It seemed impossible back in 1994, when Jones was shutting out a still-svelte James Toney to win the super middleweight championship, that someone could question Roy Jones Jr. He was so lightning-fast, so incredibly quick, so physically overpowering, that everybody pretty much assumed that Jones was destined for greatness.

He plowed through the super middleweights, dominated the light heavyweights and, in 2003, he outboxed the pathetic John Ruiz to win a portion of the watered-down heavyweight title. His fights were often described as brilliant and peerless.

He destroyed brawlers like Vinny Pazienza, no-hopers like Bryant Brannon, contenders like Thomas Tate, good champions like Reggie Johnson and hall-of-famers like Toney.

And when Jones beat Ruiz in 2003, it seemed Jones would go on beating people up forever.

The best fighter on the planet? No doubt. A great fighter? Of course.

A Hall-of-Famer? Surely.

Then, when Antonio Tarver connected with a single left hook in May 2004, the Jones legend was shattered. And it seemed to make everybody question whether Jones was actually as good as he appeared in his victories over Pazienza and Brannon and Tate and Johnson — or simply a talented fighter who wavered the minute he was challenged.

So, which is it? Is Jones a great fighter, or is he not?

First, the negatives.

Jones probably could have helped himself in his prime had he gone through with big fights instead of merely talking about them. He avoided Dariusz Michalschewski as if the German was a combination of Bob Foster and Michael Spinks. When, actually, he was probably an easy victim — even in Germany.

He talked about a fight with heavyweight Buster Douglas, but then backed out of it in apparent fear. And while it's not wise to challenge a man so much bigger, you have to think, given Douglas' troubles, that Jones could have pulled that one out. And, besides, why did Jones talk so tough when he really didn't expect to go through with it?

His reluctance hurt his image.

There were also discussions about a rematch with Bernard Hopkins, a fight against Felix Trinidad, etc., etc. Instead, Hopkins and Trinidad fought each other. And Jones fought Eric Harding.

That didn't do much for his public appeal.

Jones didn't become known “Reluctant Roy” for no reason. Boxing, it seemed, was a business, not a passion.

That's the bad. Here's the good.

Jones may have been the most physically-gifted boxer in the history of the sport. He knocked out Glen Wolfe with a left to the body that sounded like a shotgun blast. He knocked out Virgil Hill with a right to the body that probably felt like a shotgun blast. He made a prime Toney look slow and ponderous and silly. He made Johnson predictable and noncompetitive.

He was simply awesome in his prime. Blazing fists, crunching power, good killer instinct (for the most part).

So was he great? Yes. Four titles in four weight classes is special regardless of the era. A middleweight beating a heavyweight is special regardless of the opponent.

Would he have beaten a Marvin Hagler or a Thomas Hearns or a Sugar Ray Leonard? Probably not. But that's not exactly an insult.

In the end, Jones was so good that he made a generation of good fighters appear not-so-good. When he loses tonight, he can soothe himself with that.

The shoeshines:

• Antonio Tarver is simply too fresh and too good for Jones. And, like every other aged fighter who inevitably meets his cruel fate, it will be sad. Let's just hope Roy doesn't get hurt in there. Jones is showing heart and courage in taking this fight, but heart and courage won't win him the fight this time. Tarver KO 7.

• Well, maybe Wladimir Klitschko does have something left. He showed guts nobody really knew he had in surviving three knockdowns by the vicious-punching Samuel Peter. Not only did he survive, he flourished down the stretch, staggering Peter with a perfect left hook in the 12th round. It was quite a display by a guy who appeared to have chocolate pudding for a chin following knockout defeats to Corrie Sanders (2003) and Lamon Brewster (2004). Some fighters even had the gall to compare him to John Tate, the late 1980s heavyweight who is the benchmark for disappointment. Okay, okay, so Klitschko is no Tate. But he's no Joe Louis, either. And he did enough holding to make a left guard red-faced. But he did what he had to do — a sign of a fighter with courage. Congrats, Wladimir. Crow is an acquired taste, and often tasty with a red Merlot.

• Peter didn't exactly embarrass himself. He proved that he could go 12 hard rounds, and that he can push it down the stretch of an exhausting fight. That already makes him more attractive than the bulk of this gross heavyweight division. And, if he ever learns how to break a death-grip applied by a desperate, hurt fighter, he may be even more of a threat. A little more experience, and he would have knocked Wladimir out.

• While junior welterweight Miguel Cotto definitely would be an underdog to undisputed champ Ricky Hatton if the two unbeatens ever squared off, there is something to be said for activity and good opposition. Cotto has tested himself against every possible style. Hatton can't necessarily say the same thing, though his June knockout of Kostya Tszyu was super-impressive. Hatton-Cotto could be the junior welterweight's answer to Ali-Frazier.