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Tarver out to make most of second chance

5/11/2004

Anytime you talk to former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver, odds
are that the time spent will leave some memorable moment imbedded in your
memory, whether it was his ode to his May 15 opponent Roy Jones Jr.,
"Suspicious Mandatories," or the cartoon he drew lampooning Jones before
RJ's bout with John Ruiz last year.

Needless to say, most of the memorable stuff from Tarver focuses on Jones,
the man he has obsessed over since the two were teenagers in the amateur
ranks. For the 35-year-old Tarver, beating Jones has been a quest that has
engulfed the better part of two decades, and he almost closed the deal last
November, losing a controversial majority decision.

Yet as Tarver spoke to the media during a nationwide teleconference Tuesday,
my thoughts kept going back to what he told me the first time we spoke, the
better part of two years ago:

"I have the Marvin Hagler syndrome," said Tarver in 2002. "What I've gone
through has made me a stronger, more focused, more determined person. Those
are the things that will carry me when the going gets tough in the Roy Jones
fight. I know that I was never supposed to get as far as I did, but they
don't even have a clue as to how far I'm going."

Not many people gave Tarver a shot at Jones last year --­ then again, not
many people gave anyone a shot against a man believed to be one of the most
talented boxers to ever lace up the gloves. But there was Tarver, beating
Jones to the punch, taking the fight to him, and dictating the pace of the
action. To his credit, Jones recovered and closed the show like a champion
should, escaping with Tarver's title belts.

In a lot of ways, even though Tarver had the belts, he was the challenger
last November, just like Hagler was in November of 1979 when he battled to a
draw with middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo, a fight many believe
"Marvelous Marvin" won. We all know how that story went, with Hagler going
on to a title the next year en route to the Hall of Fame.

The point is, the draw to Antuofermo didn't break Hagler. It made him
stronger and more determined.

That's the Antonio Tarver who showed up to the teleconference, and
who will be entering the Mandalay Bay ring Saturday. Just
getting to the dance wasn't enough.

"The icing is not on the cake," said Tarver. "I'm not satisfied at all. I'm
one step away from achieving my goal in boxing, and that's to be considered
the best in the world. In order to be the best you have to beat the best,
and I have that opportunity."

Many feel Tarver let that opportunity slip by the first time, as his strong
start fizzled, as if by apathy. Was there a moment in the ring against Jones
when he thought to himself, "This is a lot easier than I thought it would
be"?

"The first three rounds," he admits. "And maybe I contribute that for me
getting so lackadaisical. It was coming too easy and I didn't continue to
fight as if I had something to prove because the guy couldn't touch me with
nothing. He couldn't hit me with no straight rights or that phantom right
hook. On defense, I saw everything coming and I made the guy miss all day
long. But nobody wanted to give me credit for the fact that I made the guy
look average in the ring."

Most fans and media did, but the most important three people, the judges,
didn't agree, and Jones regained his titles. Then the spin began, with Jones
claiming that the difficulty in dropping from heavyweight to light
heavyweight drained him and caused his poor performance, and most recently,
Alton Merkerson, his trainer, claiming that Jones suffered from an abscessed
tooth shortly before the bout.

The "Magic Man" isn't buying any of it.

"All these excuses he made for the performance that he had are bogus," said
Tarver. "If anybody had excuses it was me, but I never once mentioned one."

Tarver spoke of a left arm injury suffered in training camp that was
treated successfully by a chiropractor shortly before he left for Las Vegas
for the first fight, as well as his common practice of coming down in weight
from 210 to 175, thus dismissing Jones' claims of being less than 100 percent
physically.

There's where the intrigue lies for Jones-Tarver II. The last time Jones
was seriously challenged in the ring was in his disqualification loss to
Montell Griffin in March of 1997. Less than five months later, Jones erased
any thoughts of Griffin being on his level by erasing him in a single round.
If the pride of Pensacola is at 100 percent for this bout, can Tarver better his
performance of six months ago?

"It don't matter what Roy Jones shows up as long as I'm across the ring
from him," bristles Tarver. "He's in a world of trouble. When I show up and
I'm focused and I'm determined and I'm in shape, he's got a nightmare on his
hands. They gave the wrong man a second chance, and I'm gonna finish the job
on May 15."

And before anyone can even ask, Tarver dismisses any notion that he will
suffer the same fate as Griffin if Jones takes the fight to him in the early
going.

"If he's looking for any confidence in the first three to four rounds, he
ain't gonna find none," said Tarver. "What's gonna happen when I'm still in
his face, bringin' it to him in round six and seven? You know what's gonna
happen? Between six and eight, I'll decide his fate. And it'll be over. This
will not go 12. I'm determined to get Roy Jones out of there."

Tarver's never been one to be at a loss for words or to lack confidence.
He's had it since the days when he was thought to be the best amateur
fighter in the world, bar none -- and this is on a 1996 Olympic team that
contained the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Fernando Vargas.

But it's always been about Jones --­ beating him, taking his place, and
making his name as the man who destroyed the mystique. Then, and only then,
could Antonio Tarver make his way into the record books as Antonio Tarver.

And it's been an uphill climb. After a bronze medal-winning performance at
the Atlanta Games (which was disappointing to those who predicted gold for
the Floridian), Tarver had a list of suitors --­ including his nemesis.

"Roy Jones tried to sign me as an amateur," said Tarver. "I was on the
phone with these guys from HBO and I told them, 'No, I can't sign with Roy
Jones because I'm campaigning at light heavyweight. That's a conflict of
interest.' When you tell a guy that in his face, in front of these guys,
when I hadn't even turned pro yet, can they not see my vision?"

Tarver turned pro in 1997, while Jones was already a three-division
champion and to most observers, the odds of Tarver getting to his dream
fight were slim and none. It just wasn't going to be in the cards.

Yet Tarver plugged away, winning his first 16 bouts. Eric Harding gave him
a rude awakening in his 17th fight, knocking him down and breaking his jaw
en route to handing him a decision loss in 2000. A win would have gotten
Tarver a title shot at Jones.

After that fight, though, a change came over Tarver, a change helped along
by new trainer Buddy McGirt. A new, focused Tarver scored three wins in a
row, and placed himself once again in a mandatory position to fight Jones.

So he decided to fight Eric Harding again, and erase the only blemish on
his record.

He stopped Harding in five rounds in 2002, and won the vacant IBF and WBC
belts in 2003 by shutting out Griffin.

Later that year he surprised many in the boxing world with his performance
against Jones --­ not because anyone doubted his skills, but because no one
had ever seen Jones in a real fight. Tarver believes his eventual shot at
Jones did a service to the sport.

"It would have cheated boxing history," said Tarver when asked how he would
have dealt with never getting the shot at Jones. "They would have never had
the opportunity to see Roy Jones in a real fight. Everybody was licking
their chops to see if this guy could even be touched or challenged. He would
have went on hand-picking guys, and went on tap dancing around his biggest
challenge. He knew in his heart of all hearts as he watched me go to the top
of the amateur game, as he watched me make my step into the light
heavyweight division, he knew that I was comin' and that I wasn't gonna be
denied."

Antonio Tarver is fond of the phrase "in my heart of hearts." In his heart
of hearts, he has to know that he let Roy Jones Jr. off the hook in the late
rounds of their first match. A week from Saturday, he gets that rarest of
boxing rarities --­ an immediate rematch. If he fails to get the "W" there
will probably be no third time. Marvin Hagler made the most of his second
shot at destiny --­ destroying Alan Minter in three rounds to win the
middleweight championship (he also later avenged the draw with Antuofermo by
stopping him in five). If Tarver is to fulfill the vision he has had since
the age of 13, the time is now.

"I waited patiently for my time, and when my time came, I took care of
business," he said. "But you know what? I'm gonna finish the job. It ain't
done yet. It's not over. There's a Chapter Two in this thing, and it's gonna
get written on May 15."