IT WAS a story of chickens and faith in Portland when Roy Jones Jnr delivered his six belts to the table and Clinton Woods arrived with a sponsor temporarily tattooed on his back.
Jones talked lyrically about his love and admiration for chickens and all other animals in the days leading to the fight; Woods admitted that he would quit boxing before having to pack away his carp fishing kit. They were both mavericks and we need more fighters like that.
They entered the ring at the Rose Garden in September of 2002 with faith in the boxing gods. The fight had been scheduled for Sheffield in May, but Jones Jnr had just a few too many demands. His request to the BBC to appear on Top of the Pops was easily met, his other demands, including a distribution deal for his music were not an option.
In Portland, Jones Jnr was in a talking mood, and it was worth listening to.
“The chickens we eat don’t have a chance,” Roy told us one afternoon in his hotel. “My chickens get to live for two years; they get treated well. Some do fight – they win and come back; some lose and don’t come back. Chickens for KFC never come back.”
Jones Jnr, we too often forget, was a bare-foot farm boy before he became the greatest fighter of his generation. A kid reared in the company of horses, chickens, fighting dogs and pigs. He loved that simple life. He told me that his hero was Tarzan. “He’s in charge of all the animals.”
In Portland, we certainly got to see and hear from both versions of Roy Jones Jnr. He was also a church boy, surrounded by his choir, his bike friends, his music friends, renowned breeders of pit bulls and a truly varied assortment of travelling folk. In Tampa, a few years earlier, for the Mike McCallum fight, I expected the bearded woman, the three-legged giant and the man with Bambi’s ears to walk him to the ring. His changing room was like an audition for a nineteenth-century freak show.
In Portland, Jones Jnr delivered his IBF, WBA, WBC, WBF, IBO and IBA belts to the fight and tips on catching big bass and reading the minds of the best fighting roosters. “I learn from them,” he told us. “A good rooster fights with his mind, not with his heart.”
That was the Jones Jnr boxing theory back then. He was pure, his one disqualification loss avenged in a round and his burden as the best boxer on the planet was clear in his head.
“You will never see me getting knocked down or beat up, having blood, sweat and guts type fights,” Jones Jnr told us all. “I will never fight that way; I’m Roy Jones Jnr not Rocky Balboa.” It was everything that we wanted to hear. And we believed it – looking back now, I see that we needed to believe it.
“I’m not going to leave boxing talking funny and needing people to hold my hand,” he continued. “Roy Jones Jnr is not about being the toughest guy – I try to prove I’m the best guy.” It was an old-fashioned trip with the last members of an ancient press pack, a delight.
We listened to his chicken and man tales, his bare-back rides in the pines by the ocean and the silent trickery necessary to catch giant bass. He set traps on both sides of the ropes. Roy Jones Jnr back then was a complex fighting man. He lugged those six belts of glamour all over the streets of Portland. They even knew about him in Powell’s City of Books.
Woods, meanwhile, arrived in Portland after a media day at a pond near his home in Yorkshire. It had not gone well; the carp had been reluctant players in the underdog’s story. He caught a 2lb fish, the beasts in the pond’s depths had laughed at him. “Tell ‘em it was at least 3lb,” Woods joked. There were 40-pounders in that dark lagoon.
In Portland, Woods played his part. “I know how good he is – but when it’s over he will know he’s been in a fight,” he promised. Woods picked up some extra cash for the tattoo. Jones Jnr was halfway to becoming a folk hero in the days leading to the fight. Jones Jnr did praise Woods at the end.
And then it was fight night and the rest, as they say, is history, and it is a very mixed history. A glance at what has happened since makes the time with Jones Jnr seem even more remarkable. The Tarzan fanatic from that September is gone.
First, Woods: He was stopped by Jones Jnr in round six. He tried every single possible thing, but Jones Jnr was brilliant on the night. Woods won the IBF light-heavyweight title two years later and made five defences. He retired in 2009 and is still chasing carp. And he’s happy.
Jones Jnr was having his 48th fight that night against Woods. He would have 29 more fights. His last official fight was just eight weeks ago. His fight after Woods was for the WBA heavyweight title, and he won it, beating John Ruiz with a masterclass in Las Vegas. And then it started to go wrong, and Jones Jnr left the script, closed down the dream and went into one of boxing’s ugliest freefalls. His words from Portland seem like the wild wishes of a small boy, a kid dreaming of the bright lights and still watching black and white Tarzan films before feeding his 1,700 chickens. Where did that kid go?