- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Even two years ago, after Roy Jones defeated what was left of Felix Trinidad in a surprisingly spirited fight that generated more than 500,000 pay-per-view buys, a rematch between Jones and Bernard Hopkins would have been big.
Now? Not so much -- not after years of Jones' steep decline, which culminated with a first-round knockout loss to Danny Green on Dec. 2, which Jones called a premature stoppage.
Fight fans had long anticipated a rematch between the future Hall of Famers as they rose to boxing's elite status in the years since their first fight in 1993, when Jones outboxed Hopkins to win a vacant middleweight belt in a forgettable fight.
As far back as May 2000, when Hopkins began fighting on HBO and appeared on a Jones undercard, there were numerous attempts to put the rematch together. It didn't happen. They argued -- boy, did they argue -- about percentage splits, rematch clause details, you name it.
Time and again, their teams tried. Time and again, HBO went to the wall. Time and again, the fighters, with their giant egos, wouldn't pull the trigger.
When they finally did agree in September to a rematch, neither man having another palatable option, the news was met with a collective yawn. To many, the fight had been teased for too long and no longer held much allure, especially because of how badly Jones' career had waned.
The last straw, or so it seemed, was when Jones got knocked out by Green in a supposed tuneup fight on the same day Hopkins rolled to a lopsided but uninspiring decision against Enrique Ornelas in his rematch tuneup. Part of their contract was that each had to win his tuneup, so the fight appeared dead when Jones lost, especially so badly. Yet Jones and Hopkins, still with nowhere else to go, tweaked their deal and the fight was revived.
Now, although the rematch is clearly overcooked, they'll meet Saturday night at Mandalay Bay (9 ET, PPV, $49.95) -- 17 years after they first met as rising contenders at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., on the undercard of Riddick Bowe's heavyweight title defense against Jesse Ferguson.
As they close in on fight night, the anticipation isn't exactly palpable, even though it's clear Hopkins (50-5-1, 32 KOs) and Jones (54-6, 40 KOs) are taking their light heavyweight showdown seriously.
"At the end of the day, come Saturday, I am going to show the world why Roy Jones Jr. avoided 'The Executioner' for 17 years," Hopkins said. "I'm going to kick his ass."
Said Jones, "My job is to knock him out, and that is what I am going to do."
As serious as the fighters sound, it hasn't stoked great interest, despite their legendary names. Ticket sales are weak, and Wednesday's final news conference was sparsely attended. A fight that once would have drawn media from every corner of the country had so few reporters that the fighters easily could have done one-on-one interviews with all who wanted their time.
When asked directly why people should buy a fight that has been so thoroughly trashed by fans and media, Jones was direct.
"Because we've laid down our hard-earned lives to put on two stellar careers over that 17-year period [since the first fight]," Jones said. "So why not lay down your hard-earned money to watch two guys who put their hard-earned lives on the line to entertain you people for 17 years. They understand who we are. They know who we are. They've watched us for years. We've entertained them for years, so why not give back to us and let us go at it one more time for the ages?"
The promoters, Hopkins' Golden Boy and Jones' Square Ring, are doing their best to pump up the event and have resorted to perhaps a bit of desperation in their efforts to sell pay-per-view, emphasizing that the main event won't begin until after the completion of the second NCAA Final Four game between Duke and West Virginia. Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer also pounded home the fact that despite HBO's limited involvement in the fight, strictly as a distributor, there won't be a replay next week.
It has come to this for two of boxing's biggest names, in part because there is so much concern about Jones continuing to fight.
Even though Hopkins is older, at 45, he remains near the top of the pound-for-pound list. Jones, 41, however, has suffered a precipitous slide, going 5-5 in his past 10 bouts while suffering three frightening knockouts and two lopsided decision losses.
In fact, Golden Boy Promotions president Oscar De La Hoya, who once was knocked out by Hopkins, blogged after Jones' knockout loss to Green that he should retire.
"This is one of those cases you see all the time, a great fighter who doesn't know when to call it a day," De La Hoya wrote. " I think he should consider retirement very carefully. My advice, as a former fighter and person who doesn't want to see one of the greats of our era get hurt, would be for him to retire. You've done it all. You demonstrated who you are. There's no need for you to keep fighting. I feel bad because he's such a legend. You can see that he's not the same. It's kind of like when Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, these type of fighters, fought toward the end of their careers. They lost to guys they would've easily beaten in their primes. It's just sad. And it shouldn't be that way. I don't know Roy Jones on a personal level but I do know that he's loved and respected by many. Just hang 'em up now -- please."
Jones, of course, didn't listen, and here De La Hoya is, promoting a fight he doesn't believe should be happening.
Although Jones was licensed by Nevada regulators after passing the requisite medical tests (as was Hopkins), De La Hoya is not the only one concerned for him.
"My concern is the same concern that everybody else has for Roy," said Alton Merkerson, Jones' longtime trainer. "We have had brain scans. We have done everything that we're supposed to do. He doesn't have any brain damage. He hasn't had any major injuries to him from the knockouts. Yes, it's getting close to the time where Bernard and Roy are going to give this thing up because you can't do it forever. But right now, from a medical standpoint, he's fine. I stick with Roy, and I've been with him for 20 years, and I'm going to continue to be with him.
"I'm not afraid to stop a fight. If in fact he was getting punished and didn't get caught with one shot clean, I would stop the fight, and that's what another young, inexperienced trainer probably wouldn't do just to worry about their credibility and what people say about them. But it's not going to be long before we give it up and do some other things, but Roy is fine right now."
Merkerson said he and Jones have discussed the boxer retiring. He said he's sticking with Jones because it allows him to look after his best interest if he insists on fighting.
"Yes, I'm concerned, but he's not going to stop boxing right now, and I've talked to him," Merkerson said. "I haven't told him to stop, but I'll always say, when you get a certain age and certain things happen, you have to know when to hold them and when to fold them. I was concerned when those [knockouts] happened. We got tested. I'm not just going to keep driving it to the ground. Yes, I'm concerned. I was concerned then, and I'm concerned now. But after all the medical tests, everything came back, and there was nothing wrong. The tests all came back OK. So I can't keep harping with the guy, and I know he's going to fight anyway."
Bobby Goodman, a boxing lifer who works for Square Ring and who happened to attend the 1993 fight, said that as long as the fighters pass their medicals, let them fight,
"These are two of the great legends of our sport who have decided, and they both decided this, that they wanted to do it one more time," Goodman said. "And they've got all the people surrounding them who care about them, who love them, and they will be there to protect the boxers, as well as the athletic commission, the referee and other people concerned with the event."
Jones acknowledged there are many who think he's finished. He believes Hopkins is one of them, which is why he thinks Hopkins agreed to the fight.
"Bernard Hopkins is a shark. He's a bottom feeder. He's catfish. He's waiting around for someone to die, then he'll bite into it," Jones said. "If something is dead, he'll try to taste it. If something is alive, he doesn't want any part of it. If something is close to dead he'll try to eat it. He wanted to wait until I was done. He didn't have anywhere else to go, and now he thinks he'll get his revenge and ride out into the sunset. That's the only way he is looking at it. It won't be happening that way but that is the plot."
Jones said he appreciated the concern for him that many have shown, particularly that of Merkerson, who is like a second father to him.
"Here's how I feel about it: At the last fight, I asked him, 'Do you think we should call it or do you think we should keep going?' And he said, 'The way the [Green] hand wraps were, the way training camp was, I think you should keep going. You still got it. I don't see a problem with you right now. You have to tighten a few things, but you should continue to go.' If he said so, I would probably call it a day. But I asked him right then, 'Should we call it a day,' and he said, 'No.' So if he told you that we should call it day, then he told me different."
To add insult to possible injury, Jones might not make any money from the fight. Despite the camps saying they have a 50-50 deal -- and 60-40 to the winner if it's a knockout -- do the math. Hopkins' side is supposed to get the first $3.5 million after the expenses are paid. Jones' side would get the next $3.5 million with the rest being split evenly. The problem? The fight might not generate even a first $3.5 million.
Schaefer said he understood the negativity surrounding the fight and, like many, wished it had happened a few years ago. But it didn't, and he's realistic.
"There are people out there who like to miss out on the last chapter, and there are people who don't like to miss out on the last chapter," he said. "Those who like to miss out on the last chapter should just stay at home."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
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