All sports enshrine or damn its participants far too soon. Boxing is no different. A fighter often finds his career facing definition in some blockbuster extravaganza. His past accomplishments are meaningless. His place in history comes down to this fight that you must pay $49.95 to see. The intensity gives the event melodrama, but in the end borders on the ridiculous.
At 36, was Roy Jones, Jr.’s place in history going to be determined by his third bout with Antonio Tarver? Defining a fighter’s legacy by three fights past the age of 34 is ludicrous. There are maybe a handful of fighters whose careers could hold up under such scrutiny.
Before he turned 35, Jones’ career record was 49-1, his only loss coming from a goofy disqualification to Montell Griffin. He won titles at middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight. His place in Canastota is, without a doubt, secure.
The night of that decision loss to Tarver, I found myself falling into the same trap, questioning the legacy of Roy Jones, Jr.; wondering if he really lived up to the years of hype and titles. The fact that he finished his third bout with Antonio Tarver did not surprise me. I had predicted Jones to win a unanimous decision. I just did not expect him to keep his distance for 10 of 12 rounds. Despite being down on all judges’ scorecards, Jones continued to backpedal out of harm’s way.
The fact that he dallied makes it easy to want to tear him down and belittle his accomplishments. There were times of a certainty and excitement in his craft, but he was never a round-by-round crowd-pleaser.
Jones set a high bar for himself, perhaps too high. The devastating combination of speed and power vaulted him to the top of pound-for pound lists for years. When he beat John Ruiz to become the first middleweight in 100 years to win the heavyweight title in March of 2003, there was nowhere to go but down.
Boxing writers and fans may have been partly to blame as well. His perfect round against Vinny Pazienza, playing that basketball game the same day he TKO’d Eric Lucas, the bone-crunching body shot he put on Virgil Hill, and that hands-behind-the-back knockout of Glenn Kelly made a lot of us think he was superhuman. For those suffering any doubt, read just about any column on Jones before November 2003 and one can see the never-ending praise.
Those accomplishments deserve all the credit they have received. The titles speak for themselves, and during his run, he convincingly beat Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Hill, and almost every major light heavyweight contender in his division.
Nevertheless, Jones will not be remembered as an all-time great. It will have very little to do with his losses to Tarver or Glen Johnson. Those losses hurt, but even if Jones had retired after his win over Ruiz, his status as an all-time great would be very shaky.
It is not because he never faced off against an all-time great opponent to prove his mettle, or because he never etched himself in our memories with a classic. No fighter can be blamed because the divisions he fought in were going through a weak period. Jones will not be an all-time great because he did not actually take his talent as far as he possibly could.
He certainly had the skill to be an all-timer, but in the end, his main concern was minimal risk. That pecking style of winning fights in the ring saved brain cells, but garnered very little interest.
The most blatant risk avoidance led to his downfall. After beating Ruiz to win the WBA heavyweight title, Jones tried set up a mega-fight with an aged Evander Holyfield or Mike Tyson. Neither materialized. So instead of facing still-tough opponents like Chris Byrd or Hasim Rahman in less lucrative deals, he vacated that title to face Tarver.
To a rational man, the move makes sense, but since when is getting in a ring to trade punches rational? If light heavyweight great Archie Moore had won either of his fights with Rocky Marciano or Floyd Patterson in the 1950s, would he have vacated his heavyweight belt? No one will ever know, but I can take a wild guess.
Detractors would say the losses to Tarver and Johnson show Jones could not compete at heavyweight anyway. However, if Jones’ mindset was that of an all-time great, he would have passed on Tarver, and fought the best heavyweight available.
His career will be laden with “what ifs?” When he defeated Hopkins, both were young fighters. What if Jones faced the “Executioner” when both were more developed boxers? Or Toney, for that matter?
The last fight with Tarver is another shining example of could have been. Jones was, is, and probably always will be faster than the “Magic Man.” It was apparent with his shoe-slap punch in the fifth round, and throughout most of the fight. If he had chosen to go after Tarver, he could very well have knocked Tarver out.
But Jones chose safety first, even when it was apparent that he needed a KO to win the bout. After the fight, he told HBO’s Larry Merchant, “I was satisfied with my performance but I do realize that I lost the fight. I’m not the kind of fighter like Glenn Johnson that can brawl, and that’s the way you have to fight to beat Tarver.”
It was apparent when Jones/Tarver III ended, that Roy had accomplished what he set out to do. He proved to himself that he could go the distance with a fighter who once knocked him silly and that he could still be competitive. During his training for Tarver, Jones reconciled with his estranged father. On a human level, that is not too shabby.
In the end, Jones’ first worry was Jones, not his legacy or standing among the all-time greats. "I don't care,” he told the Guardian Newspapers in 2004. “I don't care about no boxing legacy. I don't care where they put me on the list of all-time greats – let them put me at the bottom."
We just never knew how much he meant that statement until he was truly tested.