13.06.04 – By Janne Romppainen: The earthly glory is perishable in sports, but probably in no other sport the meaning of one loss can affect athlete’s status as dramatically as in professional boxing. An old saying which goes that a fighter is only as good as his last fight holds literally among many boxing fans. No other species of animal has naturally as poor a memory as does the boxing fan. Tens of splendid performances by a fighter can be erased from people’s minds with one setback, and even the worst of scandals can be soon forgotten after one good victory.
The last one to taste the cruelness of boxing world has been Roy Jones Jr, the former four-time world champion from middleweight to heavyweight. During the last ten years Jones has been ranked as the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound almost continuously, and during this time he has also been ranked highly also among the greatest ring-workers of all times. Only a year ago, when Jones had captured the WBA heavyweight crown, many experts hailed him as the greatest fighter in the history.
One fight can change everything. About a month ago Jones suffered a shocking second-round knockout loss to Antonio Tarver in light-heavyweight championship fight and his bright aureole was shattered to pieces just like that. Over one night Jones turned from the planet’s best to an overrated fighter who had ducked real challengers for his whole career, who made his name by fighting class-C level opposition and who got blasted out as soon as he met a real puncher. The bravest were ready to say that Tarver had even exposed him. Suddenly Jones wasn’t even a top-50 fighter of the history. But can one night and one fight really zero all the achievements from fifteen years? Let’s take a look at what Jones has in fact done.
Roy Jones launched his professional career in middleweight in May 1989. In the year before that he had lost the gold in Olympic finals in a fight that later was proved to be bribed. Jones got worldwide sympathy for the unlucky result and the gifted newcomer created interest in the pro circles from his first bouts on. Jones career developed rather slowly in the beginning, but the level of his opposition also raised continually. His first bigger test came in 1992 when he faced a former welterweight champion Jorge Vaca and Jones passed in with flying colours via first-round knockout. In the year following Jones rose to a world title fight as he faced an opponent who at the time was only another rather green and little known hopeful, Bernard Hopkins, in an IBF middleweight title fight. The bout was pretty evenly fought, but Hopkins had no real chance to threaten Jones’ victory, which brought him his first championship. After Jones had changed his weight category Hopkins became the undisputed middleweight champion and has then become one of the best champions ever of his division.
The year 1994 meant the final breakthrough to the world’s boxing elite for Jones. He defended his middleweight title by knocking out the highly ranked Thomas Tate in just two rounds and after that he changed his division to the super-middleweight where he had visited already earlier. In the big fight of the year Jones met James Toney in a clash for the IBF-title. Toney at the time was generally ranked as the second best fighter of the world behind only Pernell Whitaker. The bout was supposed to be an exciting one but it turned out to be an one-sided display of skills in favour of Jones. With his movement and amazing speed he almost played with Toney at times and won the bout easily on points.
Jones held firmly to his new title and during the next couple of years he was at his best in the ring. The speed of his punches was comparable to anybody in the ring history and in the super middleweight also his punching power was devastating. Jones fought as well from both in- and outside and usually he didn’t even give a round to his opponents let alone that he had been in danger of losing to anybody. In 1996 Jones moved, mostly in hope of bigger purses, to light-heavyweight division where he debuted by capturing a title with a victory over former light-middleweight legend Mike McCallum.
In 1997 Jones suffered the first setback of his career when he hit his opponent Montell Griffin twice when Griffin was taking a knee and thus Jones got disqualified. In the rematch that took place later in the same year Jones restored the normal order by blasting Griffin out in the first round. Still in the same year Jones scored one of his most impressive victories as he with a single shot broke the ribs of Virgil Hill, the former long-time champion of the division, and knocked him out in four rounds.
Jones was still in his prime in the ring although now he was fighting a class above his favourite division. Jones usually was shorter than his opponents, but his speed and technique were still too much for all comers. During years 1997-2002 Jones controlled his title as he pleased. In many instances he talked about moving up to heavyweight class but that move had to be waited still for long. During this time Jones also received harsh criticism for facing easy opponents. While it is true that some of his foes such as Richard Frazier and Glen Kelly were indeed far from championship calibre, often the critique was also off-base. For instance Jones got plenty of bashing for fighting Julio Gonzales and Richard Hall, but they both demonstrated later that they were indeed among the best of the division, against Jones they were just way over their heads. Also the opponents who were considered to be tougher, such as Reggie Johnson, didn’t fare any better.
In year 2003 Jones finally made up for his promises and rose to the heavyweight and faced the WBA-beltholder of the division, John Ruiz. That performance again was as masterful as they get. With his quick and sharp counters Jones stopped Ruiz’ rushes one after another and disarmed him completely on his way to a lopsided victory. Jones’ achievement is really notable despite the fact that Ruiz is among the weaker titleholders of the division’s history and that he was not the ‘real’ champion at any stage. Ruiz is after all still one of the best fighters of the division and he has defeated a whole bunch of other top heavyweights and against Jones he had a weight advantage of 30 lbs on his side.
Later in the year Jones slimmed back down to light-heavyweight to meet Antonio Tarver. In that bout Jones appeared to be weak after his weight loss and for the first time in his career he was in real danger of losing to his opponent before he turned the bout to his favour with a rally in the last two rounds. The rematch was held earlier this year and nobody who has visited boxing related websites can’t have missed the solution of the fight. With a single left hook Tarver turned Jones’ lights off and knocked him out in the second round.
The loss against Tarver clearly demonstrated that Jones no longer is the best fighter in the world but its meaning to Jones’ all-time status is very questionable. What can not be overlooked is that Jones already is 35 years of age. His fighting has always been much based on his speed and reflexes, and both of these attributes usually erode quickly, so at that age they can’t be what they once were. A comparison to other recent ring legends is revealing: 34-year-old Sugar Ray Leonard was ring-worn and took a horrible beating from Terry Norris. Mike Tyson at the age of 35 was a pale ghost of his former self and was trashed by Lennox Lewis. 36-year-old Muhammad Ali lost to novice Leon Spinks and struggled in most of his fights. Pernell Whitaker took a beating from Felix Trinidad at the age of 35 and retired. Nobody would even think about dismissing the achievements of these greats because of what they did as old men. Why should it be different with Jones? It is true that Leonard and Whitaker fought outside their best division, but so did Jones. Some fighters are late bloomers, but Jones prime was clearly 5-10 years ago.
Also a one-punch KO-loss does not mean that you should underestimate Jones’ chin. Also a granite-chinned Roberto Duran was knocked out in two rounds and nobody suspects his punch resistance. Tarver is known as a big hitter and his left hand punch landed on Jones about as well as a punch can land. Before this bout Jones had only been down once in his career so that hardly makes him weak-chinned.
Jones’ career has always been viewed through more critical glasses that most other great fighters. The first fight against Tarver was the first fight in Jones’ career apart from the first Griffin bout when Jones’ performance was actually weak and this happened when Jones was at the age of 34 and had 49 bouts under his belt. For most of good fighters an off-performance means a loss or a disputed victory. For Jones an off-performance was losing three rounds in a TKO victory (against Eric Harding in 2000).
Jones has also received hard criticism for avoiding tough challengers and for the empty boasts to take big fights in heavyweight. The first of these claims is partly true. Especially the fact that Jones never faced Dariusz Michalczewski tarnishes his record some. In this case the reason for the fight not happening had as much to do with both sides however. Also in Jones’ record there are 4-5 names that will once be included to the Hall Of Fame, so you can’t really talk about weak competition with him.
The uncovered promises that Jones has sometimes given however should not affect his all-time ranking that finally will only be decided on his achievement. Of course the talks about facing Mike Tyson that he started already in 1995 and the last-minute cancellations of fights like the one against Buster Douglas in 1998 have been really annoying but they do not make his achievement any lesser. The boxing history knows plenty of great champions who have never moved up in weight, Bernard Hopkins and Marvin Hagler being the most recent examples. Despite his big talk Jones has no bigger obligation to face foes bigger than himself than anybody else does.
One of the more peculiar unwritten rules of the boxing world is also that in about 20 years after the fighter has retired, his appreciation suddenly starts to raise. This has happened almost to every formerly underrated ex-champions and sooner or later that will happen to Jones too even if he couldn’t revenge his first real loss in the ring. Hopefully Jones doesn’t need to wait for his true recognition for that long since during his time at super-middleweight he was, at least in this writer’s opinion, as good as any fighter ever. Even though he is not the greatest boxer ever measured by achievement, he is still undoubtedly fitting to their company in the golden pages of the boxing history books.