THE main arena at Madison Square Garden is a nice place to make history. On November 8, 2008, Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones Jnr did just that, although the results were far more gratifying to Joe.
Calzaghe is soft-spoken with an almost gentle manner about him. At first glance, it’s hard to imagine him in a boxing ring. He conjures up images of a guitarist in a British rock band more than a professional fighter who was undefeated over the course of a 15-year career. But while Joe doesn’t look like a fighter, he fought like one.
Calzaghe turned pro in 1993 and won the World Boxing Organization 168-pound crown with a 12-round decision over Chris Eubank in 1997. He made 21 successful title defenses and finished his career with a 46-0 (32) mark. His first two signature victories were a 12-round shut-out of Jeff Lacy in 2006 and a dominant decision over Mikkel Kessler in 2007. But he was a footnote in pound-for-pound conversations during the years that Bernard Hopkins was a human sound bite machine and Roy Jones reigned as boxing’s pound-for-pound king. That changed when Calzaghe went up to 175 pounds to challenge Hopkins and Jones in consecutive fights.
Hopkins-Calzaghe came first. They met in the ring at the Thomas & Mack Center n Las Vegas on April 19, 2008. The promotion was marked by ill will underscored by Bernard’s ill-chosen words, “I would never let a white boy beat me.” But Calzaghe gave as good as he got in the verbal pyrotechics leading up to the fight:
“Hopkins tries to get into opponents’ heads. I’ve seen him do it in the past. But believe me, he’s barking up the wrong tree with me. It may work against a 22-year-old kid who’s in awe, but not against me.”
“I’m quite tired, really, of all his talk. And that’s all it is; talk. He’s a St. Bernard, all bark and no bite. All of his blathering sounds like he’s trying to convince himself he can beat me.”
“Look at my face. It tells you, doesn’t it? I always seem to come out right. His nose is flat across his face. So much for a great defense. He must have walked into a lamp-post to get a nose like that.”
“He thinks he can intimidate me because he’s been to prison for robbery. So what? So you burgled somebody, you brave boy. That makes you a thug, not a fighter. It makes you an idiot.”
Then came the fight. It started poorly for Calzaghe. One minute into the first stanza, Hopkins landed a short sharp right hand and Joe went down for only the third time in his career. He rose quickly (“It was a flash knockdown; I wasn’t hurt”). But it was an inauspicious start. At round’s end, Calzaghe was down by two points.
Round two was more of the same. Hopkins dictated the pace, fought hard in spurts, and got off first. The lead right was his money punch. Calzaghe was unable to penetrate Bernard’s defense.
Then the tide turned. Calzaghe’s southpaw stance, quick hands, and sense of anticipation started giving Hopkins trouble. Joe kept coming forward, making Bernard fight at a fast pace and increase his work-rate beyond a level that the 43-year-old Hopkins could sustain. Joe was physically stronger than Bernard had expected. And his chin held up.
Judge Adalaide Byrd scored the fight 114-113 for Hopkins. Chuck Giampa (116-111) and Ted Gimza (115-112) saw things more clearly, giving the victory to Calzaghe. That set the stage for Calzaghe vs. Jones.
Once upon a time, Roy Jones was mentioned in the same breath as Sugar Ray Robinson. When Jones was in his prime, his performances had the look of an action hero in a video game.
Jones had won his first world championship by outclassing Hopkins for the International Boxing Federation middleweight crown in 1993. Ten years later, 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.
But like a modern-day Icarus (whose father fashioned wings from wax and feathers so they could escape from exile on the island of 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 had put on 20 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 victory over Antonio Tarver. Then he was knocked out by Tarver and Glen Johnson and lost to Tarver a second time. Still, he kept fighting and resurrected his career with victories over Prince Badi Ajamu, Anthony Hanshaw, and Felix Trinidad. At age 39, reaching for the brass ring one more time, Jones signed to fight Calzaghe.
“The Battle of the Super-Powers” (as the bout was styled) marked the intersecting arcs that defined the careers of two great fighters. The fondness and mutual respect that they had for each other was evident from the start of the promotion. At the September 16 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 Jnr his whole career,” Calzaghe told the media. “I’ve been a Roy Jones fan for a long time.”
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. As for who would win; Jones’ greatness had been founded upon speed and reflexes. In the past, he’d always been quicker than his opponent. But so had Calzaghe. And now Roy was getting old. He could no longer do the same things in the ring that he’d done before. Indeed, Alton Merkerson (who coached Jones at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and had 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 the belief that Roy’s punching power was superior to Calzaghe’s. “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.”
In response, Calzaghe 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.”
As fight night approached, Calzaghe was a 5/2 betting favorite. The feeling among boxing insiders was that Roy might “be Roy” for 15 seconds a round. But Joe could concede those 15 seconds and win the other 2-45 of each stanza.
Roy Jones entered his dressing room at Madison Square Garden on fight night at 9:18 PM and settled in front of a television monitor to watch the first pay-per-view bout 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.
The room was hot. Throughout his career, Jones had rarely warmed up before fights in the conventional manner. Rather, he prefered sit in an almost sauna-like atmosphere, warming his body and conserving energy. He seldom stretched, shadow-boxed, or hit pads in his dressing room before a bout.
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’ 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 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) led the group in prayer. Merkerson gloved Roy up.
At 10:58, in a departure from his normal pre-fight routine, Jones moved to the centre of the room with assistant trainer Alfie Smith and began hitting the pads, throwing three, four, and five-punch combinations with 15 seconds in between each burst. There were cries of encouragement from around the room.
“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. Everything stopped.
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 the work was over. “He hasn’t done it like this before. He just feels like doing it now.”
The worlds of Roy Jones and Joe Calzaghe were hurtling toward one another, about to collide.
The fight started well for Jones. With 48 seconds left in round one, he formally introduced himself to Calzaghe with a jab followed by a quick right hand. The latter glanced off Joe’s cheek and ear onto his shoulder and put him down. Calzaghe rose and charged straight back at Roy. But when he returned to his corner at the end of the round, blood was flowing from the bridge of his nose.
“I really didn’t see the punch coming,” Joe said later of the knockdown. “Roy stunned me. But I didn’t panic. I composed myself, got back up, and started to fight again. Anyone can fall on the floor. How you recover is what matters.”
Round two was fairly even with an edge to Calzaghe (who landed far more punches although Jones’ were the sharper blows). Thereafter, Joe beat Roy at his own game. He did to Jones what Roy used to do to other fighters; dominating with speed, calculated aggression, showmanship, and flair. His stamina was remarkable. When they traded, it was Calzaghe throwing four and five punches to Jones’ one. “I always felt I was a step ahead of Roy,” he said afterward. “I knew what Roy was going to do before he did it.”
There’s sadness in watching a fighter who was great when he was young grow old. Jones was fighting off the memory of what he used to do. But he couldn’t do it anymore. His reflexes had slowed. His legs were old. As the rounds passed, the right hand lead was his most effective punch. But Calzaghe had a good chin. When the blows landed, he took them well. And he made Jones fight for three minutes of every round. Too often, Roy retreated to the ropes, raising his gloves to eye level in a defensive posture. When a fighter positions his hands as “earmuffs,” he sends a message to his opponent: “Hit me.”
The middle rounds were target practice for Calzaghe. In round seven, a sharp right hook opened an ugly gash on Jones’ left eyelid. It was the first time ever that Roy had been cut in a fight. “I couldn’t see out of my left eye,” he said later. “It was swollen up and the blood was coming in.”
“The cut looked a lot worse than it was,” Barry Jordan (chief medical officer for the New York State Athletic Commission) said after the fight. “It’s just that, for whatever reason, Roy’s corner couldn’t stop the bleeding between rounds.”
Meanwhile, Calzaghe kept coming forward, relentlessly forcing the pace, never giving Jones a moment’s rest. His quiet manner outside the ring belied the fact that he was a mean tough son-of-a-bitch in it. He didn’t just win rounds; he won them big; outworking, outboxing, and outfighting Roy.
Long before the bout was over, Jones looked like a beaten fighter. It was clear that he needed a knockout to win. But Roy hadn’t knocked out an opponent since Clinton Woods six years earlier. And Calzaghe had never lost, let alone beaten inside the distance.
The late rounds were like watching Muhammad Ali against Larry Holmes or Sugar Ray Leonard against Terry Norris. The only weapon left in Roy’s arsenal was his heart.
“I thought of stopping it,” Merkerson said later. “But in a fight of this magnitude, that’s hard to do. And Roy wanted to keep fighting.”
Each judge scored the bout 118-109, giving Calzaghe all but the first round.
It’s too bad they didn’t fight when Jones was younger.
After Calzaghe beat Bernard Hopkins, he’d told the media, “I’ve been boxing for 26 years. That’s a long time. I’d like this to be my last year. The money’s great, but what I really want is to retire without having tasted defeat. It’s easy to have one fight too many.”
Then, in the days leading up to Calzaghe-Jones, Joe had declared, “I just feel like I don’t want to fight anymore after this fight. It’s difficult to stay motivated as you get older. Physically, I feel just as good as I felt five years ago. But mentally, it’s more difficult to fight. To win my last fight in Madison Square Garden against one of the greatest fighters ever would be the perfect ending for me.”
Some observers pointed to Calzaghe-Jones as proof that Joe should continue fighting. After all; he’d looked superb. But the best argument for retirement had been right in front of Calzaghe on November 8. Roy Jones had shown him what happens when a great fighter stays on too long.
To his credit, Calzaghe did retire and stayed retired. Sadly, Jones fought on for 10 more years. During that time, Roy had 18 fights and was knocked out by Danny Green, Denis Lebedev, and Enzo Maccarinelli. On November 28, 2020, he was back in the spotlight one last time, engaging in an eight-round exhibition against Mike Tyson.
Meanwhile, as Calzaghe basked in the glow of victory at the press conference following his victory over Jones, a very different scene was unfolding in Roy’s dressing room.
Jones sat in a far corner of the room on a folding metal chair with his head down. His twin sons (Deshawn and Deandre, age 17) were fighting back tears. His youngest son (Roy Jones III, age eight) stood to the side with tears streaming down his face. Raegan Jones, her hair beaded, as cute as a four-year-old can be, moved to her father’s side and put her arms around him.
“I’m a big girl, daddy,” Raegan said. “I don’t cry.”
Roy smiled and gave her a hug.
Alton Merkerson pressed an Enswell against Roy’s swollen left eye.
“I forgot my game plan,” Roy said. “I was on track pretty good. Then, after the first round, I started loading up, trying to knock him out instead of moving in and out like we planned.”
Maybe. Or maybe Roy went for the knockout because he realised early in the fight that the best chance he had was a puncher’s chance.
Bernard Hopkins came into the room. Roy rose to greet him.
“Are you all right?” Hopkins asked.
The two men hugged.
“It’s all about respect,” Roy said. “You got yours, man.”
“You too, baby.”
There were scattered conversations around the room. “Calzaghe’s a good fighter,” Merkerson said. “He was ready and he came to fight. He has some of the abilities that Roy had. He has good upper-body movement. He’s hard to hit. He’s a good counterpuncher. He can get off first and his punches are sharp. He measures distance and speed and how fast you punch and what you do when he punches extremely well. He knows what’s coming the same way Roy used to know.”
Jones stood up, took off his shoes and robe, and sat down on the chair again. He looked much older than he’d looked several hours earlier. His face was battered and swollen with a mixture of sadness and pride in his eyes. It was the face of a fighter.