No one in boxing in the last 25 years has dominated the ring in the fashion of Roy Jones Jr.
The winner of 23 title fights in four weight divisions, his fights were not simply boxing matches. They were in fact canvases on which the master performed his art.
His public stood aghast at his unique ability to seem as if he were the only fighter in the ring actually fighting. No one came close to his speed, his style, his total mastery of every second of every round.
In his first 49 fights that mastery was complete. Except for a rule infraction against a surely beaten Montell Griffin, he was essentially perfect. To prove his point he battered the very capable Griffin in their rematch capturing a resounding first round knockout. He left no doubt.
He beat the likes of Bernard Hopkins and James Toney, fighters who would later be called great themselves. Virgil Hill and Reggie Johnson were both more than respectable combatants. Hill in fact was a winner of 23 title fights during his career.
Unfortunately for Roy a number of his opponents were so completely dominated that they were viewed as incompetents who did not deserve top rankings.
But, in retrospect most can now agree that it was primarily because he was so far superior to the other fighters in the division that it only seemed as though this was the case.
Consider the list of Roy’s opponents who went on to gain world title fights after losing to Roy; Eric Lucas (super middleweight); Julio Gonzalez (light-heavyweight), Clinton Woods (light-heavyweight); Virgil Hill (cruiserweight); James Toney (cruiserweight); Bernard Hopkins (middleweight); Thulane Malinga (super middleweight); and Jorge Fernando Castro (middleweight). And, that includes only the better-known alphabet titles.
Even John Ruiz, who, after losing his WBA heavyweight belt, would go on to recapture his title after Roy vacated.
Roy’s reign was not without its controversies, however. It was apparent that Roy was in no hurry to dispel the notion by his detractors that he chose to sidestep certain adversaries who may have been in his universe of ability.
During his tenure as light-heavyweight champion Germany’s Dariusz Michalczewski himself amassed an eye-popping 48-0 record including a claim to the world title gained from his win over Virgil Hill that garnered him the IBF and WBA belts in addition to his WBO strap. The win also gave him a claim to the lineal championship in the eyes of some boxing purists.
He was later relinquished the IBF and WBA titles and continued on defending his WBO title. The important fact, however, is that, for reasons known only to the two fighters, they never met.
While most observers would have picked Jones to win had the two met, the situation led some of his critics to question his commitment to being a true champion.
Jones virtually destroyed the idea that he was running from danger with his clear victory over John Ruiz. Although bulked up to 193 pounds, Roy still spotted the defending titlist 32 pounds for their showdown.
Ruiz fought his entire career in the division and had beaten the likes of Evander Holyfield. He was a favorite in some quarters to not only beat Roy, but to put him in the third row of ringside seating.
Roy made the fight seem as effortless as he had many of his light-heavyweight defenses. He snapped punches to Ruiz’s head. He made the bigger man miss with great frequency. His unorthodox, in fact one-of-a-kind, style left Ruiz without answers and without his title. As the final bell rang, Roy was pulling away.
Roy Jones, it seemed could not be beaten.
Enter Antonio Tarver.
A fellow Floridian, Tarver was not unknown to Jones. Some say they fought on even terms in the amateurs. Although there is no way to really know that now, if it was even in part true, it was cause for special notice. No one fought Roy Jones on even terms, ever.
Like Roy, Tarver excelled in the amateur ranks and garnered a spot on an Olympic team. He even captured a Bronze in the 1996 Games.
Note the year, 1996. Roy Jones, despite being a few months younger won a silver in the 1988 Games. He turned pro in 1989, while it would be eight years until Tarver made the jump.
Tarver, as a 29-year-old professional novice in 1997 – and with no gold medal assuring him of early big money backing and important fights – turned pro in relative obscurity. (Consider that the 29-year-old Wladimir Klitschko, with his recent win over Sam Peter, has already competed in 48 fights).
To his credit, Tarver moved into the pro ranks undaunted and with his eye on one opponent, Roy Jones. He campaigned without fanfare in places like the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, even Tunica, Mississippi.
His first big fight created an even bigger deficit than his age and status as a barely known fighter.
Eric Harding dropped him and broke his jaw en route to a convincing 12-round decision and with it a shot at the fabled Roy Jones. Tarver would have to get back in line and regroup.
Solid wins over Reggie Johnson, Harding (by knockout in a rematch), and Montell Griffin set the stage for his long awaited shot. At age 35 he gained his first chance to fight for a world title belt.
After Jones dismantled Ruiz, he found an agitating and agitated Antonio Tarver horning in on his post-fight press conference that was to have been a place for Roy to soak in the glory. Instead, following the taunts of a non-worshipping Tarver, he left angry and determined to return to his light-heavyweight division to clean house.
They met in Las Vegas November 8, 2003, and fans were stunned to witness Roy Jones pressed and pounded for 12 very long rounds. Roy’s face looked as though he had been in a fight – something most fighters take for granted, but not something Roy Jones would ever experience, or so we thought.
Tarver landed combinations often whaling away while Jones stood against the ropes. Jones fought back with all he had but clearly he was puzzled and just as clearly not the dominant destroyer of giants that he was just a few months before against Ruiz.
Jones looked lost and lethargic at times during the fight. He mustered his energy to eek out a majority decision, but in the court of public opinion, Roy Jones had become a mere mortal.
Opinions abound as to what occurred in the first meeting between the two. Some will say that Jones was weakened severely by his 18-pound weight loss required to make the division limit. Of course his age at the time, 35, could suggest that Mother Nature was finally paying a visit to one of her more perfect works.
Of course they were to meet again and his merely human status was confirmed. In just two rounds, Tarver connected with the most pristine left hand ever thrown from the southpaw stance, disconnecting Jones from conscious control of his body, from his title belts, and from the pedestal on which he stood for so long.
It is a very real possibility that Jones simply met an opponent for whom he had no answers. Professional baseball Cy Young winners all have stories of the .220 hitter who could almost always get a hit on them no matter the pitch, no matter the adjustment. Only in this case Antonio Tarver is no .220 hitter – if he were a baseball player his average would be more like .330. Being good and puzzling is a solid combination.
Antonio Tarver may indeed present questions that Roy Jones simply cannot answer. A dispassionate look at their first two meetings today leaves little doubt that Tarver showed a certain something that Jones’ was not able to solve. Whether that magic is permanent is what Tarver-Jones III is really all about.
Saturday in Tampa the two will meet in what could be the last great fight of both of their careers.