It’s not every day you meet the man who destroyed your childhood hero. I was afforded the opportunity earlier this year in Houston when Antonio Tarver came to town to meet with his public relations firm, ThinkZilla.
This was not a media event. It was him and me, and it was surreal. I make it a point to never meet my childhood idols. In boxing, this would consist of exactly two people: Roy Jones, Jr. and Evander Holyfield. I’ve never had to duck Holyfield, but I’ve been face-to-face with Jones several times over the years. I pass him by as if he were a stranger. I’m not exactly sure why I do this. Is it that I don’t want to be disappointed in someone I looked up to as a kid? Is it that I don’t want him to be disappointed in me? Is it that there’s nothing really to say to him? I don’t know.
But when I learned Tarver had hired ThinkZilla, I contacted them and told them to let me know when he came to town so I could come interview him. I’m always looking for people to talk to for The Sweet Science and Boxing Channel, and honestly, I didn’t immediately connect Tarver to Jones in my mind until the day I was about to meet him.
ThinkZilla’s CEO, Velma Trayham, contacted me Saturday afternoon and told me where to be. I was there within the hour. It hit me hard when he walked into the room. Tarver had effectively destroyed my childhood on May 15, 2003 when he knocked out Jones with one punch at the Mandalay Bay Resort Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I was shaking hands with him.
When I was in my early 20s, I was at a particularly desperate point in my life when I witnessed a miracle. I was a hardcore drug user and I finally wanted help. I was so sick of it all. But that’s not the miracle. Plenty of people go through that.
My dad had dropped me off at what seemed like a thousand miles from nowhere in a little Texas town called Alpine. The thinking behind the move was that I could simply go to college out there and get my life back on track. But Dad was wrong. I quickly found fellow druggies and got right back where I once belonged.
But like I said, one day I was finally sick of all that mess. I was ready to change, but wasn’t quite sure how. I reached out to my parents to try and get into rehab or something but my neither of them wanted to help me. I don’t blame them. I was as trustworthy as a snake.
I was stuck and felt as though I might as well be dead.
I was walking back to the library one day when I saw the miracle. There was a small, gray bird lying dead in one of those big, rectangular ashtrays outside the building. It was an ugly, wretched and dead thing. Like me, I thought. Like me! I could not help but to cry about it. Or maybe I was crying about me. I don’t know. I felt so bad that he had died there like that in those ashes that I took the poor little thing out of there and put him in the green grass where the sunlight could touch him one last time. Soon he would rot and decay, I thought, and it will be as if he’d never been.
I sat there crying. I looked at that bird forever. I do not know if anyone else was around me, though I suppose there were many as I was near a busy walkway. But I cried my desperate little eyes out for that bird and stared at it until my head sunk down so low into my hands that I couldn’t see anymore.
That’s when it happened.
Suddenly, the stiff, dead bird started to regain his color. All of a sudden, he was moving around! I could not believe my eyes. I wiped my tears away and began to laugh from the sheer joy of it all. How could this be? How? He was dead!
Soon the bird stood up on his legs as if he had never been dead at all. He looked at me for a long time. I looked right back at him. It was very peculiar, but I feel like the bird was both thanking me and pitying me at the very same time. Then he flew away into the blue sky.
I wasn’t technically a child the night Tarver knocked out Jones. I was in my early twenties, actually, but I still thought and acted like a one. Believe me. Youth was still served to me in its fullest measure, and while my younger life had experienced a strong serving of pain and suffering, I still maintained a ton of affection for hero-types. It didn’t matter to me whether or not that was a healthy thing, or even if it was truly warranted. That’s just the way it was.
Honestly, part of me still can’t believe Tarver knocked out Jones. How could that even happen? Jones was everything to me. I was nothing and had nothing, but he was everything. He was fast, strong and made everything look so cool. He was the best in the world at what he did.
I didn’t even believe it at first. Tarver knocked him out? With one punch? Was it legit? Was it legal? How could that have possibly happened? It was unfathomable to me. Jones had never come close to tasting defeat. Not really. Up to that point in his career, his lone loss was when he was disqualified for hitting Montell Griffin after he had already put him down on the canvas. He avenged it later with a first round KO of Griffin and made it look easy.
That was Jones. He was Superman.
Jones was the best fighter I’d ever seen. I saw him dominate other fighters the way you might think could only happen in the movies. He knocked out Virgil Hill with a body punch. He played basketball on the same days as he fought. He barley ever lost a round. Heck, I once saw Jones put both hands behind his back before luring a fighter named Glen Kelly in close for the knockout blow.
Jones just couldn’t be touched. He was the best ever. Well, at least to me.
But Tarver didn’t think so. After going 12 rounds with Jones the year prior and losing a majority decision, Tarver was sure he could beat him. In fact, Tarver told me he thought he beat Jones the first time. After all, he threw and landed more punches in the fight, and appeared to control the action throughout.
But Jones had a fairly good excuse, and I believed it. The fight took place just six months after he had moved up to heavyweight to snatch a title belt away from John Ruiz. Jones had to lose 25 pounds to come back down to 175, and he appeared gaunt and listless like never before.
The two met again the very next year.
Jones blamed his subpar performance in the first fight on the weight issue. During the prefight instructions at center of the ring, referee Jay Nady asked if anyone had any questions. Tarver replied, "I got a question. You got any excuses tonight, Roy?" I mean, he said that to Roy Jones, Jr.! Can you believe it? This dude was in trouble! Right? Jones was going to knock him out with one punch!
Things looked good at first. Jones won the first round on all three official scorecards. But during an exchange in the second round, Tarver dropped Jones with a deadly accurate overhand left flush to the chin. Jones went down like he just got hit by a bowling ball. He rose at the count of nine but the fight was rightly waved off when he stumbled across the ring into the ropes like a newborn baby deer.
I was absolutely crushed. Superman was dead. In that one moment, someone who grew up believing Jones was invincible was slapped aside the head with the stark reality of truth: no one is invincible. Not even Jones.
It took much longer than I’d like to admit to get clean after witnessing such an amazing and astonishing miracle, but I eventually did it. I never forgot that little, sweet bird and what he meant to me. But I soon began to doubt exactly what happened that day. How could that bird have been dead? That’s impossible. Right?
But sometime later in my life, maybe in my early 30s, during another particularly desperate moment, it happened again. I was in the side bedroom, the one where I thought my wife and I would have one of our children in someday. But we didn’t have kids after years and years of trying and still haven’t. We may never have them. Such is life.
It was with great horror when I saw it that day: our two dogs playing with a wounded gray bird. It was barely alive and could not fly. It was broken. Like me, I thought. Like me.
I ran outside as fast as I could but it was far too late. That bird was dead. I was so very sad for him. But I had seen a bird come back to life before, so I wondered if it could happen again. I felt so desperate. I found sunlight for the bird atop the back ledge of our fence. I placed him there and prayed for him. Maybe he could be fixed, too.
As you can imagine, it didn’t work. I began to cry. I had been crazy after all. While I wasn’t on drugs when I saw that first bird come back to life, maybe my mind was already so warped that I couldn’t really understand what actually happened that day. Now that I was sober for over 10 years, my brain worked as well as anyone else’s. This broken little bird was dead. He was not coming back to life again. My head sunk down so low into my hands that I couldn’t see anymore.
That’s when it happened. When I lifted my head back up to see him, the bird was gone!
What? Surely, the wind had blown him off the fence and he had fallen down to the ground. Right? Except that there was no wind that day. Still, maybe he just rolled off onto to the ground or something. Maybe I had pushed him off while I was crying or something. I don’t know. I had seen stranger things, so I looked everywhere he could have fallen. I searched frantically for that precious little bird but he wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere! He was gone.
Then I heard a bird sing.
I looked high above to see a bird sitting on the electrical wire above me. He looked down on me. Again, it was as if he was looking at me with a mixture of thankfulness and pity. The bird flew down towards me from the wire to the fence where I had placed him as if he wanted to get a closer look at me. He stared awhile before flying off again into the deep blue sky.
Meeting Tarver was strange. Now 45 years old, it was interesting to hear him talk about his various exploits, both inside the ring and out. What struck me was how often he seemed to reference that singular moment in time, too.
At one point in our talk, I said something like: I have to tell you, I was one of the people you devastated that night you knocked Jones out. There was an entire generation of people like me who believed he was invincible.
“I know, man,” said Tarver. “I know.”
But here’s the most interesting thing, something I only realized after talking to Tarver. He didn’t knock Jones out my memory that night. Jones will always be Jones to me, the way I can turn on ESPN Classic and see Muhammad Ali being Ali in 1965, or the way I can turn on my iPod and still listen to The Beatles be The Beatles. Things change but they always stay the same.
Recently, it has felt as if my heart is being torn up inside me, bit by bit – I literally feel as if I am being ripped in half from the top down to the bottom. I don’t know why it’s happening. I wish I did, but I don’t. Things that seemed so important seem less so now.
My life seems so small.
But here is the strangest thing: two little gray birds have been coming over to the window where I sit to peck at it with their beaks. It has happened every day for over a week now. It happened twice today as I am writing this. This has never, ever happened before, and I have lived in this house for over six years. But these little gray birds come every day as if they refuse to let me ignore them.
They look at me the same way the other two birds did, with a mixture of thankfulness and pity. Mostly, though, these birds just look at me with their deep, black eyes. They sit there and stare at me. They just stare at me, pecking at the window, and I cry.
Everything ends. But in a way, nothing really ever ends, too. Jones will always be Jones to me. Not the one Tarver knocked out way back then. Not the one who continues to fight long after his sell by date. Not the one recently caught sending nude pictures of himself to a female boxer named Stacey Reile.
No, Jones will always be Jones to me, the one I thought was Superman. And sure, the wisdom that comes with age and experience tell me heroes and such are silly matters, little and worldly trifles that shouldn’t really mean anything to me as I grow older.
But to the wonderfully fragile part of me, the one that believes dead things will live again someday, that doesn’t matter at all.
Who will win #HOPKINSKOVALEV