Frank Graham, a New York sports columnist back in the days when there were three baseball teams and about 15 newspapers in that city, once wrote of a crotchety old outfielder named Bob Meusel who suddenly became willing to answer writers’ questions late in his career after years of discouraging them saying: “He only learned to say hello when it was time to say goodbye.’’
The same words can now sadly be used to describe Roy Jones, Jr.
When Jones was at his zenith his physical gifts were breathtaking. Although breaking nearly every rule of sound defensive boxing, Jones was so quick of both hand and foot that few fighters could touch him and when they did they paid a heavy price for trying. Although he would often retreat straight back when pressured while carrying his hands so low they seemed to be in his pockets (if he’d had pockets), his reflexes allowed him to survive such technical deficiencies until the calendar conspired against him, eroding those gifts and leaving him an empty and often defenseless shell who became a target for any opponent with quick hands and the boldness to come forward and throw them.
Even though he was widely considered to be the best fighter in the world for much of a decade, Jones for years refused to travel to Germany to try and unify the light heavyweight title by facing undefeated Dariusz Michalczewski, who at one point held the WBA, IBF and WBO titles simultaneously after defeating Virgil Hill.
Although Michalczewski had a boring style, his record climbed to 48-0 before two late-career losses in title fights sent him into retirement in 2005 at 48-2. For several years before those two losses, much of the boxing world clamored to see Jones square off with the transplanted Pole who fought only in Europe. People believed there was more reason for Michalczewski to fear using his passport than Jones should have had for using his but still people wanted to see the two of them mix to settle the issue.
Roy Jones, Jr. steadfastly refused, instead fighting every form of municipal employee (cop, fireman, postman, teacher, trash man) while insisting he would not go to Germany because of that country’s well deserved reputation for stealing decisions from visiting fighters, especially Americans. Few in boxing felt it would ever get to the judges but Jones had never forgotten the shock of having been denied the 1988 Olympic gold medal in Seoul in a tournament in which the organizers were so ashamed of the decision that stole the gold medal from Jones that they named him the tournament’s outstanding boxer. How you can be the outstanding boxer in an Olympic tournament and not come away with gold was beyond everyone but the corrupt officials running the Games.
Jones never forgot a man’s pocket can be picked even if he’s wearing boxing shorts and has no pockets. Victimized once by corruption and vision-impaired international judges, Jones refused to put himself at risk again in that way. At least he did until he’d reached the point where, frankly, every time he goes into the ring it’s a risk.
Now stripped of the high-twitch muscle reactions that once separated him from his peers, Jones can’t win any more no matter where he fights if the opponent is capable. Yet he has decided to fight on, it was announced this week, agreeing to travel to Russia to do it. Why only he knows.
Jones has agreed to face cruiserweight contender Denis Lebedev in Moscow on May 22 despite the fact Lebedev is 11 years younger and is coming off the only loss of his career, the kind of split decision defeat in Berlin to German WBO champion Marco Huck that Jones once feared would be his fate if he journeyed overseas. Jones should still fear such an overseas trip but not for the same reasons.
Desperation of one type or another can drive a man to do foolish things and in the past few years it has driven Jones into places he would never go when he was young and had little to fear but bad luck. It took him into an ill-advised but long awaited rematch with the apparently ageless Bernard Hopkins (which he lost). It took him twice into harm’s way against Antonio Tarver (who he ducked repeatedly when both were young) and Glen Johnson and each knocked him cold.
It even took him overseas to Australia, where comebacking former light heavyweight champion Danny Green disposed of him in one sad round, Jones going down once in a heap and then sprawling on his face as he rolled over before getting up and taking a beating until the referee mercifully saved him.
That loss was a year and a half ago and was followed by his lopsided losing decision to Hopkins yet here he is again – the Reluctant Dragon reluctant no more even though he’s lost two straight, three of his last five and is 6-6 since becoming the first former middleweight champion to win the heavyweight title back in 2003.
Jones was never the same after that night with John Ruiz and is now a ghost of the fighter the world wanted to see face Michalczkewski back when Jones refused to take the kind of risk he now seems to welcome. When he should have used his passport he refused. Now he should only use it to go on vacation.
The old Jones, the one who was young, would recognize that. But that is the odd thing about boxers. Too many of them insult both the sport and its followers when their skills are at their most robust and then, after they become yesterday’s news, beg to hang on when, like cranky old Bob Meusel, it is time to say goodbye.