It isn’t the kind of box-office smash more likely to draw teenaged crowds to movies about the fictional exploits of a billionaire crime fighter dressed in a bat costume, a flying man from the planet Krypton, a science nerd bitten by a radioactive spider or a guy with extractable steel claws, but “Bridge of Spies,” currently in theaters, is a gripping, inspired-by-true-events tale of early 1960s Cold War tensions starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Fortunately for all of us on either side of that great ideological divide, the Cold War began to thaw on June 12, 1987, with American President Ronald Reagan’s plea to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev “to tear down this wall” during a speech in West Berlin. Demolition of the infamous barrier separating East and West Berlin did, in fact, begin in June 1990 and was completed in 1992, two years after the reunification of Germany.
Of even more significant note, the dissolution of the Soviet Union formally was enacted on Dec. 26, 1991, bringing sighs of relief to hundreds of millions of Cold War-era survivors around the world who dared to believe that the leaders of the United States and Russia no longer were apt to consider actually punching in the numbers to nuclear launch codes that would mark the beginning of World War III and, quite likely, the end of civilization on a global scale.
Recent events, however, have raised alarm that the old Cold War is again getting frosty. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has hardly made a secret of his desire to resurrect the USSR, and his first step toward that end, but quite possibly not the last, was Russia’s forcible annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine. The United States and Russia seemingly are at cross-purposes in Syria, a crisis that has sent millions of refugees scurrying for safe haven in any country that will take them in on compassionate grounds.
Into this maelstrom of intrigue, deceit and apprehension steps a onetime superhero of the boxing ring, Roy Jones Jr., who represented the U.S. with distinction at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and once possessed such luminescent skills that his many admirers could be excused for mistaking him for one of the Avengers.
In his June 24, 1995, bout against Vinny Pazienza in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, Jones unleashed a burst of eight left hooks, a one-handed combination so blurringly quick and accurate it stunned even those who had come to expect uncommon feats from the boastful Floridian.
“George Foreman (who did color commentary for HBO that night) told me after that fight that Roy fights like a great jazzman plays,” former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham told me in 2007. “He improvises. He does riffs. I thought that was such an insightful way to describe Roy Jones. George said, `Seth, I’ve never seen anyone throw eight hooks in a row like that. I’ve never seen anything remotely close to that.’
“And that wasn’t the only such conversation George and I had about Roy. George told me something later, not at that fight. We were talking one night and he said, `You have to understand something about Roy. The better he is at his craft, the less people understand it because he breaks the mold.’”
Jones’ mold-breaking apparently is a pendulum that swings both ways. No longer the electric talent he was in his prime, the now-46-year-old holder of world titles in four weight classes (middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight) is still an active boxer, albeit a severely diminished one, and still capable of feats that are perplexing and, to many, polarizing.
Once called “Reluctant Roy” for his seeming proclivity for sidestepping dangerous opponents and his aversion for fighting abroad, Jones picked up a new nickname – “Russian Roy” – last month when he was personally handed his Russian passport from Putin inside the Kremlin. Putin signed a decree to grant immediate citizenship to Jones after the boxer made the extraordinary request during a trip to Crimea in August. Jones said at the time he hoped boxing could help “build a bridge” between the U.S. and Russia.
“Thank you very much to everybody, mostly Mr. Putin for presenting me with a passport,” Jones said at a press conference in Moscow. “Nothing feels better than to be a citizen of the United States of America and Russia, two powerhouses of the world.
“This was definitely something that was ordained by God and not myself. I had no clue, no thought in life of ever becoming a Russian citizen. This is much bigger than life. For me, personally, I am here to be happy, to enjoy people, to help make it a better place, to encourage other people to come to Russia because Russia is good and the people of Russia are good. This is one of the happiest days of my life.”
Jones further stated his intent to learn the Russian language, to establish residency in Russia and “earn 2 or 3 billion dollars” from what remains of his career as an active fighter while opening boxing schools in Russia and continuing his attempts to become a well-compensated rapper, presumably a bilingual one.
In and of itself, Jones’ divided loyalty isn’t as startling as it would have been in “Bridge of Spies” 1960 or even 1980, when the U.S. hockey team shocked the heavily favored USSR squad in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. There are Russian fighters happily living in America these days, such as IBF, WBO and WBA “super” light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, who now calls Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home. The once-stark lines of demarcation separating the U.S. and Russia have gotten fuzzier; an avowed socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is seeking the Democratic nomination to the Presidency and capitalism-loving Russian billionaire Mikhail Dimitrievitch Prokhorov owns the Brooklyn Nets NBA franchise. At first glance, it does seem that what for so long was, no longer is. If there is a loose-cannon American sports figure, Jones would have to take a back seat to retired power forward Dennis Rodman, who traveled to North Korea several times without State Department approval and is the subject of a documentary, “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang,” which details his failed efforts to organize a basketball game between retired NBA players and a team of North Koreans to “celebrate” the 31st birthday of the communist nation’s dictator, Kim Jong Un.
No doubt, it is a different world than it was in December 1989, when California entrepreneur Lou Falcigno brought the first three Russian professional boxers to these shores in an experiment to bring about peace through pugilism. But for the most part, those early U.S. tour stops by middleweight Viktor Egorov, heavyweight Yuri Vaulin and lightweight Sergei Artemiev, presumed representatives of what President Reagan had termed the “Evil Empire,” were met with undisguised hostility.
“He wants so much to be liked,” New York-based trainer Tommy Gallagher said of Vaulin, “that when he hears that `USA! USA!’ stuff, he feels like a villain. He has to be able to learn how to deal with that b.s., to block it out of his mind.”
Maybe the supposed “good guys” aren’t always so good, or the “bad guys” so dastardly, when viewed through a less-judgmental prism. Progress toward a higher purpose almost always is slow and arduous. Whether or not any athlete, even an internationally renowned one, can accelerate the process remains to be seen, particularly when his rationale for the healing of old wounds can be deemed to be self-serving. And that is the test that Jones must pass as he straddles the gap between the U.S. and Russia that alternately expands and constricts, depending upon the political climate of the moment.
Would RJJ be doing what he is doing now if he were still at the top of his game, as he was in being voted “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1990s by the Boxing Writers Association of America? Are his motives for making nice with Putin as unsullied as he would have people believe? Or is he merely seeking to trade upon the remnants of his ring fame in a closed society that had previously known him mostly by reputation?
Jones’ star power began to dim, precipitously so, in 2004, when he was knocked out by Antonio Tarver in the second of their three bouts and then even more emphatically by Glen Johnson. The man who made HBO dance to his tune suddenly found himself without a backing orchestra, and he was reduced to playing off-off Broadway in places like Boise, Idaho, before getting his passport stamped for working trips to Russia (three times), Latvia and Australia. He is still a champion, but the only title he holds now is the German version of the low-rent WBU cruiserweight crown.
So why does a man, who had no qualms admitting that he feared sustaining the kind of permanent injuries that left his friend, former WBC/WBO middleweight champ Gerald McClellan, severely brain-damaged, blind and nearly deaf, continue to court disaster inside the ropes?
Money, or lack of it, and ego, a surfeit of it, are two possible answers.
Retired HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant, who at various times has described Jones as a “prima donna” and a “diva,” in 2007 said that financial pressure and an inflated sense of worth has kept more than a few elite fighters in the game well past the time when good sense dictates that they step away.
“Will somebody pay him what he wants to see if he has anything left? You never know,” Merchant said. “It all depends on how desperate he is for money and attention. I’ve heard he had significant losses in investments he made in the hip-hop industry. Then again, this (making outlandish purse demands) may be his way of retiring. He gets close to the fire, then pulls out before he gets burned.
“As long as he was performing at the top of the world, people would let him get away with anything. But once he started to sink, nobody was eager to throw him a rope. Look, Roy Jones is not the only fighter who looked at himself as being above it all. Ray Robinson was like that. But you can only rub people’s noses in it so often.”
Perhaps Vladimir Putin is the Russian rope-thrower who finds it suits his purpose to haul Roy Jones, who has maintained his vanity and billion-dollar dreams, onto dry land. Who knows? Perhaps there really is a last hurrah for a fighter who, at his absolute peak, had faster hands and more pulverizing power than Floyd Mayweather Jr. ever demonstrated, if not Mayweather’s defensive genius.
Just last week British promoter Frank Warren and Russian promoter Vlad Hrudnov announced that Jones (62-8, 45 KOs) would take on former WBO cruiser titleholder Enzo Maccarinelli (40-7, 32 KOs) for the WBA’s vacant “super” cruiserweight championship in Moscow. But WBA president Gilberto Mendoza Jr. responded to an inquiry from ESPN boxing writer Dan Rafael by stating in no uncertain terms that a sanctioning request had not been made for Jones-Maccarinelli, and likely wouldn’t be granted in any case.
“Well, I’m not fighting for a regional belt,” a miffed Jones texted Rafael when informed his shot at a world title in a fifth weight class might never be fired.
It might or might not have occurred to Jones that Putin has welcomed him to Russia not so much for his charm and engaging personality as for his usefulness as a propaganda tool. Echoes of the Cold War are beginning to be heard again, and it just might be that what was, still is.