Roy Jones Jr returns to the ring this Saturday for his first professional boxing match in five years. He faces pro debutant Anthony Pettis, the former UFC Lightweight Champion, in an eight-round pay-per-view headliner in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Jones tops the bill on yet another card pitting boxers vs ex-MMA fighters in a series of cross-codes clashes.
If this all feels a little bit beneath the 54-year-old, that’s because it is. The four-weight world champion is one of boxing’s great history-makers and has nothing left to prove. Any nagging need to prove he still had it should have been addressed by Jones’ 2020 exhibition fight with Mike Tyson.
The ‘Lockdown Knockdown’ generated 1.6 million pay-per-view buys, putting it seventh on the all-time boxing list. The fact this was achieved by two fighters in their 50s taking part in an unscored sparring session was remarkable, even with the mitigating circumstances of COVID-19 curtailing people’s entertainment options.
The pseudo-fight with Tyson would have been a dignified exit for Jones. But walking away is hard to do and thus ‘Superman’ returns once again. The fact Roy’s comeback comes in an official fight that will appear on his record, rather than in an en vogue exhibition, is telling. Almost as if the 66-9 legend is trying to balance the scales of a career that should have ended much closer to its peak.
What a peak it was, too. Jones’ post-prime years have left the vivid colours of his peak sun-faded by the passing of time. But there has arguably never been a fighter as instinctual, as improvisational or as creative before or since. The term ‘knockout artist’ has never been as apropos. This might be the sweet science, but Jones elevated it into an art.
Like all good stories, the hero must overcome injustice to reach salvation. In Roy’s case, the Seoul Olympics of 1988 was the seed from which the rest of his dazzling career grew. Jones did not lose a single round as he eased his way to the light middleweight final. In that final, Jones outlanded South Korea’s Park Si-Hun 82 punches to 32, but was somehow judged to have lost the fight on the scorecards. Dropping an incredulous 2-3 split decision for which both Park and the referee apologised in the immediate aftermath.
While Jones was robbed of his Olympic dream, the famous torch lit a competitive fire in the Pensacola, Florida native that would not be extinguished. If Jones would never wear Olympic gold, he would accumulate as much professional gold as possible to fill the void.
As first championship wins go, beating Bernard Hopkins to win the IBF middleweight championship is up there. Not yet an ‘Alien, ‘Executioner’ Hopkins was a less refined proposition at this point. But he was an effective boxer-puncher who had lost only once. Jones would barely allow ‘B-Hop’ to lay a glove on him, taking a one-sided unanimous nod.
After campaigning at middleweight for another year, most notably stopping Thomas Tate in a title defence, Roy moved up to super middleweight. Continuing the theme of meeting future Hall of Famers in his initial title bouts in a new division, Jones christened his switch to 168-pounds by beating IBF champion James Toney. Another startlingly dominant display, ‘Lights Out’ was shut-out as Jones continued to shift the parameters of the sport of kings.
Roy’s super middleweight run played host to one of his greatest performances. Jones’ six-round destruction of Vinny Pazienza, the legendary ‘Pazmanian Devil’ and subject of the 2016 film Bleed For This, will live forever for several reasons. The bout saw Jones become the first fighter in the history of Compubox not to ship a single punch during a round. It also saw Roy unveil his gamecock-inspired lunging punch, where he shifted effortlessly from having his full wingspan outstretched to bombing a hook into Pazienza’s forehead.
After racking up five defences of the super middleweight crown, Jones moved up once again. Light heavyweight would arguably be his best weight, as he elevated his game to a point of almost omnipotent brilliance. But first, he would taste his first adversity since Seoul almost a decade before.
Having picked up the WBC light heavyweight title, Jones’ first defence came against Montell Griffin. The challenger hadn’t read the script, and was taking rounds off Jones in a manner few boxers had been able to do. Composing himself, Jones edged into a narrow lead on the scorecards, but this was more of a fight than he was used to.
If he was unaccustomed to resistance, ‘RJJ’ was certainly unprepared for defeat. The nature of that defeat was controversial in the extreme. Griffin took a knee during a Jones flurry, but the champion couldn’t stop himself and unleashed further blows. The resulting punches knocked the challenger out, triggering a disqualification. For the first time since the Olympic robbery, Roy Jones Jr had lost a fight.
But just like after Seoul, the adversity fired Jones to new heights. Griffin was destroyed in a single round in the inevitable rematch. In his next bout, Jones took out former and future world champion Virgil Hill with perhaps the best body shot of the 1990s. During his stint as king of the light heavyweights he would also knock out Glen Kelly with a punch thrown with his hands behind his back.
Over the course of twelve title defences, Jones would unify the WBC, IBF and WBA championships. It was a period of highlight-reel performances and complete dominance. In a typical case of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone, people actually started to tire of Jones. His fights were near-enough foregone conclusions and the boxing public grew weary of their pound-for-pound king.
The fact Jones chose to break the tedium by accomplishing a feat that hadn’t been done for over 100 years says it all about him as a character. It has been 106 years since Bob Fitzsimmons became the first former middleweight champion to win the heavyweight title. In 2003, Jones matched him when he beat WBA heavyweight belt-holder John Ruiz by unanimous decision. It was yet another dazzling and dominant display for Jones’ mantle. Little did he know that he would never look this good again.
Winning the heavyweight championship of the world would be as good as it got for Jones. A narrow victory over Antonio Tarver on his light heavyweight return gave way to a galling two-round knockout defeat in the rematch. IBF boss Glen Johnson knocked him out in eight rounds in his next bout before Tarver clinched the trilogy with a wide unanimous decision win.
Jones would participate in big occasions again but, apart from a 2009 points win over a faded Felix Trinidad, he would not win any of them. Joe Calzaghe, Bernard Hopkins and Danny Green all picked over the bones of the once-great champion. By the time he retired in 2018, Jones had lost nine fights. If he had retired at his peak, having just beaten Ruiz to enter the history books, he would have had but one disputed defeat on his pro record.
Jones’ legacy, incredible but flawed, will not be impacted by what happens against Pettis on Saturday. A win would be a nice but meaningless postscript to his career. A loss would be unedifying and embarrassing but ultimately outweighed by what the young Jones accomplished before the hair greyed and the reflexes dulled. Remember Roy Jones Jr for the fighter he was, rather than the one he is. Because the fighter he was is one of the greatest ever to lace up a pair of gloves.
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