Roy Jones Jr

The Times Magazine, Aug 2002

He’s been called the best boxer of his generation, as ferocious as he is skillful. But Roy Jones would be happy if people just said he fought like a chicken.

Roy-Jones  Roy-Jones-1

To accuse a champion boxer of fighting like a chicken ought to be a recipe for disaster. But Roy Jones Jr, the reigning light heavyweight king, is proud to have adopted a chicken’s fighting technique. He was raised fighting roosters – against each other, of course – and he knows all too well how expertly aggressive they are.

“Why they say ‘chicken’, to mean ‘coward’?” he says. “These chickens would rather fight than eat. Like me! I learned some of my best moves from chickens.”

It is a typical summer evening and the fighter is communing with his fighting animals on his 88 acre ranch in Pensacola, at the Alabama end of Florida. He keeps over a thousand roosters here and when the beating sun dips behind the trees, they all emerge from their coops to strut and screech, accompanied by a barking chorus of 40 pitbulls which guard the perimeter against coyotes.

He scoops up one of his favored birds and uses it to bait another, getting closer and closer until suddenly, the cocks electrify into lunging violence. He draws back his rooster at the last instant.

“You see me in the fight against Kelly, where I leaned in with my hands behind my back?” he grins, jutting and bobbing his neck like, well, a chicken. “It looks like my head’s vulnerable but it ain’t.”

Glen Kelly was the last challenger to be embarrassingly outclassed by Jones in February. Just before the knockout punch in round seven he had Kelly so mesmerised that he pulled a circus stunt – he hovered his chin inches from Kelly’s fists with his own hands crossed behind his back. Then biff! One swift swipe of the right and Kelly was on the floor.

Few in the UK have seen, or even heard of, Roy Jones Jr, largely because his reign in boxing coincides with the demise of the sport on terrestrial television. Since Frank Warren joined with Don King and signed a UKP50m deal with SKY in 1995, the likes of Jones, Felix Trinidad, Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, superstars in the Americas, have little to no public profile this side of the Atlantic.

Yet he is a boxing legend. Routinely described as the most talented fighter of his generation, he has dominated three weight divisions (middle, super-middle and light heavy) over the last 10 years and been a top three fixture on the pound-for-pound lists since 1994, just as the Benn/Eubank wars were getting underway. Ring Magazine, which is to boxing what Forbes is to finance, declared him the fighter of the 90s. For sheer skill, his fans argue, he may be the best of all time.

On Saturday September 7th, the British public will be able to rank this vaunted stranger for themselves since Jones will be fighting Sheffield’s Clinton Woods in Portland, Oregon, and there’s a chance the BBC, not SKY, will show it. Typically for a Roy Jones fight, the outcome is virtually ordained – Woods is a hard and brawny pug who has surely earned his shot, but only the most wishful patriot would grant him even a fighting chance

“People in this country talk about Eubank, Benn and Collins,” says Ben Anderson, a documentary filmmaker at the BBC who has been instrumental in steering boxing’s return to terrestrial television. “But I still think Roy Jones could have beaten them all in one night.”

His record stands at 46-1 (37 by KO), the only blemish being a contentious disqualification against Montell Griffin which he avenged in the rematch with a gale of blows in round one – the fight lasted all of 2 minutes 31 seconds. He has never been beaten, had a crisis or close-call, and he has never staggered to his feet for an eight count. In fact, he has hardly ever been marked. “My worst injury?” He scours his memory. “My hands, I always had bad hands. And I think I had a little bruise under my eye from the first Griffin fight. A lace from a glove musta caught me”.

Jones’ reputation is further buoyed by those jaw-dropping episodes that spangle the careers of great sportsmen. Like the fourth round against Vinnie Pazienza (New Jersey, 1995) in which his famously aggressive opponent didn’t land once. Or the time he breezed a title defence against Eric Lucas (Jacksonville, 1996) after playing a full afternoon of pro-basketball for his local side. Not to mention the body shot that broke two of Virgil Hill’s ribs (Mississippi, 1998). Each time, Jones left commentators agape or burbling superlatives.

Nevertheless, he has his detractors. Larry Merchant, for example, the veteran boxing commentator for HBO, questions his fighting spirit. “He’s a phenomenal athlete, but I’m sceptical of his cautious ways,” he says. “He hides behind his belts to take easy mandatory fights like Clinton Woods, and sometimes he seems to just mail in his performances. Even if he’s winning easily he doesn’t close the show in style, it’s like watching a great runner jog the last lap. OK, we know you won, now thrill us, move us in some way. Because boxing is a show whether you like it or not, and great fighters need to be entertaining.”

This disenchantment with Jones “tap-dancing his way into the hall of fame”, as Merchant puts it, has dogged the fighter for years, and as his career approaches its final act, his critics have been gathering voice. Last July, for example, when he knocked Julio Gonzalez down 3 times on his way to a unanimous points victory, he was actually booed. The boxing press dubbed it a ‘Roycott’.

“Listen, it ain’t my fault I’m so much better than the opposition!” Jones bristles. “Isn’t it enough if you outrun the other cars by five lengths? Doesn’t that prove you’re good enough?”

While many boxers reserve their articulacy for the ring, Jones talks like he fights, in fast, percussive combinations. “People say I take easy fights but I just make it look easy. Look at James Toney [1994], he was the man in the super middleweights and what happened? I crushed him like he was nothing. Same for Virgil Hill who ran the light heavyweight division for eight years. It’s not because these people are nobody, I just make them look like nobody. When they fight each other, it’s a good damn fight!”

Jones is proud to admit that there are no ‘good damn fights’ on his calendar and this explains the Roycott in a nutshell – for the jeerers his fights are so one-sided they are boring, while Jones takes the one-sidedness as a compliment. The reason he doesn’t have close, gutsy contests that stretch each fighter to the brink is because there is simply no fighter to stretch Jones at present, and there hasn’t been for a while. He is isolated by his talent as even Merchant admits: “there isn’t anyone in his division who can test him.” Is Jones too good for his own good?

It’s a measure of his predicament that his most tantalising fight – or the one most likely to quell the Roycotters – is Bernard Hopkins, whom he soundly beat for the middleweight title nine years ago and with one injured hand to boot. Under considerable media pressure, Jones agreed to the match, accepting grudgingly that “what the fans wants is what Roy Jones wants.” But whether Hopkins wants the same thing is now doubtful, even though it was he who challenged the champion on live television in the first place. Hopkins has become suddenly silent since Jones’ offer of a 60/40 purse split, which would guarantee Hopkins $6m, incidentally, or triple his biggest fee to date. He hasn’t even responded to the taunting rap tune Jones quickly recorded after Hopkins’ outburst, a 3 minute cuss delicately titled “60/40 (I kick yo ass)”. (Jones launched his own record label, Bodyhead Entertainment, in 1998 and his debut, Round One – The Album came out in May. Times have changed since Ali spun his rhymes at press conferences. These days, fighters go straight to the studio).

“Whenever anyone has some success they say ‘I want Roy Jones’, but all Hopkins wants is to retire off me – you don’t see him coming too much now do you?” Jones says. “I beat him up with one hand last time! He knows I can do it again.”

Yet for all his surly confidence, Jones knows that while a weak field may suit his physician and his accountant, it can make for uninspiring viewing which only hurts his popularity and all-time status. Great performers require great material to put on a thrilling performance – let Horowitz attack the Rach 3 or Sinatra, “Moon River”, and it will bring the house down in any concert hall. But without a fighter worthy to elicit Jones’ virtuosity, he’s like Horowitz playing Chopsticks to a hissing Albert Hall, or Sinatra surveying his set list to find only “Calendar Girl” and “I Should Be So Lucky”.

“He needs a nemesis,” says Ben Anderson, “Ali had Foreman to prove his fighting brain and Frazier to prove his heart and chin. Jones has no one, and there’s not much he can do about it. Historically, the light heavyweights have never been a classic division in terms of quality. He’s unlucky really.” The same might have been said about Lennox Lewis, who now presides over an unexceptional heavyweight field, but in the same way Lewis needed Tyson to cement his legacy, Jones needs to stem the erosive ‘what ifs’, he needs a capping victory, he needs his Tyson.

Of course, Jones disputes this assessment, particularly his need for epic battles on a par with Ali-Frazier – who knows what the toll may be? “Boxing ain’t no game,” he says seriously. “I’ll test myself in the gym or on the road every morning. I don’t want to be tested in the ring, because failure could mean death.”

These mortal thoughts have colored Jones’ career ever since his friend and one-time rival Gerald McClellan fell into a coma after fighting Nigel Benn in 1995. Now wheelchair-bound, blind and brain-damaged, McClellan is why Jones is interested in winning rather than concussion, and he casts into perspective Merchant’s gripe that Jones ‘jogs the last lap’ instead of capping his performances with crowd-pleasing knockouts. McClellan might have become a nemesis for Jones – their pro clash was highly anticipated – but instead Jones became McClellan’s benefactor and still quietly supports, more than any other fighter, his fallen rival’s family.

“Gerald’s tragedy had a dramatic effect on Roy,” says Emanuel Steward, who once coached McClellan and is now in Lennox Lewis’ corner. “He became obsessed with not getting hurt and I think it took some of his killer instinct. Now he won’t step in for the finish until the guy’s perfectly harmless.”

Even then, he is merciful. Against Pazienza, for example, who had broken his neck in a car crash a year before their fight, Jones visibly held back. “I put him down, he got up and I put him down again. So I looked at the referee to say ‘when are you going to stop the fight, you want me to break his neck again?’” While Tyson spoke of stomping on Lewis’ testicles before their match, Jones is the opposite. “I don’t want to hurt people,” he says. “That’s not why I started boxing.”

Roy-Jones-2

Jones was five when he began boxing – like his animals, he was reared to fight. Under the unrelenting influence of his namesake father, a so-so fighter himself at one time, Roy Jr endured a boot-camp youth of early mornings, frequent beatings and punishing workouts both before and after school. He is frank about his father’s severity, how Roy Sr used to drive him to tears. “Oh sure, that’s just his way, he still does that today to the kids he trains,” says Jones, “but it was the mental stress that was much more terrifying for me. Just being pushed so much.” The pressure told – by the age of 11, he was beating 17 year olds in the ring, but his relationship with his father was so damaged that he would deliberately lose the early rounds just to spite him. Years later, when Jones was a world champion, he finally fired his father, and these wounds are still yet to fully heal.

A further formative trauma for Jones was the Seoul Olympics where he was so starkly robbed of gold that even his opponent Park Si-Hun protested the decision. Determined to make Seoul his last raw deal, Jones learnt first to avoid fighting abroad – which is why the Woods fight is in Portland and not London’s Alexandra Palace – but also to keep as tight a control over his affairs as possible. One of his greater achievements in this regard, in a sport as corrupt as boxing, is his self-promotion through his own company, Square Ring. Most champions are signed to a handful of major promoters who demand options to promote the winner of any of their prospective bouts, thus retaining control of the all-important belt. Yet Jones earned his belts without ever signing away his options and falling prey to the predatory likes of Don King. It is this intransigence which, he claims, stymied his chances of fighting the Benn/ Eubank/Collins trifecta in the early 90s.

The turning point came when he fought James “Lights Out” Toney for the IBF super middleweight championship in 1994. It was a momentous contest. No one gave the clean-cut Olympian a chance against Toney, who had a 46-0 record, a nasty snarl and all the thuggish menace of a Sonny Liston or young Tyson. So working the odds, Jones secured a contract that retained his options in case of his unlikely victory, and then he proceeded to box circles around the champion, perform a full cabaret of chicken moves and retire the brute for good. From that day on, Square Ring has promoted his every fight and negotiated his every deal. There are those beyond the ropes who call him a control-freak whose fighting instincts have been superceded by business, but most fighters only admire his ability to double his cheques, protect his health and beat the sharks at their own game.

Approaching 33 now, Jones has acquired an enviable life – comfortable, secure and with no foreseeable threat on the horizon, he also has bags of money and time, most of which he spends right here in Pensacola. Jones was born and raised here, where the South meets the sea, and though it looks like just another slow-baked country town where you are never more than a few minutes from a church, a confederate flag, or a plate of deep fried oysters, he still feels an almost umbilical attachment for the place. He has six houses here and 2 studios, 25 cars, four motorbikes, 12 horses, some cows, some pigs, his fighting animals and “about 90% of my friends. Everything I need is here.” And virtually everything he owns, too, bar a small apartment in New Jersey. “But I’m thinking of giving that up,” he says. “Too much stress.”

He lives with his fiancee and three children – twin boys of 10 from his previous relationship and a two year old son by his current partner – and when he’s not training, which is most of the time, he’s very much the quiet family type. Church is a must on Sundays, with maybe a barbecue in the afternoon. And when he’s not tinkering with his sprawling real-estate – renovate a room here, build a pool there – he might take the horses out, shoot some hoops with some pals or go fishing in the lake at the foot of his house. It is the life this country boy always wanted. “I had two dogs when I was a kid,” he says, “now I got 40! I don’t change, I just grow.”

Lately other hobbies have begun to flower, like music, for example. Some days he’ll spend 20 hours at a time in his studio, learning how to work the desk and conjuring up rhymes like “Y’all must have forgot,” in which he reinstates how wonderful he is. Though his first album, Round One, may have only limped off the shelves, it is nonetheless an accomplished job and ticks off another childhood ambition. “I always wanted to make a movie, too,” he says, so last year, he spent a month in Australia as the captain of a spaceship in Matrix II.

But Jones is happiest, and most at home, among his roosters. He cradles them like babies up to the sunlight, admiring the plumage and preening their feathers. “Your animals don’t care whether you worth 5c or $50m,” he says, “they give you unconditional love.” That he then enters them in fights of crippling brutality entails no conflict for Jones. “I fought a chicken last weekend, out in Louisiana,” he says, proudly. One of only 3 states in the USA where cockfighting is legal (it’s a felony in Florida) Lousiana is about a 3 hour drive away. “One of my birds won with only one leg. Just like me and Hopkins.” His barn is littered with cockfighting trophies.

All that interrupts all this rapping and cockfighting at present, is the small matter of Clinton Woods. He laughs. “He going to be drug up. You know when you tie someone to the back of a truck and drag him down the street? That’s what Woods will be like when I finish with him!”

And after Woods? What of his legacy?

“I’ll take maybe four or five fights over two years, before I retire,” he shrugs. And as he reels off his drab wishlist of opponents – “I want Hopkins but he won’t come to the table, and Vassily Jirov, but he’s a bit big…” – it becomes clear that all his life and career lacks is a defining challenge.

George Foreman, the ex-heavyweight suggested that Jones ought to prove himself by taking on the superheavy likes of Lennox Lewis – which given the size disparity is rather like accusing Prince Naseem of ‘avoiding’ Chris Eubank. In return, Jones has claimed that if the money’s right “I could knock out Lennox Lewis, right now at my size”. But so much for talk. The chances of such a match ever being made are slim to zero. In the meantime, Jones’ list continues. “…and there’s Dariusz Michalczewski, but I don’t want to go to Germany…”

And there it is again. The sound of Sinatra singing Westlife.