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Why You Should Root Like Hell for
Antonio Tarver
Nov 7, 2003: Alex Pierpaoli

Roy Jones Jr. may be the greatest fighter that ever lived. He has dominated opponents from one hundred sixty pounds to two hundred twenty, over almost fifteen years as a professional prize-fighter. He has won enough alpha-belts to festoon himself with boxing bling-bling worthy of rapper 50 Cent’s jewelry box. He is 48-1 with 38 knockouts, the sole blemish on his record a disqualification loss he avenged with a first round knockout. Other than Sugar Ray Robinson himself, it is difficult to imagine another fighter who has so dominated the sport, and yet Roy Jones Jr. has never really been in a fight.

On his Pensacola ranch, Jones raises fighting roosters and pit bull dogs; but in the ring Roy is more apt to imitate the cocky strut of his birds than he will ever emulate the tenacious blood thirst of his canine charges. To some extent Jones has been the victim of his own dominance, so far ahead of his contemporaries in skill and talent he turns title challengers into bruised and battered underdogs who succumb under the barrages of stinging punches they never saw coming and couldn’t defend against. He has never been marked or scratched up. Not once has Jones been tested. He has never faded late in a fight and needed a big finish to secure victory. He has never squinted through blood at an unrelenting opponent. Jones has never wobbled across the canvas, his legs spongy and his head swimming with stars from a well-placed counterpunch. He has never looked to his corner man, Alton Merkerson, for the answers to an indomitable opponent.

That is, perhaps, until tomorrow night.

Antonio Tarver, and his claim to the 175 pound title Jones abandoned to fight as a heavyweight, is likely to be the last challenge for Roy Jones Jr.

There will be no rematch with Hopkins or Toney, no showdown with Chris Byrd.

Roy seems content to denigrate Toney and Byrd with trash-talking, while making negotiation demands so unacceptable any chance of ironing out a deal seems unlikely, and, at worst, improbable.

There just might be a Hasim Rahman, Fres Oquendo or Mike Tyson in Roy’s future but the outcome of each of those matches is a foregone conclusion.

Although Oquendo may be the most interesting, Tyson would surely be the richest bout for Jones and therefore the most likely to take place. But the Mike Tyson of today is no challenge; and that’s exactly why Roy is interested in fighting him. Tyson doesn’t have the desire or maturity to put himself through the rigors of a training camp, isn’t that obvious after he nearly jeopardized an easy payday against Clifford Etienne nine months ago? Tyson’s timing and reflexes have already deteriorated significantly and his current pace of three fights in as many years is hardly going to keep him sharp enough to compete with Roy Jones.

This is it. Antonio Tarver is Roy’s biggest and most dangerous challenge left before Jones struts off towards Canastota in a flourish of tail-feathers.

As great as Jones is, he has never been very interested in challenging himself. This is a fight Roy really didn’t want to take. Tarver picked this fight. He’s clamored for it since he crushed Eric Harding in their rematch on the under card of Forrest-Mosley 2 in July of 2002. After starting slow, Tarver cocked his shoulder back just slightly and let fly a left hand counter that buckled the knees of the aggressive Harding.

One round later Tarver had erased the only blemish on his professional record. Hoisted aloft by his corner men, Tarver shouted into HBO’s cameras: “Roy Jones, you next, baby. You can’t run now.”

But Roy did run; first through the un-challenge of Clinton Woods and then 19 pounds north to decision a durable but limited heavyweight.

In September of 2002, Roy faced Clinton Woods, a European journeyman that posed little challenge, choosing instead to test himself in the marketing arena alone by trying to sell the fight in the unlikely venue of Portland, Oregon. After outclassing Woods in 6 utterly one-sided rounds, rather than stay at 175 and turn back the challenge posed by Antonio Tarver, Jones opted to gain weight and challenge himself against the big dogs of the game: the heavyweights. In typical Jones fashion, he chose the weakest possible challenge for the most profitable reward, John Ruiz and his WBA title belt.

In the meantime, Antonio Tarver went about the business of proving he was the best light heavyweight on earth and challenged himself with Montell Griffin. Tarver outboxed Griffin easily and dropped him twice en route to a unanimous decision win. With trainer Buddy McGirt, Tarver used his superior height and reach and basic boxing to dominate the awkward Griffin, the closest thing to a nemesis Roy Jones Jr ever had.

Last March, after dismantling Ruiz in a stunning display of boxing, Roy was almost upstaged at the post fight press conference by fellow Floridian and amateur rival, Antonio Tarver. Just when his ego should have been awash in the praises of even the most hard-boiled pugilism-experts, Roy was forced to acknowledge the boasts of Tarver and a reminder that His Royness had not quite completed all open business at 175 pounds. When another fight at heavyweight was difficult to make and Tarver showed little desire to stop badgering Jones for a fight, Jones was forced to consider moving back down to 175 to shut Tarver’s mouth.

Jones became so flustered with Tarver’s confidence that the fight’s promotion is being billed as “Now it’s Personal.” As if actually having the gall to be confident against Roy crosses some imaginary line in the sand.

Jones, forever the egotist, has outdone the superstar stereotype of referring to oneself in the third person by describing and conversing with his own Mr. Hyde persona “RJ” who makes appearances only when the level-headed Roy Jones Jr. loses control. For this fight Jones claims RJ just might make an appearance. Tarver, also a master of self-promotion, counters Jones’ talk of RJ by saying that he plans to knock them both out.

As unlikely as that sounds coming from a seven to one underdog there are a few facts that make tomorrow’s fight, on paper at least, the challenge we’ve been waiting for.

Roy isn’t what he used to be. Despite the career-defining victory over a top ten quality heavyweight in Ruiz last March, Jones hasn’t had the stellar success of his early reign at light heavyweight. Derrick Harmon went ten rounds under enormous punishment before his corner saved him from further abuse. Julio Gonzalez went down but Roy couldn’t put him out in July of 2001. Against Ruiz, Roy was content to walk, walk, walk, cracking Ruiz with lightning counters when he dared get too close. Larry Merchant described Jones’ careful aggression as a “genius of economy.” How will his reluctance to throw caution to the wind serve him if Tarver comes on like a man-on-a-mission in the early going?

Roy Jones may come apart under pressure. We have never seen Roy handle adversity for the simple fact that he has never had to face any. Antonio Tarver has the tools to give Roy a fight, and factor in the possibility that dropping twenty pounds took more out of Roy than expected and adversity may be exactly what he gets. In his sole defeat, Roy’s overzealousness to land something solid on a surprisingly elusive Montell Griffin caused him a momentary lapse in concentration which resulted in the late hit when Griffin was down on one knee. If Tarver wobbles Jones, and Jones is hurt more than he has ever been, how exactly will he react? If RJ gets tagged with something damaging will he be able to maintain focus and bring himself back to the business at hand?

Antonio Tarver resembles another upset-minded fighter, Vernon Forrest, who forced the public to re-rank the sport’s pound-for-pound best after his victory over Sugar Shane Mosley. Like Forrest, Tarver was an exceptional amateur. His well-honed technique and basic boxing skills, his height, complimented with knockout power, make the southpaw Tarver the most significant challenge Roy Jones has faced since James Toney, who Jones decisioned nine years ago this month. Tarver fights at a good angle behind a nice long jab that cannot match Jones in speed but may just be able to stymie him if well-timed.

Antonio Tarver will attack Roy’s body and rough him up on the inside. Unlike John Ruiz, Antonio Tarver will not be hesitant when he gets close to Roy. If Tarver needs to grab hold of Jones to prevent himself from being stung by flurries off the ropes, Tarver has the strength, size and most importantly, the amateur pedigree to lock him up and contain Jones until Referee Kenny Bayless can separate them.

Tarver’s ace-in-the-hole may just be his trainer, and former welterweight champion, James Buddy McGirt. McGirt and his penchant for teaching fighters to jab at an opponent’s chest and work the body, rather than swing for the head, are the elements of a plan that if properly executed could just shock the world.

Roy Jones is an exceptional athlete and a tremendous fighter. He has received heaps up praise over the years, some deserved and some gratuitous. While he has had many exceptional victories he has become almost unbearable to listen to when singing his own praises. As great as his career has been there are still so many questions he has never answered, questions about character and toughness that prize-fighters are meant to answer at some point in their careers.

Tomorrow night, Roy faces in Antonio Tarver, an opponent he would have rather avoided, a motivated and dangerous opponent on a vision-quest to accept and conquer the greatest challenge available to him.

Antonio Tarver is going to upset Roy Jones simply because someone must.

Now it is personal, and Roy owes us that much.

Alex Pierpaoli has followed the Sweet Science for the past 17 years and is an avid boxing fan/writer. He has a degree in English from the University of Maine. Send comments or questions to:

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