By Thomas Gerbasi
Like a growing number of people these days, Roy Jones Jr. is a Tim Tebow fan. You could chalk it up to the former pound-for-pound great from Pensacola cheering for a former Florida Gator, but it goes beyond that for Jones when it comes to his thoughts on the Denver Broncos quarterback.
“I’m one of the people that continue to tell people ‘Put Tebow in the game and let him play and watch what happens,’” Jones told BoxingScene.com on Thursday. “He has a gift. God blessed Tebow. Not that he’s gonna look good, not that he’s gonna be your best passer, not that he may even win you a Super Bowl. But put him in the game and watch what happens. I guarantee you that he’ll win more games than he’s gonna lose. Because that’s what he is and that’s what his gift is.”
If anyone knows about having a gift in the world of professional sports, it’s Jones. The Boxing Writers Association of America’s “Fighter of the Decade” in the 90’s, Jones won world titles in the middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight division and he made it look effortless because for him, it was. For a while, it looked like he would never be beaten (outside of his fluke disqualification loss to Montell Griffin in 1997, one avenged by a first round knockout less than five months later.)
But this is boxing, and no one stays on top forever. Sugar Ray Robinson had his Joey Archer, Muhammad Ali his Trevor Berbick. For Jones, now 42 and a little over a month away from his 43rd birthday, he’s had a string of performances in which there has been little resemblance to the man who mixed speed, power, and finesse into a dazzling package that was so impressive he sometimes looked bored in the ring.
Beginning with a second round knockout loss to Antonio Tarver in their 2004 rematch, Jones has gone 5-7 in his last 12 fights, blasphemy if you ever told one of his fans that’s how things would be back when he was dominating everyone put in front of him. Most frighteningly, four of those seven defeats have come by knockout, including a scary tenth round defeat against Denis Lebedev in May.
To a boxing world that loves a great comeback more than anything, this was the last straw.
Not to Jones. On Saturday night, he will lace up the gloves as a professional for the 63rd time against a 14-5-2 fighter named Max Alexander. The fight week for the bout at the Atlanta Civic Center is a lot different from the ones when he fought on the sport’s biggest stages against the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Tarver, Joe Calzaghe, James Toney, and John Ruiz.
“This one’s a little more different than normal because for me, I can’t fail,” he said. “I need to do better than I’ve been doing or I can call it a day. This is what the truth is. You feel good, you got yourself in pretty good shape this time, and you’re ready to go, so now it’s on you. If this stuff works, then you’re off to a new start. If it don’t, then it’s the end of it. You tried, you gave it your all, you dedicated yourself to eight weeks of training and did everything you’re supposed to do. Now if it don’t work this time, you’ll know it’s time to call it a day. But there’s no pressure on me – I feel confident, I feel calm, I feel relaxed. I ain’t even nervous.”
It’s the perfect return engagement for Jones, an off the mainstream radar bout against an opponent with an 0-5-1 slate in his last six and only two knockouts in his 14 wins. But this bout was never about Alexander. It was and is about Jones, and why he is continuing to fight at 42 after losing three in a row. With Hall of Fame announcements coming out this week, I asked him why he, a guaranteed first ballot inductee, would still fight knowing that if he walked away tomorrow, five years later he would be in with all the sport’s greats. It was a briefly contentious exchange.
“What does being a first ballot Hall of Famer do for me when I still want to fight?” he bristled. “You think I’m gonna stop like that because of something five years down the line? I might be dead in five years, who knows. You think I’m gonna save my life for five years down the line; who knows what the hell might happen to me in five years. I still got it, I still feel good, so am I gonna stop now so I can be safe and careful and hope that I don’t mess up my chances? What if I better my chances of going in the first time? So there are two sides to that coin and I understand that. What if I do go capture the cruiserweight title and have the greatest comeback in the history of the sport?”
“But you do understand the concern people have,” I countered.
“I totally understand the concern,” said Jones. “But do you understand my concern?”
Strangely, I do. And in a weird way, I see Jones’ stubbornness and willingness to put himself in harm’s way to do things his own way as the things that made him great in the first place.
He agrees and laughs.
“How can you expect me to change now? That’s just who I am.”
It is. He’s a fighter. The same untouchable force that many questioned when it came to heart and desire has emerged as someone who will risk it all in dogfights against opponents who wouldn’t have stood a chance with him years ago, and he’s doing it far removed from the HBO airwaves that made him a household name. That’s a tough way to earn your respect, but Jones has seen the change in attitude from some regarding how he’s perceived circa 2011.
“I had one of my favorite people tell me one day ‘you know, I never thought you would be able to make an adjustment to not being in charge or not being on top your whole career,’” he admits. “And that said a lot to me, and it lets me know that I am gaining more respect from those guys than ever before. They can never understand how you can keep coming back and keep coming back. Most of those guys want to say ‘aw, quit, quit.’ But I’m not a quitter. I can’t define quit. I’ll stop when I want to.”
So as far as he sees it, what’s been going wrong in his recent bouts, losses to Lebedev, Hopkins, and Danny Green?
“A lot of different things,” he said. “You’ve got to be surrounded by the right people and it was kind of a bad situation. When you’re staying in the same places all the time, you can’t grow. It was like I was stagnant for a minute, so I had to change myself and get myself out of my normal comfort zone and go get in different situations so I can start to grow again.”
Jones does admit to wondering whether it was wise to continue after this spring’s bout with Lebedev though. But a clean bill of health from the Mayo Clinic and a new trainer in the man who led former lightweight champ Paul Spadafora to prominence, Tom Yankello, Jones decided to give it one more shot.
“After the last one, I thought about it (retirement), and I said I think I’m gonna try one more thing,” he said. “I was gonna try John David Jackson, but this other guy convinced me to try this guy Tom first. He said he’s gonna tell you the truth, he’s gonna tell you whether he thinks you can or you can’t anymore. And if he says you can’t, then we’ll go ahead and do something else. And if you can, at least you’ve got a confirmed person telling you the truth and you can go up there and work with him and go. If you want to do it, you should be serious about it.”
Two weeks with Yankello convinced Jones that he still had more to give, and he sounds genuinely excited about getting into the ring this Saturday.
“It ain’t new, but it’s different for me because I don’t do it this way.” said Jones of his new training regimen. “I said ‘this might not be a bad idea.’”
So will the new man in the corner, a skilled defensive coach, have Jones up to his old tricks of standing in front of opponents, making them miss three punches and then throwing back four?
“He’s gonna make you miss three or four and he might throw 10 back,” laughed Jones, who then pauses briefly before continuing.
“I feel really good, I ain’t gonna lie to you. We’ve been having great training sessions, so if there’s something wrong with me, I can’t tell.”
Alexander, who appeared on season three of ‘The Contender,’ isn’t likely to be the one to test him though. No knock on the 30-year old from Camden, New Jersey, because this would be a description pinned on some current contenders and champions, but he probably wouldn’t have been a sparring partner for a prime Jones, let alone an opponent for him. So what does Jones see when he looks at Alexander?
“To be honest with you, to give Tom full respect, I didn’t look at Max Alexander,” said Jones. “I let Tom look at him. I don’t want to go in with a preconceived notion in my mind before I got here. I might look at him tomorrow night (at weigh-ins Friday) before I go into the ring with him the next day, but I ain’t looked at him yet. I want to make sure I gave Tom everything he asked of me. If I looked at a guy and I see what you just said, I might lighten up what I’m doing. When I looked at Dennis Lebedev, I was like ‘man, that dude can’t beat me.’ I should have never looked at him because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have eased up. This time, I didn’t look at him (Alexander) and I won’t look at him until tomorrow night when there’s nothing I can do about it, which is good, because that means that I prepared myself the best that I can and now he’s got to face it. If he’s good or better than I expect, too bad. He’s got to deal with me because ain’t nobody better than me.”
That’s the swagger that so many loved and probably just as many hated, but that’s who Roy Jones Jr. was. No matter how you felt about him, you had to appreciate his talent and you had to watch him when he was fighting. And when he was on, it was a treat to see him. Not against overmatched foes like Richard Frazier and Glen Kelly, but when he was beating Toney, Mike McCallum, Hopkins, and Ruiz.
He’s not that guy anymore, and no one would have expected him to be at 42. But he’s still a fighter, he still has dreams of making what he calls the greatest comeback in boxing history, and he’s earned that right of giving it one more shot. Asked his plans for 2012 should he, as expected, get by Alexander, he says, “2012 I’m gonna line up and figure out which direction I need to go to challenge for the cruiserweight title. I don’t care if it’s the WBA, WBC, IBF, or the IBO. In the midst of that lineup, if I get an opportunity to get revenge on anybody that I lost to in the last three or four years, I’m gonna get ‘em.”
Practically no one who has seen Jones’ recent fights can expect him to reach such lofty goals, but then again who could have pictured someone doing what he did in the ring for so long? Maybe it all goes back to the Tim Tebow thing and Jones believing, like Tebow, that there’s no sweeter feeling than proving everybody wrong.
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“How many people wish they knew what their gift was from God?” asks Jones. “When you find out what your gift is from God, are you gonna sleep on it when it’s still active and in you? Put Roy Jones in the ring, and I guarantee you that he’s gonna give you something unlike nobody else, and I guarantee you he’s gonna win a lot more than he’s gonna lose until that day comes that he can’t do it no more. And when that day comes, he’s gonna tell you that.”