AFTER his 1947 outing against Jersey Joe Walcott, Joe Louis lamented, “I saw openings I couldn’t use. A man gets old; he don’t take advantage of those things as fast as he used to.” Louis was 33 years old at the time. When Roy Jones stepped into the ring for his second fight against Antonio Tarver, he was 35.
On May 15, 2004, Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver met in the ring at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas in a rematch of their November 8, 2003, encounter. Jones had burst upon the scene as a 19-year-old prodigy at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and been widely recognised as the best fighter in the world for a decade. Boxing’s pound-for-pound rankings were divided into two categories – Jones and everyone else. Jones at his peak gave the impression of being able to ride bareback on a tornado without wrinkling his gleaming satin trunks. He fought championship-calibre opposition and, at times, made boxing look like a game instead of the brutal competition that it is. He was one of the most gifted fighters of our time.
Boxing legacies are written in the ring. Jones won his first world title by beating Bernard Hopkins and his second by outclassing James Toney. He won belts against opponents whose weight ranged from 160 to 226 pounds and, during the course of his career, defeated 17 men who held alphabet titles. The sole blemish on his resumé at the time he fought Tarver was a loss by disqualification against Montell Griffin in 1997. Four months later, he knocked Griffin out in the first round.
Jones had his critics. Great fights are marked by a dramatic ebb and flow. And the entertainment value inherent in boxing comes in significant part from risk. Jones had developed a style that, given his extraordinary talents, was as close to risk-free as possible.
Lou DiBella (who helped build Jones as an attraction while vice president for programming at HBO Sports), declared, “Roy Jones is the most careful great fighter I’ve ever seen.” And as 2003 came to a close, Larry Merchant observed, “I don’t get a feeling of magic from Roy Jones anymore. Early in his career, I felt there was a certain magic; that he was a like a brilliant jazz musician running off riffs of punches that nobody had ever seen before. But as Roy moved up in weight, you didn’t see that as often. His fights took on a pattern of opponents trying to pressure him, and Roy using his intelligence and very fast hands to discourage them. And what upsets a lot of boxing people is, he won’t even try to close the show. That is, we’re into the 10th round of a championship fight; Roy is ahead nine rounds to one; and he’s content to play it out and walk away with a decision. In Roy’s mind, it’s, ‘Why should I give the other guy a chance? If I try to knock him out, he might hit me with a big punch.’ But it isn’t very entertaining. Roy sucks the drama out of his fights by dominating his opponents in the first six rounds and coasting in the last six. From an entertainment point of view, instead of building to a climax, Roy builds to an anti-climax. Is it because he’s so good? Yes. Is it because he’s so smart? Yes. But it turns a lot of people off.”
Jones’ detractors wouldn’t concede his greatness until he proved to their satisfaction that he had a fighting heart. In Roy’s defence, Evander Holyfield, boxing’s consummate warrior, opined, “You don’t get down on a person because he’s so talented that he hasn’t been put in a position where he has to go through fire to win.”
Then Holyfield was asked if, in his view, Jones would walk through fire if he had to. “I don’t know,” Evander responded. “It don’t matter how good a fighter is or what he has done before. Until he’s faced with that moment for the first time, you don’t know what he’ll do because he doesn’t know himself. He might think he knows, but he don’t.”
Thus the ultimate question: “On a night when Jones was brutally tested, when he was hurt, when his body ached, when he felt like he had nothing left; on that night, would Roy Jones just try to survive or would he walk through fire to win?”
Enter Antonio Tarver.
Jones and Tarver first met in the ring as 13-year-olds at the Sunshine State Games in Gainesville, Florida. It has been said that, when boxers talk about long-ago amateur fights between them, there are three versions of what happened – one from each fighter and the truth. “I beat his ass,” Jones said of their 1982 encounter. “I chased him around the ring, beating on his ass, and won all three rounds.”
“We had a very very competitive fight,” Tarver countered. “And Roy won a split decision.”
In November 2003, they met again. Tarver, by that time, was a former world amateur champion, Olympic bronze medalist, and 175-pound belt-holder. The sole blot on his pro ledger was a loss by decision to Eric Harding avenged by knockout two years later.
The general view was that Tarver was the second-best light-heavyweight in the world. But he was about to face a man who some thought was the best light-heavyweight ever. Jones had won 23 world championship fights. Tarver had fought 22 bouts in his entire pro career. Jones was a 7-to-1 betting favourite.
But as Jones-Tarver I approached, Roy found himself in a situation that he couldn’t fully control. Six months earlier, he’d gone up in weight to fight John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight belt. That night, he’d tipped the scales at 196 pounds. Now, for the first time in history, a heavyweight belt-holder was going down in weight to fight for the light-heavyweight title. That meant, 30 hours before Jones-Tarver I, Roy had to weigh in at 175 pounds.
Not even Roy Jones could defy the laws of nature.
Jones called making weight for Jones-Tarver I the hardest thing he’d done in his life. By his own admission, he’d underestimated how difficult it would be to get back down to 175 pounds. “It’s one of the worst times I ever had,” he acknowledged. “You sacrifice so much, you want to kill somebody. I had to run more, diet more. You’re hungry and thirsty half the time.”
And there was another problem. In mid-October, Jones had gone to a dentist to have a cavity filled and another tooth capped. The filling and cap had bothered him ever since. He hadn’t returned for corrective dentistry out of fear of making the situation worse. But for three weeks leading up to Jones-Tarver I, the pain interfered with his sleep.
In sum, fighting Tarver in 2003, Jones had been physically debilitated. “In the seventh round,” he later acknowledged, “I told myself, ‘This ain’t working.’ And in the eighth round, I was so tired, I told myself, ‘This dude could stop me. If he ever could stop me, it would be now.’”
Then, in round nine, Jones dug deep and unveiled a new weapon in his arsenal – his heart. And in rounds nine through 12, he showed the world that Roy Jones wasn’t just a front-runner who outclassed opponents. Roy Jones was a fighter who summoned up strength when there appeared to be none, sucked up his guts, and did what had to be done on a bad night to win against a strong, skilled opponent.
Jerry Roth scored Jones-Tarver I a draw. Glen Hamada and Dave Harris gave Roy the nod by 117-111 and 116-112 margins. That set the stage for Jones-Tarver II. Roy knew that he was in for a tough fight. He was 35 years old now, the same age as Tarver. But the two men had different skill sets. It’s axiomatic in boxing that a fighter loses speed and reflexes before he loses power. And without his preternatural speed and reflexes, Roy was no longer a spectacular fighter.
In truth, Jones likely had been slowing down before he fought Tarver the first time. There were inklings of it when he fought John Ruiz. But Ruiz was so slow that no one noticed. And Roy had put on 20 pounds of muscle for that fight, which likely contributed to slowing him down. Then, in Jones-Tarver I, the assumption in most circles was that Roy had been hampered by difficulty in making weight and complications from his oral surgery. But Alton Merkerson, Roy’s trainer, sounded a cautionary note.
“Coach Merk” had known combat throughout his life; growing up on the mean streets of Chicago, as a career military officer in Vietnam, and in boxing. He and Jones had bonded at the 1988 Olympics when Merkerson helped guide Ray Mercer, Andrew Maynard, and Kennedy McKinney to gold medals. After Jones turned pro, Merkerson was his most constant ally. “If I had to go to war,” Roy said, “I’d want Coach Merk with me first.”
“I worked with Roy in 1988 on the Olympic team,” Merkerson noted. “And I’ll tell you what I see in Roy at the age of 35. The ring generalmanship, he still has it but it’s not as sharp as it used to be. He’s just getting older. He can’t do the things that he did when he was younger. You just lose it after a time when you get older. It’s going to happen, as sure as you live and die.”
★ ★ ★
The first arrivals in Roy Jones’ dressing room on fight night – May 15, 2004 – were Merkerson, former Olympic boxing coach Kenny Adams, cutman Richard Lucey, cornerman Mario Francis, and conditioning coach Mackie Shillstone. Jones, wearing a black Air Jordan warm-up suit with red and white trim, arrived at 6.30pm with a half-dozen entourage members.
Bruce Seldon and Gerald Nobles were engaged in an inartistic heavyweight undercard fight that could be seen on a silent television monitor at the far end of the room. “I’m good tonight,” Roy announced. “Ready to go.”
He seemed relaxed and confident. “Some classic basketball games this week,” he was told. Roy’s face lit up. “A lot of them,” he said.
Larry Merchant came into the room to conduct a brief interview for HBO. That was followed by referee Jay Nady’s pre-fight instructions. By seven o’clock, two dozen people were there, many of them constant presences in Roy’s life including fighters Billy Lewis, Derrick Gainer, Lemuel Nelson, and Al Cole.
Seldon-Nobles ended and was followed by Zab Judah versus Raphael Pineda. Roy changed into his fighting clothes. Grey trunks with red and white trim; grey-and-white shoes with red, white, and grey tassels. At 7.20, John McClain (Laila’s Ali’s husband and one of Tarver’s seconds) entered the room to watch Merkerson tape Roy’s hands. Ten minutes later, rap music sounded.
“The champ is here! The champ is here! The champ is here!”
Jones pulled up a chair beneath the television monitor and watched impassively, arms folded across his chest. From time to time, he chatted with Gainer, who was standing beside him. Judah versus Pineda ended. Roy rose and walked the length of the room, back and forth several times. Then everyone gathered in a prayer circle with each person reaching forward so the outstretched arms were like the spokes of a wheel with their hands forming the hub. Al Cole led the group in prayer.
Roy circled the room and embraced everyone, one person at a time. Minutes later, Jones and Tarver were in the ring, facing one another.
“I gave you your instructions in the dressing room,” referee Jay Nady told the fighters. “Do you have any questions?”
“I got a question,” Tarver sneered. “Do you got any excuses tonight, Roy?”
The bell for round one rang, and the fight began with Jones stalking and Tarver keeping his distance. Not much happened although Roy had an 8-to-2 edge in punches landed. It was his round. In round two, Tarver began to stand his ground. Then, midway through the stanza, Jones scored with a quick righthand and followed with a hook that was more of a slap than a punch. As he did, he drew his head back a bit and raised his right hand in a defensive posture. He thought that the right side of his face was protected. It wasn’t. And Tarver landed with the precision of a gangland hit.
“We both threw at the same time,” Antonio said later. “And I turned it over shorter than he did. It was an overhand left, right on the kisser. I would have knocked anyone out with that shot. It was a perfect punch.”
Jones plummeted to the canvas, tried to rise, pitched forward onto his right shoulder, and forced himself to his feet at the count of nine through an act of incredible will. But Jay Nady waved his arms. The fight was over.
In boxing, as in the rest of life, one moment of violence can change everything.
One of Jones’s cornermen put a stool beneath him. Dr. Margaret Goodman entered the ring, knelt beside the fighter, and took his hand. “Are you okay?”
“I’m cool, baby,” Roy told her.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, it happens.”
Dr. Goodman began to probe. “Do you have a headache?”
“I don’t have a headache.”
“Are you dizzy?”
“I’m not dizzy.”
“Are you nauseous?”
“I’m not nauseous.”
From a neurological standpoint, Jones was responsive and alert. His pupils were equal and reactive. Derrick Gainer stood nearby, visibly shaken and crying. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Dr. Goodman assured him. Then she turned her attention back to Roy. “I want you to sit here,” she instructed. “A lot of people will want to talk with you. But I want you to rest for a minute. Let’s take your gloves off.” The gloves were a way of buying time. Cornerman Mario Francis removed them. As he did, Jones watched a replay of the knockout on one of the giant screens above.
“How are you doing now?” Goodman queried.
It’s a humbling experience to be knocked out by another man in front of millions of people. But one-punch knockouts happen in boxing. Ask Lennox Lewis, who was starched by Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. Ask Larry Holmes, who, in today’s world, most likely wouldn’t have been allowed to continue after being knocked woozy by Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes in fights that he ultimately won. Ask Roberto Duran, who suffered a one-punch knockout at the hands of Thomas Hearns.
There were a lot of broken hearts in Roy Jones’ dressing room after the fight. Roy sat on a chair, looking straight ahead with a pile of towels beside him. Conversations were going on around the room, but he was the focus of attention. “I had him where I wanted him,” Roy said. “I was doing what I wanted to do. I was faster than last time. I was stronger than last time. I just got caught. I guess God wanted me to go through this at least one time.”
Roy took a breath and let it out slowly. “One shot. I know exactly what happened. I threw a righthand and tried to come back with the left. He read it and fired his gun first. My right hand was up and I couldn’t see the punch coming. No excuses. He caught me with a good shot.”
Felix Trinidad, who had suffered his own bitter disappointment at the hands of Bernard Hopkins three years earlier, entered the room. There’s a fraternity among great fighters. Jones rose and the two men embraced. “I’m sorry,” Trinidad said. “You are a great fighter.”
Roy sat down again. “Nothing like this ever happened to me before. It hurts. It feels hard, but there’s no physical pain… Hey; that’s how life goes sometimes. I’ll deal with it. Take it as it comes… Shit.”
One of the entourage members sought to boost Roy’s spirits. “The referee was looking to stop the fight. He never gave you a chance.”
Alton Merkerson shook his head. “The guy that’s talking to Roy now doesn’t know shit about boxing,” Merk said. “Believe me; if something happened that was wrong, I’d be the first one to let everyone know about it. But I can’t fault the referee. He was looking after Roy’s best interests. Roy was hurt. There’s a chance he could have weathered the storm, but he was still shook when they stopped it.”
Merkerson shook his head again. “No use crying over spilt milk. Tarver’s a good fighter.”
“What do you think about the stoppage?” Jones was asked.
“When you’re in there, you want to go on,” Roy answered. “But I can’t say the referee did the wrong thing. Hey; it happened. In your heart, you always know it can happen, even though you hope it never will.”
“This doesn’t change who you are,” a friend said “You’re still every bit as good a person as you are a fighter.”
Jones smiled. “Tonight, I’m a better person than I was a fighter.”
Then Roy turned toward Derrick Gainer, who had begun crying again. “Don’t be sad,” Roy told him. “God is good.”
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.