Most polarizing, pound-for-pound
Taking a risk was once a foreign policy to Roy Jones. Fighting Joe Calzaghe on Saturday is a step into the danger zone for the living legend. But is Jones too late in his career to appease his critics?
Originally Published: November 4, 2008By Eric Raskin | ESPN.com
Roy Jones is not the porridge that Goldilocks chose.Few opinions about Jones and his greatness fall into middle ground. Or to use terminology that is particularly appropriate this week, there aren't many swing states when it comes to rendering a verdict on Jones. You're either dark red or dark blue. The stances on Jones generally are limited to two options: Either he's one of the very best ever to lace on gloves, or he's all smoke and mirrors, a fraud who couldn't have cut it in bygone eras. The truth, of course, might very well rest somewhere in between. But something about Jones compels fight fans to take a hard-line stance on one side or the other. "The ones who say he's the best they ever saw are telling you the truth. The ones who are denying it are player-hating," said HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman, who will call Jones' fight against Joe Calzaghe at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. "I've seen home movies of Sugar Ray Robinson at welterweight. That was the best I ever saw, period. But in my lifetime, Roy Jones was the best I saw." Now 39 years old, Roy Jones isn't really Roy Jones anymore, but he still has a chance to add to the Roy Jones legacy. And if he can upset undefeated world light heavyweight champion Calzaghe, he might be able to persuade some of his critics to join the ranks of those who bow at his feet. A win would be Jones' first truly meaningful victory since 2003. (Sorry, beating rusty, undersized Felix Trinidad earlier this year doesn't count.) It would be his first win over a pound-for-pound-rated opponent since he beat James Toney in 1994. It would force the doubters to rethink their stance. Maybe one win wouldn't erase all the time spent avoiding risks, both in the ring and in his matchmaking. But like Bernard Hopkins' stunning domination of Kelly Pavlik at age 43 on Oct. 18, a win would lift him to a new level of respect. Maybe one win wouldn't erase the painful memory of three straight resounding losses he suffered in 2004 and 2005 against Antonio Tarver, Glen Johnson and Tarver again. But it would make the losses look more like aberrations and would add a positive, defining moment to help minimize the degree to which the negative defines Jones. Kellerman, however, introduces a compelling theory on how a win over Calzaghe could hurt the argument that Jones was untouchable in his prime.
It begins with a common take: that Jones never was the same after he shed roughly 25 pounds of muscle following his heavyweight victory over John Ruiz in '03, and that his string of losses shouldn't influence opinions about his prime abilities because they so clearly came postprime. But it continues with an unusual take: "If he starts winning again, it's harder to isolate the Tarver fights and the Johnson fight and say, 'That's not really Roy Jones,'" Kellerman said. "If he can win this fight, people will say, 'Well, he did beat Joe Calzaghe, I guess he's still Roy Jones,' and so suddenly you start to count those losses. Right now, those losses don't really count." Or at least they don't count in the opinions of those who view Jones as the best fighter of his time. For those who view Jones as a fighter whose unique talents were complemented by a perpetual stream of myth-building and hype, the defeats raise important questions. The most obvious one is whether he lost his punch resistance when he took off all the weight after the Ruiz fight, or whether he never had a chin and that's why he fought so cautiously and was so happy to oblige weak mandatory challengers. Because of the way he handled himself through most of his prime years and was never hit squarely on the chin by a heavy-handed puncher, we'll never know the answer for sure. And so another Roy Jones debate, with a vast divide separating the sides, rages on. You could argue that only three other fighters of the past half-century proved as polarizing as Jones. Opinions on Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya diverged wildly because of their pretty-boy images, leading some to refuse to take them seriously while others regard them as all-time greats.
AP Photo/Seth WenigHas Roy Jones reached a point in his career where he has to be friendly with the media?
The third fighter is Muhammad Ali. But with Ali, as his career wore on, it wasn't so much the estimations of him as a fighter that varied. Rather, it was his personality and his politics that engendered diametrically opposed public opinions. Politics have never been a part of the Jones equation. But personality? Yeah, you could say that has helped drive observers to one side of the fence or the other. Some loved his hip-hop-generation charisma and brash confidence. Others viewed it as grating cockiness. Some now say that Jones has changed, that the defeats have humbled him. After hearing the following quote uttered on the first episode of HBO's "Calzaghe-Jones 24/7" documentary series, I say they haven't. "For people that don't know me, what I was or what I am, I was pretty much a shocker, a razzle-dazzle guy who did whatever he wanted to in the boxing ring whenever he felt like it. Skills were pretty much impeccable to none; nobody had a chance really to beat me when I was motivated. I was a technician, a student of the game, very proud champion, very happy champion, very appreciative champion. One who realized that I was only an instrument that God used to play his music through. Loved being that instrument because he gave me some beautiful music to play." If the ego hasn't exactly disappeared, at least Jones has been more cooperative with the media leading up to the Calzaghe fight and his previous bout against Trinidad. The question is whether Jones is more media-friendly because he wants to be or because he has to be. When you're not on top anymore, when you can't call all the shots anymore, concessions sometimes are necessary. The same goes for the fact that Jones, in the twilight of his career, has finally started taking fights -- particularly Saturday's showdown and the third Tarver fight -- that represent extreme risks. If Jones had been more media-friendly and more risk-inclined earlier in his career, maybe we'd have fewer questions left over, and perhaps opinions on him would be more uniform. But there's no sense dealing in how changing the past might have changed perspectives on Jones. Not when he still has a chance on Saturday to make people on both sides of the debate think of him differently. Eric Raskin is a contributing editor and former managing editor for The Ring magazine.
John W. McDonough/Icon SMILike Roy Jones, Sugar Ray Leonard's personality polarized boxing fans.
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