Early fame garnered or bestowed is an indelible precedent in the court of public opinion. Fame in sports may be incremental, but when notoriety comes early, the momentum of expectation realized and mediated roots deeply, creating the personal identification with an individual athlete’s every step along the road toward his – or her – sporting destiny. Antonio Tarver, prized amateur champion, came into professional boxing late – age 28 – and heralded by boxing insiders, laying the foundations of his career plying his trade at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. But Tarver was not deemed to be “the next anyone”; he was at best a talented guy on the informal short list of developing fighters who should be heard from, eventually.
Without the momentum of Olympic glory behind him, Tarver’s big punching and rangy aggressiveness sent out modest ripples of notice throughout the light-heavyweight division ruled by his boyhood rival and minted HBO glamour boy Roy Jones Jr.; but, Tarver was not being considered a true leading man. Too old to be a phenom, Tarver was sort of an intergenerational figure, having fought only 16 fights when his “contemporaries” were longstanding, multidivisional champions, Showtime or HBO contracted millionaires who had already contested fights that had defined their era. Sporting sun glasses or charcoal grey silk suits, fancies of fun or irritatingly fuming, Tarver was typically a fast talking self-promoter looking for a reporter to toss a quote to, an interested interloper at pay-per-view fight nights itching for the camera to turn his way.
When was he going to fight someone, to make a statement in the ring, those were the queries boomeranged back on the personable Floridian. Waiting and wishing began to take up most of his early career time, when he was not mowing through tepid opposition. Tarver did indeed have a facility with language, wit and willfulness aplenty. HBO became interested in Antonio Tarver during the end of the 1990s, as it was then becoming clear that the long forecasted light-heavyweight showdown between hall of famer Roy Jones Jr. and legitimate world champion Dariusz Michalczewski was never going to be made. Jones had been fighter, defending champion, promoter and contracting entity for so long his pay-per-view fights were coming under enormous critical pressure, if not from the standpoint of ethical impropriety then certainly from competitive staleness. Where was the light-heavyweight who could give Roy Jones a decent fight? Fantasy fights with Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya and a Bernard Hopkins redo faded into fiction. The question lingered as a poisoning agent for the cable giant and Jones’ own Square Ring promotional house. Though Jones had long been a stand alone attraction, everyone in boxing began to wonder when the fascination fixation of seeing Jones’ “performance” outings would wear off.
In the effort to sustain Jones’ marketability, the pound for pound king played basketball and defended his title, performed with the chorus line from Radio City Music Hall and generally dismissed overblown and mostly aged “name” fighters. Jones’ other championship responsibilities came in the form of fighting his mandatory challengers from the IBF, WBC and WBA, among other belts. Challengers like Richard Frazier came to be known as the public services brigade, given their respective day jobs keeping the streets of various American cities clean by fighting crime or taking up garbage.
With limited experience at the top level and boxing as if he had time to consider each move up the ladder, the relentless Tarver was insisting himself into the conversation of major contenders by presenting himself as an overlooked, underappreciated man in a hurry, though his biggest wins by 2000 were over Jose Luis Rivera, Rocky Gannon and Mohamed Benguesmia. In an attempt to crack the HBO lineup of boxing stars, Tarver, the 16-0 number one IBF contender, did just enough mayhem to warrant his first defining fight and claim airtime on HBO, in an IBF championship eliminator against Eric Harding. Unquestionably, Tarver had shown hitting power and at times some distinctive versatility in his developmental phase. Fight fans nevertheless wanted to see if the 6’2” Tarver could prove definitively that he indeed did have the whole package. In fact, many wondered if he was the kind of fighter who could come up with his best boxing when a shot at the title was up for the taking.
For seven and a half rounds against Harding, Tarver was as good as he’d promised to be before the fight. The fight began to turn as Harding’s withering body attack began to take the sting out of Tarver’s vaulted uppercuts and left crosses. In this battle of southpaws, the phrase “survival of the fittest” became flesh. Harding endured and prospered. Tarver absorbed and applied his power, but in the end succumb to Harding’s stoicism and consistent body attack.
Studying the results of the fight, Tarver decided that getting fully fit was the issue for his continued assault on the division and his only hope of reversing the loss to Harding. First he’d have to get past Reggie Johnson, which he did via a disciplined and punishing execution of his talents, despite the ridiculously close official scoring. Having set aside his love of the nightlife and recreational pharmaceuticals, Tarver was at last training and fighting like a world championship campaigner. The proof of his personal reinvestment flowered against Eric Harding in July, 2002 as he obliterated Harding’s relevance 43 seconds into the fifth. The deflating disappointment from the first fight was ruthlessly reversed; back on track, Tarver was veritably looming as the manifest challenger to Roy Jones. Jones, in public at least, simply dismissed the notion that Tarver was a threat to his championship standing.
Under the guidance of then advisor Charles Muniz, Tarver began a campaign of putting Jones on public notice that he was not to be ignored any longer. Muniz’s brilliantly orchestrated psychological assault on Jones brought to general notice not only Tarver’s surging personal confidence, but his distinctive flourishes with language, his street smacking barbs infuriating Jones at every turn. At the post-fight press conference, the new WBA heavyweight champion was hailed upon by Tarver Talk, shouting out to the champion, “What’s your excuse going to be tonight Roy, for not fighting me…what are you afraid of?”
Tarver’s well tailored presence and torrential vitriol finally cornered the champion, finally had everyone talking of Tarver fighting Jones. Three fights later and Tarver’s 2-1 with one knockout recorded. In the estimation of some, the shuddering May 2004 second round obliteration of Roy Jones set Tarver atop his generation of light-heavyweights. Rationalizations aside, Tarver was able to keep even with Jones, in their first encounter and dominate him in the subsequent two showdowns. Many, though, will never seed to Tarver the distinction of being the dominant fighter. Styles may make fights, but often the stardom of one fighter mitigates the facts of displayed reality. What’s difficult for Tarver to swallow is that beating Roy Jones in the ring has not translated beyond respect into admiration and meritorious regard.
Before their third fight on October 1st in Tampa, Florida, hometown boy Tarver gave his version of the truth as he saw it and as he saw it about to unfold:
“It’s a brutal sport and I’ll be the first one to admit that. I’m a hard puncher and it may not look that way because I do things in a subtle way, but I get the job done. Roy Jones knows he has his hands full and I’m not sure if he can pull back the hands of time because that’s the only thing that’s going to save him. And I’m not even sure that would save him. I’m ready to get the respect that I deserve and the only way to do that is finish it with an exclamation point.
“Let me pose a question to the media…When will you be convinced Roy Jones is not better than me and never was? When I knock him out it will be a feather in my cap. That’s that exclamation point that I am looking for. Roy Jones may be everything that everyone says he is; he’s just not better than me.”
It was as if Frazier had won in Manila. Tarver’s a smart man. He understands the afterlife of fame – the radioactive fallout that having been, as he calls Jones, an icon – has not only on the vanquished but the victor. For all of his mastery of Jones, his demolition of RJ the untouchable, Tarver has had to endure being the supporting actor in the dramatic closing scenes in the real life biopic on the life and times of Roy Jones. And for a proud and manifestly interesting man such as Antonio Tarver, that’s a living nightmare. Even in vanquishing the threat of Roy Jones in a boxing ring Tarver has to endure the legacy effect of Jones, deposed ring wonder-boy and former unchallenged ring virtuoso. That’s why Tarver has been so ready to compare himself with the middleweight legend Marvin Hagler, “who was never truly appreciated by you all in the media until he retired.”
The king of the light-heavyweights internally understands that the dualities of boxing mandate the choosing of a favourite, a signifying singularity. But he doesn’t have to like it. He doesn’t have to sit back and let unbridled partisanship paper over his well earned rewards. With the quest to take down Roy Jones accomplished, now Tarver realigns his career trajectory; his definitive goals must forever come from internal need. It’s not precisely clear what goals exist in the form of challenges at light-heavyweight, nor is there an immediately recognizable scenario at heavyweight into which Tarver might delve in order to reasonably exploit. For now he waits for events to unfold, the unforeseen to fall into his path.
If the body truly follows the unyielding dictations of the will, then perhaps Tarver can make of his remaining years in boxing something like a late, late Renaissance. The Floridian, under the technical tutelage of trainer Buddy McGirt, refers to himself as “one of the new crop of dominant fighters out there.” Yes, nearing 37, Tarver casts himself in the part of superstar, leading man, future hall of famer and next big thing in championship boxing. Signaling a new generation is so very American, so very like the political reflex of those in public life. Without a check on his ego, Tarver the talker shouts out to those who try to ignore the fact of his continuing presence as the spirit of a new age.
It doesn’t matter if his projection of himself is mainly hype; its fun to believe in a self-made man of means like Antonio Tarver. He doesn’t intend to take no for an answer; he doesn’t intend to let the moment pass, the high life fade from view. And it’s in that determinism to realize himself as the champion he always knew he had to become, the sole survivor of that game of domination he was compelled to live or die creating with Roy Jones, he finds the meanings to sustain the rest of his professional career.
For what ever comes next, Antonio Tarver has the supreme satisfaction that he realized the fulfillment of himself as a professional and as a champion and as a man. Each time he suffered a setback he found the avenues to renew and reinvest. Obsession can divest or ensnare the fixated subject. For Antonio Tarver, he’s just at the beginning of coming to terms with all the things that never entered into the logistics of necessity which make for winning boxing matches. All during his latest training camp he and his team stressed, “no excuses,” “keep the energy up,” “it’s all about intensity and focus.” Now Tarver can play the winner, acknowledge with grace the vicissitudes that in the end formed the opportunity for his liberation. The mountain he had to climb was the moral victory over himself all along.
What remains of his boxing career is merely the final tabulation of wins and losses on his official record. Antonio Tarver has already fought the good fight, has already made it all happen in his own image.