The saddest words of tongue and P.C., “He ain’t what he used to be.”

LAS VEGAS, July 28 – They can’t watch. They were too close to Roy Jones Jr. for too many years to look at him now, in Boise, Idaho, of all places, fighting Prince Badi Ajamu of all people, another sad ending and it’s not just age, say his former buddies and lawyers, Stan Levin and John Hornewer. Roy Jones Jr. was changing before he got athlete old.

“He stopped training, he stopped listening,” said Levin, who hasn’t spoken to Jones in two years though they both live in Pensacola, Fla. “Back in ’98 or ’99, I left him in 2000, I told him, ‘You’re not hearing me anymore.’ Every time I tried talking to him, he was acting like I was his enemy. He didn’t want to know the truth. I put 15, 16 years in with him. What it took for me to walk away from him, you have no idea.

“There was a time I’d rather watch him in the gym than in a fight, he was so brilliant, and to see what’s happening now, I just can’t watch it. I remember he used to put a harness on his head with weights attached and he’d work his neck muscles so he could better take a punch. He stopped doing that years ago. He stopped going to the gym.

“I remember when he was 14, Roy would’ve destroyed guys like Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson. They wouldn’t have laid a glove on him. I can’t watch him fight now. He’s a shadow of what he used to be.”

“I still haven’t watched the third Tarver fight, I refuse,” said Hornewer, who also did legal work for Lennox Lewis. “I’m so proud of Lennox, he did what he did and got out on top. To see Roy like this, he’s so far off course. He doesn’t know how to get his old self back to dignify the ending.

“I know I’ll be peeking at the bottom of the screen at the crawl (as ESPN gives the sports news) hoping that there’s nothing terrible to report. The guy who worried about becoming another Gerald McClellan is fighting someone who lost to Rico Hoye and I’m afraid for him. I hope to god he wins, but I won’t buy the fight.”

Levin, who with his multimillionaire brother, Fred, took the hometown hero under their wings, said he doesn’t know what changed Jones. Maybe it was the “rappers” element the fighter started hanging with, Levin can’t be sure. Maybe it was Roy Jones Sr., whom the son regarded as not only as a trainer, but a tyrant.

“He’s got a lot of his dad in him, which is, ‘I’m right and the rest of the world is wrong.’ His father trained a lot of guys, and he would strip them of their personalities so he could build what he wanted.”

After years and years of estrangement, Jones brought his father back to his corner for his last fight, the third one with Tarver. At the time, both Hornewer and Levin thought it a good idea. Jones, though, has subsequent to the loss explained that his father’s presence was a hindrance, so much so that he may have subconsciously not wanted to win because he didn’t want to give his father any glory.

“I told Roy that it was good that at least he got back together with Big Roy,” said Hornewer. “He said, ‘It was good, but it was bad.’”

Hornewer, a frequent ringside photographer, had his credentials canceled by Jones for the first Tarver fight – the lawyer, who walked away from Jones years before, had begun doing legal work for Tarver. Hornewer thought Jones believed that up close, he’d be able to advise Tarver during the bout – and never mind that his opponent already had a trainer named Buddy McGirt.

Yet, he said if Jones had called him to be at ringside tomorrow night, “I’d have bought a plane ticket and flown out.

“He gave all the people who were with him the ride of their lives. He was the best fighter I ever saw. Remember, I wasn’t around for Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard, but I honestly think Roy was better than Leonard. He was so incredibly talented.”

“I loved that kid,” said Levin. “This man I don’t like at all. But I know underneath there is still a soft, caring kid.”

Levin, who suffers from all sorts of physical ailments, often wears a cervical collar in the style of many a genius. He remembers one day telling Roy that he was going to drop by the gym only to hear, “Not if you’re wearing that collar.”

Jones, whom I once called the “conscience of boxing” for his efforts on behalf of the injured Gerald McClellan and his work with Muhammad Ali for tolerance, raises pit bulls and fighting cocks. Levin said “that was a side of him I never understood, a side I shut out.”

He said Jones was “doing a lot of things he swore he’d never do. He told me if lost it, he was through, he wasn’t going to hang on. He’s going to get hurt, I’m afraid.

“If I had been in control of his career, I’d have had him retire after he won that heavyweight title (against John Ruiz in 2003), it would have been, adios, goodbye,” said Levin.

Hornewer said “Roy had a very special, exceptional style that depended on speed and reflexes. The big question back then was what about his chin and I’d answer I hope I never find out.

“Now this guy (Prince Badi Ajamu) has a chance, a guy who lost to Rico Hoye. It’s hard to watch him get beat by fighters who aren’t great fighters. Fifty percent of the old Roy would’ve beaten Glen Johnson.

“But then I never thought the people around him, like the Levins, would not be around. There are certain people who’ll tell you the truth. There’s no one around him now like that.”

“I wish,” said Levin, “there was some way of shaking him and saying, ‘Look at what you’re doing.’ But it’s not going to happen with the people around him now.”

Hornewer said he expected Jones to go out fast and try to overwhelm the Prince from Camden, N.J. But he acknowledged that opponents will be braver against the faded star, knowing that if they hang in with him, there’s always a chance they can hurt him later.

“It makes me feel bad about the sport, about Roy’s legacy,” said Hornewer.

His legacy has already been compromised by the Tarver left hand that knocked him cold in the second round of their second fight. Fights like tomorrow night’s don’t mean anything more than, say, Muhammad Ali’s finale against Trevor Berbick or Joe Frazier’s against Jumbo Cummings. History is very forgiving; punches to the brain, however, are not.

I remember that night outdoors at Caesars Palace when the pathetic ghost of Ali was battered by Larry Holmes. I had just finished my New York Times story and was closing my computer before rushing inside to the post-fight press conference. I had no doubt that Holmes would win; in fact, I was silently hoping he would, knowing that his legacy would not have been able to withstand a loss to the faded Ali, who on the other hand had already accomplished so much as to forever remain a ring immortal.

Even so, as I replayed the embarrassing performance by Ali, tears ran down my cheeks. The unhappy ending is a common occurrence in boxing, I’m afraid.

PENTHOUSE: OLN, for putting boxing on, and hopefully Bob Arum will give the cable channel – which will change its name to Versus in September – better matchups than Kelly Pavlik and old Bronco McKart. Arum will. His next show features a title defense by Brian Viloria….Nice twin bill tomorrow night on HBO BAD – though I’ll probably kick myself later, I plan to buy the Roy Jones farce and no, not for Kenny Keene – but Vivian Harris vs. Stevie Johnston is intriguing and so is the welterweight semi between Joshua Clottey, whose only loss was by disputed stoppage to Carlos Baldomir, and Richard Gutierrez.

OUTHOUSE: Yes, I’m glad I’ll be able to get my first glimpse of Sultan Ibramigov tonight on ESPN, and yes filling up so many channels 24 hours a day with sports is taxing. But poker was bad enough. Now we have darts and, coming soon, dominos. Can’t wait for potsy, parchesi and Monopoly.