Long before he rose to almost incomprehensible fame and fortune as the owner, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones – a starting offensive lineman for the University of Arkansas’ 1964 national championship squad — was a little kid at the North Little Rock Boys Club who was every bit as fascinated with boxing as he was with football.
And while his primary focus these days is, of course, getting his Cowboys back to the Super Bowl – the erstwhile “America’s Team” has not appeared in the NFL’s Ultimate Game since a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 28, 1996 — Jones continues to keep his hand in the fight game as the host of Saturday night’s WBO super welterweight title bout between champion Liam “Beefy” Smith (23-0-1, 13 KOs), of Liverpool, England, and challenger Canelo Alvarez (41-1-1, 33 KOs), the Mexican superstar from Guadalajara, Mexico. A crowd of 45,000-plus is expected for the Mexican Independence Weekend card at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which will be televised via HBO Pay-Per-View.
If all goes according to plan – and Jones has made a habit of getting what he wants – there will be more megafights staged at the palatial $1.3 billion facility which opened in 2009 and has come to be unofficially known as “Jerry’s World.” Smith-Alvarez is the third high-profile boxing event to be held there, in addition to two Manny Pacquiao-headlined shows in 2010 which collectively drew more than 90,000 paying customers. Whenever negotiations get underway to stage the much-anticipated showdown between Alvarez and the man widely considered to be the best middleweight on the planet, Kazakhstan’s Gennady “GGG” Golovkin (36-0, 33 KOs), expect Jones to be among the most fervent suitors.
“We’d certainly have keen interest in that fight,” Jones, who turns 74 on Oct. 13, told The Sweet Science. “It’s part of our overall game plan for the future to have these outstanding, iconic events whenever we can. I get up every morning and think about how we’d do it. It’s always a part of my day.”
Thinking big, and taking big risks, are a significant part of the reason why Jones is the best-known and most influential owner of any American professional sports franchise, unrivaled as such since the New York Yankees’ similarly flamboyant, wealthy and headline-grabbing George Steinbrenner passed away on July 13, 2010. Not that Jones was always on the right side of speculative business ventures; after graduating from college in 1965 he borrowed $1 million from Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union to open a string of pizza restaurants in Missouri, which folded. Several other projects he launched also failed to take off, setting the stage for his do-or-die entry into the quintessential wildcatter’s field, oil and gas exploration, where instant fortunes are won when gushers come in, and just as easily lost when drilling produces a string of dry holes.
On Feb. 25, 1989, Jones purchased the Cowboys from H.R. “Bum” Bright for $140 million, a then-record for the sale of an NFL franchise. But instead of settling into the comfortable anonymity former Cowboys owners Bright and Clint Murchison preferred, Jones soon shook the stodgy league establishment to its roots by firing legendary coach Tom Landry and replacing him with his Arkansas Razorbacks teammate, Jimmy Johnson. Shortly thereafter Jones showed longtime general manager Tex Schramm the door as well, in the process stamping himself as pro football’s most deliberately intentional boat-rocker since the Raiders’ cantankerous Al Davis began giving former commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue frequent migraines.
Did the big deviations from what had for so longed passed for tradition in Big D pay big dividends? Well, under Jones the Cowboys – led by future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin — won Super Bowls following the 1992, 1993 and 1995 seasons. On-field success has not been as prevalent in recent seasons (the Cowboys were 4-12 in 2015), but the enduring popularity of the team and the grandiosity of AT&T Stadium have kept the franchise’s worth spiraling upward like a NASA moon launch. In the most recent issue of Forbes, the Cowboys were valued at $4.2 billion, or 30 times more than what Jones paid to acquire the team 27½ years earlier.
That sort of capital allowed Jones the wherewithal to scratch an old boxing itch, which can be traced back to his time at the North Little Rock Boys Club.
“Many of my formative hours, days and years were spent there,” Jones recalled. “A man named Joe Redd was an important influence on the young men in that area. We had a great boxing program and a pretty renowned Golden Gloves fighter named Sonny Ingram. They were a large reason for my becoming interested in boxing at a very young age, maybe 8 or 9.”
Perhaps in tribute to the impact Redd and Ingram had on his life, Jones, at 39, tried his hand at fight promotion, putting on a card at the Convention Center in Little Rock on Oct. 31, 1981, that featured former WBA lightweight champion Sean O’Grady in the main event against Andy Ganigan. But, although the mid-level card drew a reasonably respectable turnout of 2,500, O’Grady was floored three times in the second round before referee Larry Hazzard stepped in and awarded Ganigan a technical-knockout victory. Figuratively, Jones was knocked out, too; he never promoted another fight card.
But once boxing fever is in your blood it tends to remain there. After construction of AT&T Stadium (then known as the “new” Cowboys Stadium) was completed, wheels were set into motion by Jones to make the place a magnet for the kind of major bouts that routinely wind up in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles. Toward that end he became fast friends with Top Rank founder Bob Arum, which led to Jerry’s World landing Manny Pacquiao’s unanimous decisions over Joshua Clottey (which drew 50,994 on March 3, 2010) and Antonio Margarito (which drew 41,734 on Nov.13, 2010). Jones also pushed hard to snag the largest income-generating fight of all time, in which Floyd Mayweather Jr. outpointed Pacquiao on May 2, 2015, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand.
“I had Floyd as my guest at the last Super Bowl we had in Dallas (when the Green Bay Packers edged the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-25, on Feb. 6, 2011),” Jones said. “I really talked him up about coming to fight here, and I visited with his representatives several times.” But Mayweather, a Las Vegas resident, was in the midst of a streak of 12 consecutive ring appearances at the MGM Grand, and he was as doggedly determined to remain at his favorite venue as Jones was to have him come back to Texas in to sling punches.
“Bob Arum is a friend and someone with whom I worked closely on the Pacquiao fights,” Jones said of his sales pitches that were met with approval, whetting his appetite for more such nights.
“We are enjoying our relationship with Oscar (De La Hoya, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions),” Jones continued. “The bottom line is that we have a natural affinity for boxing at AT&T Stadium. There are many, many Hispanics in the makeup of our Cowboys fan base. We know how very popular boxing is in that community. There are over 1,500 season ticket-holders who commute from Monterrey, Mexico, to our home games, and we have been doing live Spanish-language broadcasts of our games for 35 years throughout south Texas and northern Mexico.”
De La Hoya has predicted a turnout of 80,000 for Alvarez-Smith, which would be a neat trick if accomplished as AT&T Stadium, which seats 80,000 for Cowboys games, has been configured for 45,000 for Saturday night’s fisticuffs. But who knows? If the demand is great enough – and, face it, at least 95 percent of attendees will be Canelo supporters – some adjustments could be made to expand capacity. Neither Jones or De La Hoya much cottons to the idea of turning away paying customers.
AT&T Stadium, for obvious reasons, will never be the site on any fight card that isn’t of compelling national and international interest. But boxing is a superstar-driven sport, maybe even more so than football because of its one-on-one nature, and the 26-year-old Alvarez is emerging, if he isn’t there already, as the No. 1 box-office draw. Canelo attracted 39,243 fans for his April 20, 2013, unanimous decision over Austin Trout in San Antonio’s Alamodome and 31,588 for his May 9, 2015, third-round knockout of James Kirkland in Houston’s Minute Maid Park. De La Hoya has said Alvarez considers Texas his “second home,” and that he plans to fight in the state at least once a year for the remainder of his career.
Jerry Jones is one of two finalists, with Paul Tagliabue, in the contributors category for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017. The induction class will be announced on Feb. 4, 2017, the day before Super Bowl LI is played in Houston.
Maybe, if everything falls just right and Jones’ deep pockets help make AT&T Stadium a regular destination for the kind of superfights that come along all too infrequently, someone might even mention that little kid from the North Little Rock Boys Club as a candidate for enshrinement in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.