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Roy Jones – a fighter in a million

Roy Jones
Action Images/REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Two years on from his last fight, Roy Jones Jr looks back on what made him so special

ROY JONES JNR was at ease before his retirement bout against Scott Sigmon in February 2018. That wasn’t a surprise, considering that a journeyman like Sigmon probably wouldn’t have lasted three rounds with a prime Jones. This wasn’t a prime Jones, who, at 49, was about to take the walk to the ring for the 75th time as a professional. But in his mind, the former pound-for-pound king was as good as he’s ever been. That never got affected by the combinations thrown by Father Time.

Yet even Jones knew that he couldn’t fight forever, and there was no better time than now to walk off into the sunset with his faculties intact and a winning streak that turned from three to four when he scored a clear-cut 10-round decision win over Sigmon in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida.

“You get to a point where your body starts to fail you and you’re having a hard time,” Jones admitted. “Then it’s time to start saying, ‘Okay, now may be time to give it up.’ When your body starts not really holding up to the whole training camp, it makes you start looking at it a little bit different. Because if your body holds up, then you’re good. When your body starts breaking down, then you ain’t good.”

It was a rare dose of reality from a man who made a career out of doing extraordinary things that appeared to come from a video game and not a boxing gym, even if recent years had seen him far removed from those days. And if Jones couldn’t be Jones, he wasn’t going to try.

“Well, y’all don’t appreciate me, so I don’t see me sticking around if I’m not appreciated,” he deadpanned when asked why this was the right time for retirement. It was a telling statement because he’s right when it comes to his place in the boxing world from 2009 to the present. During those final years in the ring, Jones could only muster brief flashes of his former greatness, giving a younger generation a false read on who he really was as a fighter. But recently, social media and YouTube have shown that generation the “real” Jones, leading to a greater appreciation of the future Hall of Famer.

“I see that all the time,” he said. “It’s like they forget until they look at it, and when they look at it, they’re like, ‘Whoa, who was he?’ And it’s like the song says, ‘Y’all musta forgot.’”

Jones laughs, always promoting. Yet while Y’all Musta Forgot was the music world’s first introduction to the Floridian, it was the song Can’t Be Touched off 2004’s Body Head Bangerz: Volume One album that truly described Jones at his best.

Can’t be touched
Can’t be stopped
Can’t be moved
Can’t be rocked
Can’t be shook

The lyrics captured the first 15 years of Jones’ pro career perfectly, yet ironically, it was in 2004 that the wheels came off.

He suffered the first two legitimate losses of his career, getting knocked out by Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson. He would still go on to post a respectable 17-6 slate that included wins over Felix Trinidad, Jeff Lacy, Anthony Hanshaw and Omar Sheika, but for all intents and purposes, Jones’ last big win was in March 2003 against John Ruiz.

And what a win it was.

Already a world champion at middleweight, super-middleweight and light-heavyweight, the 34-year-old Jones had a Hall of Fame resume that included the names Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Vinny Pazienza, Mike McCallum, Montell Griffin, Virgil Hill and Reggie Johnson. There were names missing from that list, most notably European standouts Dariusz Michalczewski, Nigel Benn and Steve Collins, but Jones was chasing bigger game, literally.

Roy Jones

In 2003, he made a leap only pulled off successfully once before by Bob Fitzsimmons, as he faced off with Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title.

“I knew it was going to be a tough thing and I knew there was a reason nobody had ever did it in over 106 years,” he recalls. “And only one guy had ever done it at all.”

Jones became the second, winning a clear-cut 116-112, 118-110, 117-111 decision over Ruiz. Four divisional titles, a stellar 48-1 record, and a place among the immortals in boxing history.

Jones would never defend his heavyweight title. Instead, he moved back down to 175 pounds just eight months later to face Tarver for the first time.

Jones won that bout via majority decision but he didn’t look the same. In the rematch, Tarver knocked him out. I ask Jones if he thinks that the move to heavyweight took a couple years off his prime years.

“Nah, I don’t think it shaved a couple years off,” he bristled. “I’m cool. I enjoy myself and everything I did I enjoyed, so no I don’t.”

I counter, telling him that I meant him putting on nearly 20 pounds of muscle to fight Ruiz and then shedding it in less than a year to go back to light-heavyweight. His mood lightens.

“I should have taken a two-year break after that,” he said, “That did shave a couple years off because that was very drastic and it’s why nobody ever does that because of the taxing it puts on the body to come back down in weight after you go up there. That’s why it can’t happen. If you think about it, look at Chris Byrd. Chris Byrd went down and fought one fight at light-heavyweight and was knocked out. It shows you how taxing that is. There’s a reason why guys don’t do that. It takes a special kind of guy to be able to do that and maintain his mental stability, keep your body composed and go 12 rounds.”

Jones was a special kind of guy. Even today, his pride in his work and what he accomplished is evident. But for an opinionated man, he is indecisive when asked what fight showed Roy Jones Jnr at his best.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to say, very hard to say. Toney, Ruiz, there are a lot of times. Even if you look at the Jeff Lacy fight [2009], I had some pretty damn fast hands in that fight, so I don’t know.”

I offer my opinion that Jones was never better than on the night he obliterated Griffin in less than a round in March 1997. The bout was a rematch of a bout less than five months earlier that saw Jones issued the first loss of his career when he was disqualified for hitting Griffin when he was on a knee.

The defeat ate at Jones, and in Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut, he took out all his anger and frustration on his fellow Olympian. This wasn’t Jones boxing, ducking and dipping and putting on a clinic of the sweet science. This was mean RJ, and that was a scary guy.

“That was true, but you only saw one round, so we don’t know what real Roy Jones was like that night,” he laughs. “But you’re right, we did see an RJ that we never had seen before.”

Why didn’t we see more of that version of Jones? “Because I’m not that kind of guy,” he said. “I don’t like to put that kind of guy to work. That kind of guy would be trying to hurt and kill people. And that’s not what I really want to do.”

So what was the goal in the rematch with Griffin? “The goal then was to kill him if necessary.”

It’s a scary prospect, especially when a fighter knows he has that kind of demon inside him that could be unleashed at any time. Jones wasn’t in the sport for such violence; his goals were sportsmanlike to the core.

“Just to outbox the guy,” he said. “All I wanted to do was do what I had to do to outbox people. And you couldn’t beat me if I was on my game. I was too slick, too fast, too smart. I really don’t have to get that serious and mark up a dude to win a fight. It don’t take that much because I love what I do and it’s very easy for me to do it.”

Maybe it was because he made it look so easy that for a long time he didn’t get his just due as one of the all-time greats. That opinion is starting to turn in his direction, though.

“In the long run, when people try to really look at it and see, they’ll understand,” said Jones, who started to get that respect when he was in fights where he was no longer the hammer, but the nail. And as he kept getting up and kept making the walk up those four steps into the ring, we saw something that we never had to see when he was dominating everyone in his path.

Roy Jones

“The thing about it is, when you beat people so bad and you go so far with that, you don’t get credit for your heart because you never see it,” Jones said. “When you’re that good, you’re only half as good as people think you are because they don’t know how you’ll react when you deal with adversity. And that’s what separates the boys from the men because nobody wants a horse they’ve never seen come from behind. They want to see a horse that won the race, but not because he was in front the whole time; they want a horse that they can see is good enough to come from behind. They want to know that if he ever faces adversity, that he’s still good. Those are two different horses.”

In 2011, days before he broke a three-fight losing streak with a win over Max Alexander, I asked Jones why he still continued to fight. In the course of this debate, I mentioned the Hall of Fame and how he could walk away then and be in Canastota with a plaque five years later. He took offence to such a suggestion.

“What does being a first ballot Hall of Famer do for me when I still want to fight?” he said. “You think I’m gonna stop like that because of something five years down the line? I might be dead in five years, who knows. You think I’m gonna save my life for five years down the line? Who knows what the hell might happen to me in five years. I still got it, I still feel good, so am I gonna stop now so I can be safe and careful and hope that I don’t mess up my chances? What if I better my chances of going in the first time? So there are two sides to that coin and I understand that. What if I do go capture the cruiserweight title and have the greatest comeback in history?”

Jones didn’t win the world cruiserweight title (spurious WBU and WBF versions notwithstanding) and he didn’t have the greatest comeback in history. He did end his career where it started 29 years earlier in the Pensacola Civic Center, and he did walk away with a win, his 66th against nine losses. So what about the Hall of Fame in five years?

“You know I ain’t gonna enjoy that,” he laughs. “I don’t want to be in no Hall of Fame. That’s not my thing. I ain’t boxing for no Hall of Fame. I’m good but I ain’t really trippin’ about that. They won’t let Pete Rose in the Baseball Hall of Fame, so what’s that tell you about the Hall of Fame?”
I let him know that he’s still getting my vote.

“I appreciate it. I just ain’t really looking forward to it.”

That’s because a Hall of Fame induction means that for five years, Roy Jones Jnr didn’t do what he still loves so much. “The walk to the ring, getting ready to give people what they asked for, which is entertainment,” he said, already knowing what he’ll miss the most. Fighting professionally for nearly 30 years is a long time, though, even for the great ones.

“I didn’t think it would last quite this long, but I also didn’t think I’d ever fight for a heavyweight title,” he laughs, but at least he got to do it his way.

“I love doing it on my own terms,” Jones said of retirement. “That’s the best thing about it. Anytime you can do that, that makes it better for everything and everybody.”

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