Tarver out to make most of second chance

Updated: May 11, 2004, 3:18 PM ET
By Thomas Gerbasi | Maxboxing.com

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.

It don't matter what Roy Jones shows up as long as I'm across the ring from him. 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.
Antonio Tarver

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."