Roy Jones Jr. could have picked up a thing or two from Butterbean. Had Jones managed to do so, not only would he be known as one the greatest boxers of any era, but also cherished as the present-day savior of the sport.
The 35-year-old light heavyweight champ admitted to me last week he's nearing the end of the proverbial road. He said he has one more fight left in him, perhaps two, after his rematch with Antonio Tarver this Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Jones said he wants to perform once more in front of his hometown fans in Pensacola, Fla. He also would like to arrange a big-money heavyweight showdown with either Mike Tyson or Vitali Klitschko, a bout that would be too big for the Florida panhandle.
But if Jones can't entice Tyson or Klitschko to dance, it's no big whoop. He'll retire happy and wealthy and carefree. He'll shoot hoops or raise his cockfighting roosters or make rap CDs.
Will anybody be devastated to see him go? Unfortunately, the void he'll leave won't be nearly as vast as it should have been.
Jones could have been as significant as Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard. Jones' skill level is that scintillating. In my opinion he should be considered among the top handful of all-time greats. But his inability and, more importantly, unwillingness to connect with the people and give them what they craved can leave us to wonder how much more entertaining his career might have been.
Butterbean did more to advance boxing's popularity than Jones ever cared to.
Jones has always been quick to use Michael Jordan analogies when referring to himself, so allow me to do the same: Jones could have been to boxing what Jordan was to basketball. Jones certainly had the requisite talent to carry his sport into he 21st century, but his personality wouldn't allow it.
Where Ali and Leonard fed off the fans and the media — they gave back as much as they received — Jones has no use for them. There has been a chip on his shoulder from the time corrupt judges cheated him out of the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.
Two weeks ago Jones had scheduled a conference call with the international media, then kept them waiting for 75 minutes before canceling it. He showed up for his makeup call last week, yet made it a point to answer most questions with as little insight as possible. And while Jordan had the commercial foresight to address the value of presentation and articulation on his way to becoming a mainstream celebrity, interviewers listening to Jones' conference call were lucky to decipher every third word. I had to wait for a transcript of the interview before I could write this column.
Jones will be remembered as conceited and uninspired. He cared less about his legacy than he did about finding the optimal convergence of the easiest possible fight and the biggest possible payday.
On a day-by-day, fight-by-fight basis he was borderline intolerable. He was nauseatingly arrogant yet dubbed “Reluctant Roy” for constantly hesitating to test the amazing gifts God bestowed upon him. There were no epic trilogies. There seemed to be more policemen, milkmen and singing mailmen on his resume than capable contenders. Fans were so disgusted by his modus operandi they were stirred to the point of staging a “Roycott” for his July 2001 pay-per-view mismatch with Julio Gonzalez.
It has been said Jones suffered from a lack of quality opposition over the course of his career. I disagree. Had he been more willing to extend himself, he would have given us plenty of matches to get excited about.
For much of the past five years fans were clamoring for Jones vs. Darius Michalczewski. It would have been a huge fight, but Jones balked. Of course, when Michalczewski was recently defeated (by the Gonzalez of “Roycott” fame), Jones was quick to state that result only proved all along Michalczewski didn't belong in the ring with him. Richard Frazier, Reggie Johnson, David Telesco and Richard Hall all were worthy, but not Michalczewski? C'mon.
Jones also could have followed the lead set forth by other great champions and granted rematches to the most notable names on his ledger. Bernard Hopkins and James Toney carped long and hard for another shot, but Jones never gave them one. Alas, when the victor refuses to honor a legitimate and lucrative rematch request, it gives the impression he must feel like he got away with something the first time and is too afraid to do it again.
In truth, Jones would have been the big favorite in either rematch or against Michalczewski or Buster Douglas, whom he had agreed to fight in the late 1990s before pulling out over fears he could get hurt.
Jones routinely played it safe. He did so mainly because of the heartbreaking debilitation suffered by close friend Gerald McClellan in a 1995 war with Nigel Benn. Be that as it may, extreme caution is not a redeemable quality in a prizefighter.
Despite all the criticism, however, Jones' career was rather impressive when digested in its entirety.
The lone blemish on his record of 49-1 with 38 knockouts was a questionable disqualification, and a loss he easily avenged. He owns victories over two men (Hopkins and Toney) currently listed among the pound-for-pound best. He won a piece of the heavyweight title (wink, wink) against John Ruiz, then dropped 18 pounds to re-establish his light heavyweight reign eight months later over Tarver.
Jones labored against Tarver in that comedown fight, but it was the only time in 15 years as a pro Jones was involved in a match that was even remotely competitive. Yes, that lends itself to Jones' cautious handpicking of opponents over the years, but it's also testament to how much better he was than anyone else, dating all the way back to a time when Milli Vanilli was considered hot.
But late in the Tarver fight, Jones found something deep within. Through that beautiful back-and-forth battle we saw that Jones possessed more than just boxing skill. For the first time we saw he had the heart of a champion.
If Jones wins again as expected Saturday night, he will have proven his previous performance was a fluke. He said he was preoccupied with thoughts of Tyson, maintaining his 199 pounds from the Ruiz fight just in case. Jones lost nine percent of his total weight in a short period of time to face Tarver instead, and Jones appeared weak.
“That night, Antonio Tarver on the scale of one to10, was a 10,” said Jones' longtime trainer, Alton Merkerson. “Roy Jones Jr., on the scale of one to 10, was a 4 1/2 or a 5, and he still managed to pull the fight off. He came into the ring with nothing. I gained a lot more respect for him through combat. I saw him go to another level I had never been exposed to before.”
The prediction here is that Jones will beat Tarver by a wide margin on the scorecards Saturday night. Jones is too talented to look sluggish against anyone twice. He's just too damn good.
Jones is special. He knows he's special.
It's a shame he never felt a responsibility to help make his sport a little more special, too.