By Cliff Rold
This Saturday night, Roy Jones makes his 59th career start, still in search of an ending to his liking. Across the ring, he’ll find a former Super Middleweight titlist, Jeff Lacy (25-2, 17 KO), looking for a big name to revive his fortunes.
That’s the storyline of this single fight.
It is only a small part of a bigger storyline which has been a prominent part of boxing for over two decades. While others were bigger stars, the peak Jones was the preeminent physical talent of his generation. The talent might not be what it was any more, but the memories of better days remain strong with boxing fans.
The memories of lesser challenges, even at his peak, do as well and it is part of what makes Jones so compelling. Was he the Ray Robinson of his time? Or was Jones a carefully manufactured athletic specimen who got too much credit for beating less than he could have?
As we prepare for the latest in the last chapters of the Roy years, it’s a good time to ask: how good was RJJ measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2. Competition Faced
3. Competition Not Faced
4. Reaction to Adversity
5. What’s Left to Prove
With that in mind, let’s head to…
The Tale of the Tape
Hailed From: Pensacola, Florida
Turned Professional: May 6, 1989 (TKO2 Ricky Randall)
Record: 53-5, 39 KO
Record in Title Fights: 24-4, 14 KO, 2 KOBY
Lineal World Titles: None
Other Major Titles: IBF Middleweight (1993-94, 1 Defenses); IBF Super Middleweight (1994-96, 5 Defenses); WBC Light Heavyweight (1996-97; 1997-98, 1 Defense); WBC/WBA Light Heavyweight (1998-99, 3 Defenses); WBC/WBA/IBF Light Heavyweight (1999-2002, 5 Defenses); Ring/WBC/WBA/IBF Light Heavyweight (2002-03, 2 Defenses); Ring Light Heavyweight (2003, 1 Defense); Ring/WBC Light Heavyweight (2003-04)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 6 (Jorge Vaca, Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Virgil Hill, Julio Gonzalez, Felix Trinidad)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 1 (Joe Calzaghe)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 10 (Jorge Castro, Thulani Malinga, Vinny Pazienza, Eric Lucas, Mike McCallum, Montell Griffin, Lou Del Valle, Reggie Johnson, Clinton Woods, Antonio Tarver)
Current/Former Alphabelt Titlists Faced in Defeat: 2 (Antonio Tarver, Glen Johnson)
Jones stands out as one of the most accomplished pugilists of any time, from the unpaid to the paid ranks. Posting a mark of 121-13, a 17-year old Jones won the National Golden Gloves at Light Welterweight in 1986 and a Bronze medal in the same class at that year’s Goodwill Games. Jones furthered his amateur reach with another Golden Gloves crown at Light Middleweight in 1987 and a bronze at the 1988 tournament, defeated in the semi-finals by future professional Middleweight champion Gerald McClellan. Jones stuck with the weight class and secured two wins over future professional Super Middleweight champion Frankie Liles at the 1988 Olympic Trials, securing a spot on the U.S. team bound for Seoul.
In South Korea, he continued his amateur excellence with four lopsided wins, never giving up an earned point even in a semi-final against future WBC Super Middleweight champion Richie Woodhall.
He won the final as well, no matter what 3 corrupt judges had to say about it. Over three rounds, he out landed South Korea’s Park Si-Hun by almost a three to one margin and, while the controversial decision in the Gold Medal match was never overturned, Jones was awarded the first Val Barker trophy, representing the Games best overall fighter.
Jones stock soared given his talent and public sympathy after the Olympic travesty, but the young fighter took time away before beginning his paid career as a Middleweight in May 1989. Expected to rise quickly through the ranks, Jones early career stalled as he battled behind the scenes with his father and trainer, Roy Jones Sr., for what direction he was headed. Ultimately, his father was let go and Jones began to move seriously with a first round knockout of former lineal World Welterweight champion Jorge Vaca on the undercard of Iran Barkley-Darin Van Horn in January 1992.
By May 1993, he’d worked high enough into the IBF 160 lb. ratings to score a title opportunity against fellow young contender Bernard Hopkins for a Middleweight belt recently vacated by James Toney. Jones won the unanimous decision (116-112 across the board) and defended once, along with three non-title wins, before moving up eight pounds to challenge Toney for more IBF honors in November 1994. Again, Jones prevailed by decision, winning 9, 10, or 11 rounds depending on which judge was asked.
Five defenses followed before Jones again moved up the scale to face former three-division titlist Mike McCallum for the interim WBC Light Heavyweight belt, again via unanimous decision. When full WBC titlist Fabrice Tiozzo elected to move to Cruiserweight, Jones was granted the full beltholder distinction.
Jones would lose and regain the belt in his next two outings in 1997, suffering a controversial disqualification against then-undefeated Montell Griffin and then revenging the offense with a first round knockout. Following a lengthy vacation, he returned in April, 1998 to stop former lineal World Light Heavyweight champion Virgil Hill in four rounds of non-title action.
From there, Jones set about collecting titles at 175 lbs., earning decisions over Lou Del Valle in July, 1998 for the WBA strap and over Reggie Johnson in June 1999 for the IBF belt. Holding the three belts most recognized in the U.S. at the time, many viewed Jones as the undisputed champion following the Johnson win.
Jones would make seven defenses of the belts, adding Ring magazine recognition in 2002 when the magazine began recognizing champions again. In March 2003, he would skip past the Cruiserweight division, bulking up to tackle WBA Heavyweight beltholder John Ruiz and winning eight, nine, and ten rounds on the judge’s scorecards.
A return to Light Heavyweight in November of the same year marked a turning point for the worse in Jones career. He struggled to a narrow decision win over longtime rhetorical rival Antonio Tarver, retaining his Ring belt and regaining a WBC belt which Tarver had picked up off a strip. Jones was then knocked out in the second round of a May 2004 rematch. Attempting to garner an IBF 175 lb. belt before a rubber match with Tarver, Jones instead was left unconscious in nine rounds by veteran Glen Johnson in September of the same year.
Jones would stay out of the ring for over a year before returning and turning his attentions directly to Tarver, staying afoot while losing a lopsided decision in October 2005. Jones fought only once in 2006 and 2007 before a Madison Square Garden showdown with former three-division champion Felix Trinidad in January 2008 set up a chance to challenge the winner of the Ring title once more, ultimately against Joe Calzaghe, in November. Jones dropped Calzaghe in the first before taking a lengthy pummeling en route to a unanimous, ten rounds to two, defeat. He has fought only once since heading into this weekend’s contest with Lacy.
Among outside the ring honors, Jones was named:
Fighter of the Year by Ring Magazine in 1994;
#43 of the Top 50 of the Last 50 Years by Ring Magazine in 1996;
#1 Pound for Pound All-Time by legendary historian Herb Goldman at Boxing Digest in 1997;
Knockout of the Year by Ring Magazine (KO4 Virgil Hill) in 1998;
Fighter of the Decade for the 1990s by the Boxing Writers Association of America;
#44 of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years by Ring Magazine in 2002; and
#89 of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time by Ring Magazine, 2003.
While he did fight a notable Heavyweight, Jones primarily operated in three weight division in his career and still continues today as a Light Heavyweight so it will be those pools of competition which get the bulk of the attention.
At Middleweight, after the noted slow start, Jones defeated contenders at both 160 and 168 lbs. to include future WBA Middleweight titlist Jorge Castro, undefeated Glenn Thomas, Percy Harris, and former title challenger Glenn Wolfe. Only Castro lasted the distance. His defeat of Hopkins grew larger with time but even in 1993 was considered a solid top ten win as was his sole Middleweight title defense, a second round blasting of Thomas Tate. In between, he also added a sixth round drubbing of the future WBC Super Middleweight titlist Malinga.
At Super Middleweight, he scored the win which truly made him a boxing star, winning almost every round against a Toney rated just behind Welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker as the best fighter in the world at the time, a slim minority even favoring Toney. During his two year reign, questions about Jones’ choice of foes began to grow in volume as he faced a non-murderer’s row which included Antoine Byrd and Bryant Brannon along with former title challenger Tony Thornton, marginal top ten contender and former 140 and 154 lb. beltholder Pazienza, and future WBC 168 lb. beltholder Lucas. He’d also find victory in a prematurely stopped non-title affair with Merqui Sosa.
Moving on to 175 lbs. Jones opened with McCallum who, already 40, was past his best days at 154 and 160 lbs. but still considered a top Light Heavyweight and only one fight removed from the WBC belt and a debatable loss to Tiozzo. Matters got tougher in his next four outings. Griffin, a 1992 U.S. Olympian, entered their first bout at 26-0 with two controversial wins against Toney under his belt. Even after Jones stopped him, Griffin continued to defeat, or at least compete, with the best of the class for decade while Hill, at 43-2, was only one fight removed from a career best unification victory over Henry Maske. Del Valle was 27-1 and together they marked one of his strongest runs in terms of consecutive challenges.
Quality dipped decidedly in Jones next two starts as he faced Middleweight Otis Grant and one of the worst WBC mandatories ever allowed a title fight, an 18-3-1 Richard Frazier who’d faced men with losing records in three of his previous six. Jones dismissed both before stepping back up against a Reggie Johnson who’d rebounded from a lost WBA Middleweight crown and subsequent failed tries to regain that belt with an IBF 175 lb. title win and two defenses.
Following unification, Jones faced hit or miss competition, some of it more creditable later than at the time. The then-undefeated Julio Gonzalez was bounced off the floor three times in 2001 but lasted the distance. He went on to place the first loss on the career of lineal division champion Dariusz Michalczewski (more on him later) two years later. Clinton Woods was whipped in six rounds as a mandatory in 2002, dismissed as lesser fare only to later prove a class challenge and eventual title holder in contests with quality foes, including a competitive three fight rivalry with Glen Johnson.
A then-undefeated Eric Harding was fully legitimized as challenger before he faced Jones in 2000. Harding had a debated win against Griffin and decidedly handed Tarver his first loss to earn his shot. Harding performed as well as anyone had against Jones since Griffin before retiring with an injury after ten.
In 2003, following the Woods win, Jones made a long discussed move to Heavyweight, selecting John Ruiz and his WBA belt as targets. Ruiz came in off a 1-1-1 split with Evander Holyfield and disqualification win over contender Kirk Johnson. Never anyone’s idea of fun viewing, Ruiz’s loss was so one-sided it allowed many to dismiss him after the Jones loss. However, like Woods or Gonzalez, he continued to win after Jones, regaining his belt and adding wins over former World Champion Hasim Rahman and contender Fres Oquendo and Andrew Golota.
Jones competition hasn’t been as much a story as his failures since Ruiz with four losses in the nine bouts since. Notably, all of the defeats have come against the cream of the Light Heavyweights. Tarver and Johnson are among the top 175 lb. fighters of the decade and Joe Calzaghe is bound for the Hall of Fame. It must be recalled that he did beat Tarver the first time. It was close but he won and he did it without his best stuff, something often overlooked because of how the rest of their rivalry unfolded.
Competition Not Faced
As regularly relayed in these “Measured Against All-Time” selections, this section is not concerned with why fights did not happen but simply that they did not.
In the case of Jones, each of his three primary divisions provides significant names not faced, but the ‘how many of them’ varies as do the implications for his standing. In 58 fights to date, his first 18 were all right around the Middleweight limit but, before he’d even won his first title, he was already heavily flirting with 168 and it was openly struggling with the limit.
That said, Jones was considered top ten at Middleweight as early as 1992 along with other contenders and titlists such as a younger Reggie Johnson and Julian Jackson. Before he exited the division, John David Jackson and Gerald McClellan had joined the mix as well. All would have been strong challenges on the way to the IBF crown or in the year he held it and none were faced. Even given his short championship tenure, it’s noticeable given the choice of time sucking fights like Fermin Cherino and Danny Garcia instead.
Super Middleweight is a much stronger case of missed competition. Facing Toney, and running him nearly out of the ring, trumps any other win he could have picked up but there was some real excellence around from 1994-96. Among the names in contention or with titles during the Jones title run at 168 were two-division titlists Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, Frankie Liles, Michael Nunn, and Steve Collins.
While men like Byrd and Pazienza were rated (both by sanctioning bodies and in the press) among the top ten, they were near the bottom. With seventeen weight classes to go around, quality in a top ten can get thin down below and it’s clear where the quality was in Jones time. He often looked unbeatable at 168 but part of that was decidedly beatable opposition.
Light Heavyweight is probably where Jones career is best defined and the competition tipped in Jones favor over time. Though vociferous arguments took place about who he was fighting, he started and finished strong. The in between often came down to one name.
Both men would occasionally say each other’s names, but for the five to six years they spent as the world’s two premiere Light Heavies, there was no fight. There needed to be one. No matter the devastating body shot knockout of Hill in Jones favor, it was Michalczewski who lifted Hill’s Light Heavyweight title one fight prior. He earned the lineal claim as the man who beat the man after Hill firmly established himself as king and Jones, while respected by almost all as the better man, never cleared it up in a class he otherwise cleaned out.
Jones also did his best to avoid WBC mandatory obligations, on two occasions, against Nunn. While Nunn was faded from his peak Middleweight championship form, he would still have been a sterner test than Grant or Frazier. Jones once was quoted to the affect that he didn’t want to have to be the guy Nunn got up for after a series of lackadaisical showings.
A written, and granted, request for Tarver to engage in an eliminator for a title shot in 2000 (resulting in Tarver’s first loss to Harding) can be looked at a number of ways but, given what ultimately happened in the ring, means little since they eventually got it on. He was extremely prickly about giving rematches to possibly more challenging versions of Hopkins and Toney while at 175 as well.
Finally, it must be noted he made the wise choice over the bold one at Heavyweight, choosing Ruiz for a belt instead of pursuing Lennox Lewis for the real Heavyweight Championship of the World. There isn’t a lot to fault there; he would have given up a good six inches and close to fifty pounds versus Lewis. However, it is an indication of shrewdness over audacity.
Reaction to Adversity
Jones didn’t see a lot of adversity in the ring at his peak but there was enough in the best years, and later, to leave a mixed view. The first serious fight he ever found himself in came in the first contest with Griffin and it looked like it was going well for Jones. He was being hit and outthought for much of the early going. Even with Griffin operating under the tutelage of the same Eddie Futch who gave Muhammad Ali fits from the corner, Jones had Griffin hurt a couple times as the fight moved into its second half and legitimately sent to him to the floor. The right and left hand he hit Griffin with while he rested on a knee along the ropes appeared a product of a frustration. To his credit, after Griffin had inexplicably let Futch go, he responded by going destroyer in the rematch.
Two fights later, Jones visited the floor for the first time in his career, eating a nasty straight left hand from the southpaw Del Valle in round eight. Stunned, Jones got off the floor, used his legs, and went right back to winning rounds without a second thought.
Adversity would arise again in all of the Tarver fights and against Johnson. In Tarver I, dehydrated from weight loss and stymied by Tarver’s long right jab, Jones was buckled in the tenth and things looked bad. One fight after winning a Heavyweight belt, Jones looked more beatable than he ever had and yet he summoned fight saving flurries in the eleventh round and again in the twelfth to hold Tarver at bay. It was gutsy stuff. So too was his struggle to rise in the second Tarver fight as he pushed himself up only to slip and push up again in trying to beat the count. He didn’t but his instinct was the right one, was to get up.
Once he’d been beaten cleanly, Jones seemed to run out of the will to win he showed in the first Tarver fight. He laid along the ropes against Johnson, occasionally flurrying off but never changing his approach. Johnson had a lot to do with that but it seemed Jones merely was looking to finish. The same was true in the third Tarver fight where, after sensationally winning the fifth, he went back into a shell. Later, Jones claimed his father’s return to the corner was a distraction, but he put him there and it was an odd reason not to throw punches. Even as Tarver was flagging late, Jones never took a wild risk to turn the tide.
Against Calzaghe, after the early knockdown, he was confronted with a fresher man and again seemed content to finish. He’d rarely had to take risks or let it all hang out through the bulk of his pro career and it just might not have been in his nature, making the first Tarver fight more the exception than the rule.
What’s Left to Prove
In a big picture sense, Jones can prove he knows to quit before he gets hurt but it might be too late for such concerns. He is, like most fighters, electing to continue well past his best. That doesn’t mean there isn’t at least one avenue where he could make a final statement.
Off of the one sided loss to Calzaghe, Jones would be surprising as a serious champion again but it’s not unfathomable. It would take a perfect turn of events. First and foremost he has to get past Lacy and that won’t be easy. He stands on the verge of retirement at 40. Lacy stands on the verge of irrelevance at age 32. The stakes are higher for the younger man.
If Jones succeeds Saturday, he could turn his attentions to the choices which will be made by Bernard Hopkins. Closing in on AARP status, Hopkins inexplicably remains one of the best in the world at age 44. He is likely to fight again early next year either against the winner of November’s Light Heavyweight clash between Chad Dawson and Glen Johnson or against World Cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek. Were Hopkins to win either contest and accept a challenge from Jones, it would give Roy the chance to bookend his title days against the man it all started against and reframe a debate about whether Hopkins has made a case as Jones better in the 16 years since their 1993 encounter.
Measured Against History
Prior to Jones challenge of Calzaghe last year, the myriad points of argument about who and what he was as a fighter were looked at here ( http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16792 ). Long after Jones is inducted to the Hall of Fame, fans that saw him live and those who catch wind of the chatter will still be hashing it out.
It says a hell of a lot about what was witnessed in his prime.
There were more than a few, young and old, who watched Roy do his thing in the 1990s and wondered aloud if there had ever been a superior athlete in the ring. He had arguably the fastest hands in the history of the sport with genuine one-punch power, to the head and body, while also possessing the reflexes to allow him to be as unhittable as Willie Pep.
Because of those traits, his biggest supporters have difficulty separating them from his resume flaws and his biggest detractors have difficulty recognizing his resume strengths.
Let’s begin with the flaws.
The lack of rematches with Hopkins and Toney takes away from the certainty an Ezzard Charles, just one example, had in declaring superiority over a Charley Burley or Archie Moore. It’s a key point where differences emerge with the immortals. Jones did enough to prove great in his time but those men did much more in theirs to prove greater. There have been vocal cases over the years that Hopkins was not ready, Toney out of shape, and Jones could have laid those debates to rest.
The Charles’s, along with men like Henry Armstrong and Robinson, also don’t have the style issue Jones does. Style in this case has nothing to do with the way Roy fought. It indicates what he precariously did not fight against.
Look at the list of names not faced from Middleweight to Light Heavyweight again. From Benn to Liles to Michalczewski, the bulk of them were either world class pressure fighters, dangerous punchers, or both. Where are the men on Jones record, in his prime, notable for the ability to turn a fight on a single punch? It might not have been as noticeable had the second Tarver fight not happened, much less the five minute bout of unconsciousness after Johnson, but those things did happen. The result was a fighter who precariously skipped the best punchers of his prime getting blasted out the first time his chin was truly tested. Could his chin have handled eras without HBO contracts?
The question counts because HBO is also a factor in evaluating Jones. Some of Jones missed foes can be attributed to the business of the time with Frank Warren and Don King keeping their fighters largely on Showtime while Jones was exclusive to HBO. When Jones moved to Light Heavyweight, HBO abetted the notion that he was moving up for greater challenges, but look again. Jones came of age in one of the deepest fields one will ever find at Middleweight and Super Middleweight and moved up and away to a Light Heavyweight class at much lower ebb.
It cannot be forgotten that Roy was largely self managed. He made the wise business decision to accept and protect millions from HBO. There was always the theory of a fighter whose approach to the game changed when he witnessed the ring death of Jimmy Garcia as a commentator and saw the brain damage inflicted on amateur rival Gerald McClellan against Benn in 1995, but the punchers weren’t really there before those events.
And while some might argue he would have fought McClellan or Benn had those men not lost at bad times, it is recalled Benn had been a huge draw and championship fighter for years while McClellan was a parallel Middleweight champion as early as 1993. It’s a little too convenient to say it was always just unlucky timing, especially from a fighter who picked so many of his own spots. Add just a few more of these names to his record in place of Tony Thornton’s and Ricky Frazier’s and how much quieter do arguments against Jones’s greatness become?
So we know what wasn’t there…and yet look at what was. While a case can be made Hopkins wasn’t quite ready or Toney wasn’t in peak form, combine those two with Hill and Tarver and Jones can say he beat the best Middleweight, Super Middleweight, and two of the three best Light Heavyweights of his best years…and all but Tarver he beat fairly easy. Hopkins was the most competitive only in so much as he won four rounds strategically placed in their twelve rounds after Roy had secured all of the four rounds preceding them in equal halves of battle.
Jones might not have been entirely unlucky in whom he didn’t face, but he did suffer somewhat from beating men before they were fully recognized for their qualities. A rumored Benn fight was ruined by Malinga years after Roy had run Malinga over. Woods’s later successes have been covered. Castro followed the Jones loss with a WBA belt at 160 and wins over John David Jackson and Reggie Johnson.
In terms of his divisions, while he didn’t compete long enough to make a serious mark at 160, Jones rates near the top of any listing of the best Super Middleweights and, from 1996-2003, he bested almost every Light Heavyweight who really mattered not named Dariusz. The lack of a win over the best man he could have faced for most of his reign precludes Jones earning a spot with the top 4 or 5 Light Heavyweights but he can still be argued as among the top twenty at 175.
The Heavyweight win gets both under and overrated. Because there was a belt involved, some get carried away with the meaning of the win. Jones is far from the first former high-class Middleweight to beat a decent Heavyweight and there’s no need to look to Hall of Famers like Sam Langford or Mickey Walker to find examples. James Ellis struggled in an awesome class of 1960s Middleweights and yet won a WBA belt at Heavyweight later in the decade in what might just have been the best field of Heavyweights ever. No one ever confused the otherwise talented Ellis with Robinson for the feat and shouldn’t make the reach for Jones either.
However, if it was easy for former Middleweights to beat Heavyweights, for Heavyweight dollars, more would do it. Ruiz might have been a wise tactical choice, but Jones had to be good enough to make it work. He was.
That Jones was considered at or near the top of the pound-for-pound charts for almost a decade counts as well. He made such a strong impression, and fought enough quality foes, to make it incredible that it took some fifteen years for a decisive loss to happen.
No, he didn’t live up to the hopes of some to see an heir to Sugar Ray Robinson in the flesh and, no, it isn’t particularly close. However, one can be great without being Robinson. Sixteen major titlists defeated so far, 24 wins in title contests, and belts in four divisions didn’t happen by accident. The physical gifts were clear and the record had enough spots of greatness to reach an obvious verdict placing Jones outside the upper echelon but still among the top 50-100 fighters of all-time.
Verdict on Roy Jones Jr.: All-Time Great
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Joe Calzaghe – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16920
Oscar De La Hoya – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17277
James Toney – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17450
Evander Holyfield – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17642
Shane Mosley – http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18011
Dariusz Michalczewski: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=20296
Vernon Forrest: http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=21278
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com