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When Roy Jones was the best fighter in the world, and almost the best ever

Roy Jones
Thomas Hauser was in the Roy Jones' dressing room before the fight that threatened to knock Sugar Ray Robinson off his perch

ROY JONES fought too long. He was knocked out on the downside of his career by Enzo Maccarinelli, Denis Lebedev, and Danny Green and struggled against club fighters who wouldn’t have made the cut as sparring partners when he was young. That’s sad for a lot of reasons, one of which is that some people have forgotten how good Jones was in his prime. There was a time when you could have asked 10 fighters, “Who’s the best fighter in the world?” And without hesitation, every one of them would have answered “Roy Jones.”

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. Jones was different. He moved beyond the framework of convention. Like Muhammad Ali, he deconstructed the art and science of boxing and reassembled the pieces to his liking.

The young Roy Jones beat Bernard Hopkins and James Toney. In a highlight reel moment that encapsulated his brilliance, he knocked out Virgil Hill with a single punch – a right hand UNDER the jab. Against Glen Kelly, standing with his back to the ropes and both hands behind his back, Jones flashed a right hand that put Kelly down for the count. Figuratively speaking, he knocked Glen out with his hands behind his back. The sole blemish on Jones’s record was a 1997 loss by disqualification to Montell Griffin. Four months later, he KO’d Griffin in the first round.

“Boxing isn’t a game,” Jones said. “It’s a deadly violent sport. But God put fighting in me. It’s what I was born to do.”

The high point of Jones’s career came on March 1, 2003, at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. On that night, 14 years after beginning his journey through the professional ranks as a light-middleweight, he defeated John Ruiz to claim the WBA heavyweight crown.

Prior to Jones-Ruiz, Jones was in danger of becoming a victim of his own success. Enabled by a sweetheart deal with HBO, he’d stepped away from the toughest available competition to fight lesser opponents. Writing about Roy’s 175-pound title defense against Clinton Woods, Steve Bunce of The Guardian had declared, “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.” Thom Loverro of the Washington Times added, “Roy Jones is an artist, but he doesn’t want to get any paint on himself.”

Jones was aware of the criticism. In response, he recorded a rap song entitled Y’all Musta Forgot:

They got the nerve to say I ain’t fight nobody

I just make ’em look like nobody

Y’all musta forgot!

Let’s look back at my whole career

Cuz y’all musta forgot!

The “best pound for pound” is mine

Hit Percy Harris with four hooks at one time

Y’all musta forgot!

When I beat Bernard Hopkins and won the IBF

The right was hurt, beat him with the left

Y’all musta forgot!

You remember the left hook that James Toney got

Sucka move that I stole from a gamecock

Y’all musta forgot!

Will there be another Roy Jones?

Probably not

Topped Virgil Hill with a body shot

See y’all musta forgot!

But rapping wouldn’t silence the critics. So Jones took an audacious step. He had eyed the heavyweight division since the mid-1990s when he considered fighting Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. Now, with 47 victories and the one loss by disqualification on his ring ledger, he moved up to heavyweight to challenge John Ruiz for the WBA title.

The fight was promoted by Don King as a modern-day version of David versus Goliath.

“Roy Jones is challenging destiny,” King declared at the 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.”

Roy Jones
Al Bello/Allsport

The odds were 9/5 in Jones’s favour, but boxing insiders were divided on the outcome. Many people who considered Roy 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 said.

“I don’t think much of John Ruiz as a fighter,” Lennox Lewis opined. “But there’s one thing I’ll say for him. You should never underestimate someone who goes 36 rounds with Evander Holyfield.”

“My main thing will be to work the body,” Ruiz noted confidently. “I don’t want to go head-hunting and miss all over the place. My strength is my strength. I’m a lot stronger than anyone Jones has fought, and it will be a new experience for him to be in the ring with someone like me. His flurries and pitty-pat punching won’t work at heavyweight.”

‘Boxing isn’t a game. It’s a deadly violent sport. But God put fighting in me. It’s what I was born to do’

Roy Jones

But Jones was 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.”

“Roy will see Ruiz’s punches coming,” Alton Merkerson (Jones’s trainer) added. “But Ruiz won’t see Roy’s punches coming. And when Ruiz watches the tape after the fight, he’ll realise that he was hit with things that no one ever threw at him before.”

Ruiz weighed in for the bout at 226 pounds. Jones tipped the scales at 193 wearing an estimated three pounds of clothes. That was well above his previous high of 175 pounds. But conditioner Mackie Shilstone who helped Jones prepare for Ruiz explained, “Roy came to me at 192 pounds with 8.7 per cent body fat. All we did was change the composition; bring his body fat down to six percent.”

“Look at me,” Jones proclaimed. “The little man ain’t so damn little.”

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.”

One night before the fight, Jones deviated from ritual. Almost always, he watched martial arts action films in his hotel suite to prepare mentally for the battle to come.

“The movies get my mind right,” he explained. “They help me visualise. 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 18 martial arts videos to Las Vegas. But now, on the night before the biggest fight of his professional career, he watched tapes of himself as an amateur instead.

“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.

On fight night, Jones arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center 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 his arrival, his dressing room was jammed.

Alton Merkerson and Roy’s other cornermen were there. Two Nevada State Athletic Commission inspectors sat near a group of fighters that included Derrick Gainer, Vince Phillips, Billy Lewis, and Gabe Brown. Al Cole and David Izon had fought each other in the evening’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.

HBO Boxing production coordinator Tami Cotel entered the room and asked Roy if he’d be willing to weigh-in on an HBO scale on camera.

“Tell me why I should do it,” Jones countered.

“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.”

That appealed to Jones, who agreed to get on the scale.

One hundred and ninety-nine pounds. Subtract three pounds for clothes, and he weighed 196. That was 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.”

At 7:38 pm, with a member of the Ruiz camp present, Merkerson began wrapping Jones’s hands. As that task progressed, Jay Nady, who had been assigned to referee the fight, entered with Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director 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 initialed 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 centre. Hands joined together in prayer, asking first that no one be hurt in the fight and only then for victory.

Roy Jones
Holly Stein/ALLSPORT

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 silently mouthed the lyrics to the music.

Jones, not Merkerson or anyone else, was dictating the pace of everything. 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. Fifteen minutes later, Roy gloved up with a Ruiz cornerman 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?”

“Jones time.”

“What time is it?”

“Jones time.”

Then the Q and A changed.

“Whose house?”

“Jones house.”

“Whose house?”

“Jones house.”

“Whose house?”

“Jones house.”

“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 was no longer bulling forward as planned 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, Roy had 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 defence. He broke Ruiz’s nose in round four. Then, with eighteen seconds left in the round, he landed a lightning bolt right to the temple that staggered Ruiz.

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.

The scoring of the judges was anti-climactic: 118-110, 117-111, 116-112. The only reason it was that close was that Jones took the final three rounds off. People had expected an ugly fight, but Roy’s performance was beautiful. It left no doubt that he was a great fighter. Lennox Lewis, who held the WBC and IBF belts, was still the No.1 heavyweight in the world. But clearly, ‘pound for pound’ belonged to Jones.

That was reaffirmed after Jones-Ruiz when no less an authority than Emanuel Steward declared that Jones was far superior to many heavyweight champions of the past. Then Steward went further, saying that, if Jones could be transported back in a time-capsule, he would beat the smaller heavyweight greats like Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano.

Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: 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. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.

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