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Good Night Sweet Roy: Deconstructing Boxing’s Prince
By Alex Pierpaoli (May 20, 2004) 
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For most of this past week Antonio Tarver told everyone willing to listen all about how he was going to finish his rematch with Roy Jones long before any judges could decide on the winner. On Saturday night, everyone who laughed off Tarver’s banter as typical pre-fight braggadocio were forced to hear the Magic Man’s left fist crack a sonic boom through the boxing world when it crunched against the jaw of Roy Jones Jr., putting him to sleep in round two of their Light Heavyweight Championship bout at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Antonio Tarver does well when given a second chance. His rematch with Eric Harding, which he won by 5th round knockout, went considerably better than their first meeting during which Harding broke Tarver’s jaw and went on to win by unanimous decision. After his first encounter with Roy Jones last November, Tarver knew it wasn’t a wise move on Roy’s part to grant his longtime Florida rival a rematch. But Tarver also knew that Roy’s ego couldn’t rest easy knowing there was someone, especially someone with as big a mouth as Tarver’s, walking around claiming he should have gotten the decision.

Until his first fight with Tarver, Roy Jones Jr. and his rabid fans, liked to brag about the fact that not many of Jones’ previous opponents could claim to have won individual rounds against His Royness, let alone have the gall to claim they were robbed by the judges. For the first time in his career Jones had a score to settle and Tarver knew that should be motivation enough to get a second chance at the pound-for-pound prince.

But Roy Jones has always found motivation in odd places. Roy is the sensitive man’s pugilist, Hamlet in a pair of Everlasts. In college, a professor of mine used to liken the inaction and careful contemplation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to that of a philosophy grad student dropped in the center of a Norse saga. Roy Jones Jr. is boxing’s Hamlet; the thinking man in a hurt business, except Jones prefers rap and rhyme about his own greatness to iambic pentameter.

Like Shakespeare’s troubled protagonist, Jones often weighs all the potential outcomes and considers the motivations of his opponents—how they get themselves up psychologically to face Roy Jones—as if he is not made of similar stuff. It seems Roy Jones’ motivation is born out of some more dramatic well of inspiration that only he knows. Fighters don’t often think of such things, they don’t weigh every option so carefully. Fighters leap into the breach, first through the door and into action despite the potential consequences and certain harm to life and limb. Roy has always considered his actions carefully before committing to any of them, whether it was in choosing opponents or even in his cautious counter-punching style of combat.

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It is perhaps because they are so alike that Jones’ defeat at the hands of Tarver is so dramatic. As nemeses go Tarver is as good as any, if not better. A celebrated amateur boxer, Tarver fell short of a gold medal in `96 after losing to Vassily Jirov. Jones’ was robbed of a gold medal by corrupt officials in Seoul, South Korea. In their first fight Tarver abandoned trainer Buddy McGirt’s effective strategy in order to engage Jones in a counter-punching duel—trying to out-Jones Roy Jones. For years Jones has been harangued for never granting a rematch to James Toney and Bernard Hopkins, fighters who are ruffian craftsmen in terms of their fighting styles, and more thug than thespian in front of a microphone. This is not the case with Tarver. With the verbal acumen of a Baptist minister, Tarver is Roy’s nemesis of tongue as well as fist.

Carrying 187 pounds, unofficially, at fight time, Tarver is a large framed light heavy who reportedly walks around at almost 210. Maybe he is our 21st century version of Cassius Clay, a brash and brave talker who can prove what he says, a man whose confidence is so great he makes you root for him and makes you dare to believe in him.

Antonio Tarver knew this would happen. He willed it to happen.

When HBO’s cameras showed Tarver with McGirt in the dressing room before the fight, Tarver was shooting a quick right jab at the punching mitts his trainer held in front of him. Tarver tap-tap-tapped with that lead right jab, but he threw nothing else at the pads McGirt held before him—at least not in front of HBO’s camera. But that was all he needed, that tap-tapping right jab, at times more a measuring stick than punch, that Tarver used to find the range on Jones. It was Tarver’s right jab, setting the distance and the pace that set up the final stroke that ended Jones’ most recent and shortest title reign at 175.

During Referee Jay Nady’s pre-fight instructions Tarver spoke up, claiming he had a question. "What excuses do you have tonight, Roy?" Twice he asked, as if to make certain His Royness had heard him and had realized that there was no fear and no retreat in his foe on this night.

The first round began with lots of feinting and hesitating until scattered boos were heard from the crowd eager for combat. Soon Roy began landing crisp punches with both hands. Tarver circled Jones, moving around him as the smaller champion landed quick rights to the belly and head. This was the 175-pound version of Jones, the one that sparkled versus Julio Gonzalez. But all the while Tarver was measuring with the long jab, sneaking his front foot inside of Roy's and closing the distance on him.

In the second, Tarver came out doing the same thing he had in the first but this time he let the left hand go a few times—a couple of straight lefts that clubbed at Roy—once, twice—more grazing and partially blocked, but he was finding the range. McGirt had Tarver leaning forward aggressively in the first fight, while on Saturday he had the Magic Man leaning back, subtly baiting Jones in.

With a little more than half of the second round gone, Roy Jones fired a straight right which grazed Tarver’s face. As Jones brought his right hand back Tarver launched his left at Jones who was in the process of throwing a left hook of his own. Tarver’s counterpunch got to the target first and Jones was out before he hit the canvas.

The younger Roy may have backed out just a bit further. The younger Roy might have seen the bolt coming just before impact and might have steeled himself against it. But Tarver’s long left was fired from so close to Jones’ chest there was nowhere for Roy to go to escape except into unconsciousness. Jones teetered over, suddenly limp and lifeless and struck the canvas under Tarver’s corner. Jones’ eyes were open but a glazed look of surprise was visible on his face before he turned his gaze toward the canvas and struggled to rise. Later, the Pay-Per-View camera angles showed the thudding shot in clear instant replay. Jones was cracked, dropped and wriggled to stand on the big screen again and again to gasps in the crowd in the second most violent segment of video most had seen this week.

"This is for the fallen soldiers, baby." Tarver talked into the camera. "I dedicate this fight to them." His hands were raised, and belts were wrapped about him by his handlers while Antonio kept talking. "Bring our people home from Iraq, baby, so they could reunite with their families…"

Moments later HBO’s Larry Merchant asked Tarver if he planned to bring the fight right to Jones, Tarver answered. "No, knockouts happen in boxing...The man came out strong. He tried to dictate early...I knew when he came in and tried to get offensive I was gonna let my hands go…If you knew the steps I had to take to get here, it’s just jubilee. I’m just happy and I just know that God lives."

With the eloquence of a preacher and a broad Wheaties box grin, Tarver soaked in the moment and gladly helped Merchant describe the kayo as the two watched on a monitor. And just when Merchant asked the Magic Man about his future plans, Tarver’s voice, the weapon he used to get the first match with Jones, broke and crackled, finally failing him.

"I’m finally at a loss for words," Tarver giggled through a gravelly throat. But that was the only taste of loss Tarver would have to sample on Saturday.

Next, he may move north to the heavyweight division like his conquered foe had done. Antonio Tarver’s broad shoulders, six foot two and a half inch frame, and southpaw style, should be sturdy enough against heavyweights like Chris Byrd or James Toney, the same fighters Jones was likely to avoid. And what of the giants, named Klitschko or otherwise?

"If the money is six feet seven inches tall," Tarver said. "I’m willing to fight anybody."

When HBO’s Merchant interviewed the freshly defeated Roy Jones, the excuses Tarver warned him and everyone else about started to roll.

"Guys are always up to fight Roy Jones Jr.; Roy Jones Jr. has a hard time getting up to fight guys." Jones made numerous attempts at dismissing the upset win. "Cuz there’s really nobody out there that Roy Jones Jr. really feel that way about. So you know. It happens."

"I gave it what I had," Jones said. "I got myself as prepared as I could under the situation; I’m not making no excuses." But he was unwilling to elaborate on what exactly he meant and whether Jones was suggesting he felt less than 100% going into the bout. Jones went on with Merchant, wondering aloud about his options, almost wistfully, about heavies, the big bulky targets he would prefer to fight. "For me I have no real enjoyment in doing nothing like this. I would rather fight the heavyweights. When you fight a guy like this it’s like, what’re you doing it for?" Jones is left posing questions most fighters would never ask. Alas, poor Roy.

For a few moments on Saturday night, Roy stutter-stepped through the land of the numb legs, the blinking eyes and the loud buzzing in the ears of the knockout; it was something he claimed to have experienced once before, as an amateur, he told Merchant. But this was different; this was on the world stage with everyone watching to see if he could shut the always-talking mouth of his long-time rival. When he came to in the arms of Jay Nady, Roy must have flashed on thousands of images and emotions. Among them had to be memories of his friend, former middleweight champion Gerald McClellan and the beating he took in a boxing ring that left him partially blind and severely disabled. Roy was rarely on the receiving end of numerous blows to the head. On Saturday he was physically reminded of the dangers of this ultimate contact sport.

At 35 years old, it will be interesting to see what Roy chooses to do next. Jones has always been the poster boy for hubris even when much of the boxing public agreed with his position atop the pound-for-pound rankings. It took Jones’ fearless amateur rival one perfectly placed counter-punch to make everyone wonder about Jones’ future, his legacy, and, thankfully, about what it really means to be great.

Jones may risk a third meeting with Tarver—most fighters would, trilogies are common in boxing history. The best fighters had opponents they faced repeatedly, winning and losing, but fighting without cautious delay.

A fighter faces down, suffers through or fails under adversity—but without adversity what are you fighting but shades of yourself, and who could blame you for becoming bored? But the truth that remains after Tarver’s re-imagination of the boxing landscape: when Roy Jones Jr. was finally faced with a nemesis, Roy couldn’t see it, just like he couldn’t see the overhand left that put him out.

Great fighters win and lose only to come back all over again. Now, finally, Jones has the opportunity to prove he’s worthy of comparisons to the greats in the pantheon of boxing’s best. Although Pensacola must weep for their native son, they can rejoice in the fact that now they can watch their hero crawl out of the ashes and prove his greatness. Roy Jones has a lot to think about, options to weigh and a plan of attack to consider. This doesn’t have to be the end for His Royness, in some ways it is just the beginning, and from this point forward we will finally learn how great he is…or isn’t.

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