Roy Jones: What Went Wrong?
By Henry Walter
If Roy Jones Jr had retired instead of facing Antonio Tarver his boxing legacy could have rivaled Muhammad Ali’s.
On the 15th May 2004, when Roy Jones Jr climbed into the ring at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, he was widely expected to win. Jones was 49-1, his only loss in 50 fights coming by way of disqualification and avenged by first round KO in a rematch.
Jones had spent his career rising through the weight divisions, picking up world titles at middleweight, super-middleweight, light-heavyweight and heavyweight. He had made it look easy. No one had ever given Roy Jones a hard fight. Even fellow boxing legends, James “Lights Out” Toney and Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, had failed to give Jones a real challenge in their contests, with both losing widely in their respective attempts.
Jones had been in the habit of making extremely talented fighters look very ordinary when they climbed into the ring with him. Yet all that was about to change that May night. Antonio Tarver shared a hometown and weight division with Jones but that was where most of the similarities ended.
Tarver was a tall, rangy fighter, who fought out of a southpaw (left-handed) stance. He was well respected by boxing insiders but did not have anything like the reputation of a superstar like Jones.
Tarver had turned pro late, aged 28, and had campaigned at light-heavyweight for the entirety of his career.
Unlike Jones, Tarver had been clearly bested in the ring previously, a 2000 points loss to talented prospect Eric Harding, which he had subsequently avenged by knockout.
Yet Tarver had doggedly pursued light-heavyweight success and had worked his way through the rankings into the number one contender position for Jones’ world title.
Tarver always genuinely believed he had the beating of Jones, even as critics scoffed at his chances. He didn’t have Jones’ reflexes, power or dazzling speed. He was clearly talented but he never seemed to have the superhuman ability Jones always seemed to posses.
He was understandably devastated, when, instead of facing him, Jones relinquished his light-heavyweight titles and moved up to heavyweight for a headline grabbing attempt at capturing the WBA heavyweight championship in 2003.
With Jones temporarily out of the light-heavyweight picture Tarver fought, former Jones victim, Montell Griffin for Jones’ former titles. He emerged the victor but had to settle for a decision win over a man Jones had once destroyed in less than a round.
Tarver ignored the writers who claimed he couldn’t live with Jones in the ring and turned up at the post fight press conference for Jones’ succesful heavyweight title challenge against John Ruiz. Tarver stood up and publically accused Jones of ducking him.
Jones was visibly annoyed by Tarver’s accusations and, to the surprise of many, boycotted lucrative fights with Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield at heavyweight to agree to slim back down and fight Tarver for his old titles at light-heavyweight.
The fight was quickly made for November of 2003 and surprised everyone. Tarver immediately took the centre of the ring against Jones as the fight began. Jones struggled to adapt to his awkward southpaw style, coupled with his superior height and reach. Time and time again Tarver trapped Jones on the ropes and raked him with dozens of hard combinations.
After twelve rounds Tarver had handed Jones the first black eye of his career and seemingly his first real loss. The judges disagreed and to the disgust of the fans in attendance they named Jones the winner by an extremely dubious majority decision.
Jones was disturbed by the backlash to the decision and almost immediately agreed to the May rematch for the following year.
It is this fight that probably did more than any other to damage Jones’ legacy. After his lacklustre showing in the first Tarver fight, Jones looked keen to impress and won the first round of the rematch.
Yet Tarver’s size and movement were clearly still bothering him and near the end of the second round Tarver landed a huge left hook as Jones backed up. Jones took the punch flush and the force of it threw him under the ropes. Jones was then counted out for the first time in his career as a jubilant Tarver beat his chest in ecstasy.
What caused Jones to go from a seemingly invincible champion to a man easily bested by a fighter viewed as no more than a competent champion in mere months? The answers perhaps lie in their first meeting, sixth months previous to their second encounter.
Jones just did not look himself in his first fight with Tarver. He technically still won but many observers felt he didn’t deserve the decision and it was easily the worst performance of his career at the time. Jones looked a shadow of himself, less fast, easier to hit and without his usual energy.
Numerous theories have been banded about as to why. The most widely believed and the excuse put about by Jones himself is that he was weight-drained. After his heavyweight debut at 199 pounds, Jones had to shift 24 pounds to fight Tarver at the light-heavyweight limit. This, Jones claimed, was the reason for his uninspiring and comparatively lethargic performance. Is this credible? Perhaps.
24 pounds is alot to lose in a short space of time. Yet in the past Jones had freely admitted to reguarky walking around at 200 pounds inbetween fights during his earlier light-heavyweight days. So it seems he was well used to losing 25 pounds in the run up to his fights.
He had worked alot on building and retaining extra muscle in the build up to the Ruiz fight so the weight gained by have been slightly harder to lose than the usual extra fat. However, it’s hard to envisage it being as bigger issue as he made it out to be as he wasn’t trying to lose any more weight than he usually did.
Between the Ruiz and Tarver fights it emerged that Jones had previously tested positive for the banned steroid androstenedione after a 2000 bout against Richard Hall (Hall also tested positive for the same steroid).
Jones at first blamed this positive test on a nasal spray that he had apparently taken. When it was pointed out to him that this nasal spray did not contain the aforementioned steroid Jones changed tack and said he had injested it accidentally when taking a supplement called Ripped Fuel.
Many accepted Jones’ revised explanation but many fans continued to question Jones’ alibi and speculated that some of his previous amazing performances may have been aided by performance enhancing drugs.
The fact that, under greater scrutiny after the positive test came to light, Jones just did not perform against Tarver only gave these theories more credibility. Former super-middleweight world champion, Richie Woodhall, was one of the first to point out the fall in Jones’ performances after the test became public.
The last major theory regarding Jones’ sudden downfall was that, like many fighters in the past, he may have just got old overnight. He was after all 35 years old when he fought Tarver, an age when many elite fighters are considering retirement.
It is impossible to ever really know for certain what caused Jones’ decline. Why, having spent decades making elite fighters hit nothing but air, Jones suddenly succumbed to a left hook thrown by a man who was not even considered a particularly big puncher.
One glaring factor that is mentioned far less often is that Jones had a very unorthodox technique and often relied on split-second timing and razor sharp reflexes to get in and out of range and land punches from bizzare angles. Once age and perhaps less energy, for whichever reasons, robbed him of this incredible speed, even by a small fraction, he was suddenly considerably easier to hit.
It is hard to recall a fighter in history who has declined as fast and as spectacularly as Roy Jones. A man who went from being one if the greatest fighters in history seemingly right at his best to becoming a figure many were afraid for within a handful of fights. It is probable that there were a collection of reasons like those mentioned above for Jones’ demise. It is worrying that, at 51, he still can’t walk away from the limelight, he is scheduled to fight an ill-advised exhibition with Mike Tyson next month.
It would have been very hard to imagine when Jones beat John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight championship in 2003, in what is widely considered to he one of the greatest performances in boxing history, that Jones would end up with nine losses, five by knockout and several to fighters not even quite at the elite level. Roy Jones Jr is the perfect example of what a spectacularly cruel sport boxing can be.