Amidst the grey skies of closing casinos, and other bad news in Atlantic City, hides a potentially promising comeback story. After a 26-month layoff, Mike "Machine Gun" Jones, a Philadelphia native, will be returning to the ring this Saturday August 23rd at Bally's Atlantic City to face Jamie Herrera of Chicago, Illinois.
In a fairly shocking turn of events on June 9, 2012, after 26 consecutive professional victories, 19 by knockout, Jones was stopped by Randall Bailey in their vacant IBF World Welterweight contest in Las Vegas, Nevada. After ten hard-fought rounds of consistent domination by Jones, with inevitable victory less than three short minutes away, a patient and calculated Bailey was finally able to hone in and deliver a perfectly-timed right hand. After suffering the first knockdown of his career, with seconds left in the 10th, it was clear that an entirely different Jones had returned to the ring in the 11th round. He hesitated for just an instant, allowing a fatigued, but poised Bailey to connect with a razor sharp upper cut, leading to a second, but devastating knockdown. Official Tony Weeks quickly stopped the fight immediately after Jones hit the canvas.
The next morning, following some small-talk with his promoter, Russell Peltz, and awaiting his flight home to the city of brotherly love, it seemed as though things were business as usual for Mike "Machine Gun" Jones, or as much as could be expected following a KO loss. The boxing world would soon find out, that business, and life, had changed for Jones.
"Not a single offer had come to the table for Jones after the Bailey loss," Peltz told me during my interview on August 21st. "We had come close to deal in June 2013, but the money just was not there for the type of comeback he wanted."
When asked what made the Bailey fight different than his 26 prior victories, Peltz said, "He wasn't the Jones we all knew. He was fighting not to lose, not as the fighter that we all knew was in that ring."
So, the question is... what happened to Mike Jones?
Haunted by the unexpected defeat, Jones vanished from the public eye. As a 29-year old boxer, in his prime, Mike Jones stood 26-1. In his hometown of Philadelphia, a city full of arguably the most robust and intense sports fans any athlete could hope to experience, and one of the best promoters in the region working on his behalf, Mike Jones had disappeared from view. It seemed as though, perhaps, the loss had crippled boxing's next big welterweight hopeful. The remainder of an interview with Peltz revealed further insight.
"How soon after you spoke with Jones did he move to Vegas?" I asked Peltz.
"As far as I know, just about immediately," he said. "The last I spoke with him, directly, was June 10, 2012. We spoke that morning. I asked him to swing by my office, he said he would. Then, I was contacted by Mike's attorney and all further business went through him. "
"You haven't seen Jones since that morning in the airport?"
"That's correct," Peltz said. "It was the last time I saw him. I will see him Friday night for the first time in two years at his weigh-in in Atlantic City."
"What has taken him so long to return to the ring?" I asked.
"I think fighters were afraid to fight him," Peltz said. "I think the fighters we were trying to work with were afraid of taking a loss to him. They were afraid of being hurt, of being knocked out. Mike has a lot of power that other fighters in his division simply don't have. We were close to a deal in 2013, but there were some management issues. I have nothing to do with the management issues, and the fight fell through. It just didn't happen."
"How did you know he was ready to return?"
"I got a call this spring saying he was ready to return," Peltz said "and I couldn't be more excited for this fight."
"What is your confidence in his conditioning and his new trainers?"
"I have never met Ismael Salas, but I have tremendous respect for him," he continued. "I have known Miguel Diaz for years. I also have had great interaction with his liaison and confidant, Michelle Rosado. She seems to be a tremendous support to him. Michelle shared the plane ride with him to Atlantic City. She tells me his spirits are high and that he is ready for this fight. I believe her."
"Do you think this is a Mike Jones that is capable of making a comeback at this stage in the game?"
"Absolutely. One-hundred-percent. All we need to see is the old Mike Jones. People used to compare him to Sugar Ray Robinson, and he was all of that and then some. That is the Mike Jones we need to see, and the Mike Jones I believe we will see."
"What is your prediction for Saturday night?"
"I think it will end with a knockout. Simply winning is not enough and he knows that. He will need the knockout to truly make a comeback. That's a knockout that I think he is absolutely capable of. Anything short of a knockout on either end would be a disappointment. We'd all be in trouble. I think the comeback will be a big one."
"At age 31 and after 26 months without a fight, do you think Jones will be able to make bigger moves throughout the welterweight division if he wins on Saturday?"
Peltz answered with certainty: "Without a doubt. He is an incredibly talented fighter and we are all looking forward to seeing him back in the ring."
Over the past two years Jones has spent countless hours training in the city that handed him his first defeat. Re-dedicated to endurance training and mentally having overcome he challenges that come with an unforgettable loss, according to his crew, Jones is now trained by Ismael Salas and Miguel Diaz. After a lengthy layoff, one a skeptic might say could point to Jones' focus being suspect, Jones needs a knockout to prove he is ready to return to the stacked welterweight division.
Could this be a triumph of will and a royal battle cry from a long-lost fighting spirit? Absolutely. It could well be... or it could be an "I told ya so" moment for the skeptics, the ones who labeled him a hype job and heavily critiqued his resume and some of his so-so outings.
Looking to blow past the "comeback hype" and retire Jones for good will be Jamie Herrera. Herrera comes off of his most significant victory, a fifth-round knockout of Michael Finney this past March. Herrera, at 25 years old, is 11-2-1. He has been hungry for and insistent upon the fight with Jones since rumors circulated about the Philly boxer's return to the ring in May 2014.
Only Jones, quite likely, however, can determine whether we will see a classic and overdue comeback from the once and perhaps future "next big thing" amongst the welterweights, or another disappointing chapter in a "What Might Have Been" boxing tale.
Tickets are available at www.peltzboxing.com or by contacting Bally's Atlantic City Box Office.
Who will win? Wladimir Klitschko or Tyson Fury?