The surprise will come when I hit him hard. Ruiz is measuring me against Evander Holyfield and Kirk Johnson, but I ain't them."
Two days before the fight, Ruiz weighed in at 226 pounds. Jones tipped the scales at 193 wearing an estimated three pounds of clothes. That was well above his previous high fighting weight of 175 pounds. But as conditioner Mackie Shilstone, who helped Jones prepare for Ruiz, explained, "Roy came to me at 192 pounds with 8.7 percent body fat. All we did was change the composition; bring his body fat down to six percent."
"This is the first time I've worked with Mackie, but not the last," Jones said after the weigh-in. "Look at me. The little man ain't so damn little."
And Dr. Margaret Goodman, who administered the pre-fight physicals, observed, "I've never seen a fighter in better condition than Roy Jones is in now. He's got the head of a middleweight on the neck and body of a heavyweight. His body is absolutely phenomenal."
Meanwhile, tempers in the Ruiz camp were rising. Team Ruiz was worried about money. Ruiz and Stone had entered into a deal with Don King whereby their purse was largely dependent upon pay-per-view sales. Ultimately, the fight would do well, engendering 525,000 buys. But in the days leading up to the bout, the prognosis was poor and the feeling was that Jones had done little to promote the fight.
"Roy hasn't done his job," Ruiz complained just prior to the weigh-in. "I guess he has his money and couldn't care less about my end of it."
"I feel like Roy has gypped us," Stone added. "He's taken advantage of us, and that's not right."
On Thursday afternoon, the frustrations boiled over. It wasn't unexpected. Stone is a man whose passions are on the surface, and slights to his fighter bother him more than they bother Ruiz. Nothing is ever "just business" with Stone. Everything becomes personal.
Jones was aware of the situation. Before he and his entourage left his suite for the weigh-in, he gathered everyone together and said, "I don't want any fuss. Don't make physical contact with any of their guys; no touching or in your-face stuff. Stone is looking for trouble. Don't give it to him."
Nonetheless, the weigh-in turned ugly. As soon as the fighters got off the scale, Stone accused Jones's trainer, Alton Merkerson, of tampering with Jones's gloves by removing them from their shrink-wrapping without a representative of the Ruiz camp being present. In truth, Marc Ratner (executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) had done it. Regardless, one word led to another. Most of the words were Stone's. Then Stone grabbed Merkerson by the shirt; Merkerson whacked him with a pretty good right hand; and the two men topped off the weigh-in platform into the crowd.
Merkerson was no worse for wear; and initially, Stone seemed to have suffered nothing worse than a cut lip. Then Stone began complaining of chest pains, had trouble breathing, and was taken to Valley Hospital as a precaution."
"Stone shouldn't have been in Merk's face," Jones said afterward. "What happened to him was long overdue, but I didn't want to be the one to do it."
Twenty-four hours later, Stone and Merkerson came face to face again in the same ballroom at Caesars Palace when the fighters' gloves were chosen. Stone had a swollen lip and broken pinky and was a bit stiff in the ribs from events of the preceding afternoon.
"I owe you bigtime," Stone told Merkerson.
"Don't start," Merkerson countered.
"It ain't over. My lawyer is gonna get you, and I will too."
There was no response.
"Fuck you," Stone added.
Merkerson turned to Ratner. "Are we here for a glove meeting?"
"Shut up, you piece of shit," Stone snapped.
Both fighters would be wearing ten-ounce gloves. It had been agreed that Ruiz would wear size "XL" and Jones would wear "large." Each camp had chosen two pairs the previous afternoon. But now, Stone had come to the conclusion that "large" gloves were tighter and thus more likely to cut an opponent than size "XL." "Give us a pair of the Roy Jones gloves," he demanded. "We'll fight with them."
"Fine," Merkerson responded.
"I want pair number one."
"No! I want number two."
"Fuck you, faggot."
Ratner was a calming influence. Pointing to a plastic bag holding eight pairs of shrink-wrapped ten-ounce "large" gloves, he offered Stone first choice. Stone selected two pairs for his fighter. Merkerson followed suit. Then Ratner sat the two men down at opposite ends of a table with three security personnel in between and reviewed the rules that would govern the fight. "There's some hard feelings here," he said in closing. "I don't want them to get out of hand. Don't do anything that would take away from the fight."
Meanwhile, upstairs in his suite, Roy Jones was about to deviate from ritual. Usually, the night before a fight, Jones watches martial arts action films. Calling them "B flicks" would be grading them kindly.
"The movies get my mind right," Jones explained. "They help me visualize. The people in them move in a way that's very precise. They never get tired. Their breathing is controlled. Their focus stays the same. He who loses form first loses."
Jones had brought eighteen martial-arts videos to Las Vegas. However, now, on the night before the biggest fight of his professional career, he chose to watch tapes of himself as an amateur. "I want to remind myself that Roy Jones is still Roy Jones," he said. "Tomorrow night, I might be fighting like I did when I was young."
Translation: Jones was planning to set down more on his punches than he had in recent fights.
"Roy is hitting hard now," said Jones's stablemate Billy Lewis. "His punches have upgraded from an M-16 to an M-60."
But would those punches be enough to fend off Ruiz? The answer would come the following night.
Jones arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday March 1st at 6:25 pm. He was wearing a blue-and-white North Carolina basketball warm-up suit over jersey number 23 (Michael Jordan's old number).
Soon after Jones's arrival, his dressing room was jammed. Alton Merkerson was there, as were Roy's other cornermen. Two Nevada State Athletic Commission inspectors sat near a group of fighters that included Billy Lewis, Derrick Gainer, Vince Phillips, and Gabe Brown. Al Cole and David Izon had faced one other in the day's first preliminary bout. Now they sat side-by side with Izon holding an icepack to reduce the swelling around his right eye.
The room seemed as hot as a sauna. Jones opened a folding metal chair and sat down facing away from his locker. Rap music blared. Occasionally, Roy drank from a bottle of mineral water. Now and then, he intoned the lyrics of the music and glanced at preliminary fights on the television monitor in a corner of the room. Mostly, he alternated between quiet contemplation and relaxed conversation.
Tami Cotel, who manages HBO's boxing productions, entered the room and asked Jones if he'd be willing to weigh-in on an HBO scale on camera.
"Tell me why I should do it," Jones queried.
"We always do it before a big fight."
"That's not good enough."
Cotel tried again.
"We want to compare your weight with what other great champions like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano weighed when they won the heavyweight title."
Jones agreed to get on the scale. It registered 199. Subtract three pounds for clothes, and Jones weighed 196. That's more than Dempsey or Marciano ever weighed in the ring and a pound less than Joe Louis weighed when he captured the heavyweight crown.
"It's out now," Merkerson chortled. "I knew the scale at the official weigh-in was light."
Given the personalities involved, Merkerson is the ideal trainer for Jones. "Coach Merk" strategizes with his fighter, provides a disciplined framework during training camp, watches Jones's back in tight situations, and lets Roy be Roy. Each day when Jones comes to the gym, Merkerson asks him what he wants to do.
"I'm not gonna lie," Merkerson said in the dressing room as the music grew louder. "It's been a joyful ride."
At 7:38 pm, with a member of the Ruiz camp present, Merkerson began to wrap Jones's hands. As that task progressed, Jay Nady, who had been assigned to referee the fight, entered with Marc Ratner to offer the normal pre-fight instructions.
"Any questions?" Nady asked at the close of his remarks.
"We want to fight clean," Merkerson responded. I know you'll do your best, sir."
"I'll stay on top of it," Nady assured him.
When the taping was done, an inspector initialled the wraps. Then Jones put on a protective cup, brown trunks, and tasseled brown-and-white ring shoes. At 7:50 pm, he turned off the music and summoned everyone to room center. Hands joined together in prayer, asking first that no one be hurt in the fight, and only then for victory.
After the prayer, Jones turned the music on again and stood in front of his chair. Slowly, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Then he sat down and began silently mouthing the lyrics to the music.
Jones, not Merkerson or anyone else, was dictating the pace of everything. And throughout his time in the dressing room, he rarely left his chair. He never warmed up in the conventional sense; never stretched, shadow-boxed, or hit any pads.
"It's known as 'the slows'," Merkerson explained. "The theory is that muscles work better if the body is hot but, at the same time, energy should be conserved."
At eight o'clock, Ratner returned with the gloves that Jones would wear during the fight. 15 minutes later, Jones gloved up with a Ruiz cornman present.
Then Merkerson moved to the center of the room. "What time is it?" he shouted.
"Jones time," the chorus responded.
"What time is it?"
"What time is it?"
Then the Q and A changed.
"And the new !"
"Heavyweight champion of the world."
"And the new !"
"Heavyweight champion of the world."
"And the new !"
"Heavyweight champion of the world."
Merkerson turned to Jones. "Let's go to work," he told the fighter.
What followed wasn't a great fight, but it was a great performance. Roy Jones asked a lot of questions, and John Ruiz didn't have the answers.
For most of round one, the combatants fought on even terms. Then toward the end of the round, Ruiz landed a clubbing right hand and Jones fired back harder. As early as round two, Ruiz had stopped bulling forward and was fighting a more cautious fight.
Jones didn't run. Instead, he stood in the center of the ring, often directly in front of Ruiz, feinting, looking to counter, getting off first when he wanted to, setting down on his punches more than in recent fights, and controlling the flow of the action. In recent years, Jones has averaged only eight jabs per round. Against Ruiz, it was 19.
As the rounds went by, Jones-Ruiz took on the look of a Roy Jones light heavyweight title defense. Jones broke Ruiz's nose in round four. Then, with 18 seconds left in the round, he landed a lightning-bolt right to the temple that staggered Ruiz enough that Stone asked his fighter between rounds, "Are you all right?"
At that point, Ruiz looked like a beaten fighter. And for the rest of the night, he looked like a fighter who knew he was beaten. There were times when Jones fought more like a heavyweight than Ruiz did.
Stone's antics at the weigh-in and his inflammatory words the day after probably hurt his fighter in that they reinforced the view that the referee had to run a tight ship. Jay Nady did just that, warning early and often against roughhouse tactics. That upset the Ruiz camp. After round 11 when Nady came to the corner and announced "one more round," Stone shouted, "Get out of our corner. I'm gonna find out you bet on him. You're in the bag." It was a charge that Ruiz himself echoed after the fight, when he declared, "The referee should be investigated. He didn't let me fight my fight. I don't know what rules he was following. It's tough to fight two people in the ring. I guess he was following Jones's instructions."
This is known as sour grapes. Nady did an excellent job.
Overall, Jones landed fifty percent more punches than Ruiz; 134 to 89. Ruiz scored single-digit connects in 11 of the 12 rounds. This writer scored the bout 118-111, and the only reason it was that close is that Jones took off the final three rounds. People had expected an ugly fight, but Jones's performance was beautiful. It left no doubt that he's a great fighter, nor is there any doubt that right now he's number one in the world "pound for pound."
As for who Jones fights next, his options are plentiful. "Truthfully, I don't feel like I'm a heavyweight," he said at the press conference following the fight. But then Jones declared, "Show me the money! If the money is right, I'll fight another heavyweight. If it's not right, I'll go back down to light heavyweight. That's not hard to figure out."
That means Jones could step into the ring next against Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Chris Byrd, or a lesser heavyweight like Joe Mesi. He could return to 175 pounds and fight the winner of Montell Griffin versus Antonio Tarver or position himself at cruiserweight for a title fight against the survivor of Vassiliy Jirov versus James Toney.
But whatever Jones does, his style is likely to stay the same. "Why change?" he asked after dismantling Ruiz. "If I get beat, I want to get beat doing what I do well. After you beat that, then I might change something. Until someone can beat that, why should I change?"
It's a rhetorical question. No change is necessary. Roy Jones isn't the true heavyweight champion of the world. That honor belongs to Lennox Lewis. But the Roy Jones who fought John Ruiz on March 1st would have beaten most heavyweight champions in history.
Athletes today are better and better conditioned than their predecessors. Jones is far superior to heavyweight titleholders like James J. Braddock and Floyd Patterson. And no less an authority than Emanual Steward says that, if you could transport Jones back in a time-capsule, he would beat the smaller heavyweight greats like Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano.
Jones lives in a strange world. He channels his violence. Lest one forget, owning seven hundred fighting cocks and living with forty pit bulls chained to stakes outside your front door is a bit unusual. But in the ring, Roy Jones is a unique talent who deserves comparison with boxing's immortals.
Sugar Ray Robinson, for whom the phrase "pound for pound" was invented, was a classic fighter. Robinson fought conventionally. He just did it better than anyone else. Roy Jones is different. He breaks the mold and moves beyond the framework of convention. Like Muhammad Ali, Jones deconstructs the art and science of boxing and reassembles the pieces to his liking.