Kevin Mitchell: Roy Jones’s lack of an exit strategy is alarming
Former great is risking it all in his reluctance to leave the ring’s roar
Roy Jones Jr lies on the canvas after being knocked out by Enzo Maccarinelli in Moscow. Photograph: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images
Roy Jones, like Floyd Mayweather, only more dramatically, has long since ceased to justify the appellation “Junior”. He is aging before our eyes in a business where youth is king, but he seems dangerously reluctant to do the mature thing and walk away from the most precarious of undertakings while he has a grip on his faculties.
Mayweather picked his moment precisely: 38 years old, unbeaten and at the edge of his greatness. Jones, who was Mayweather’s unchallenged predecessor as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, is 46 going on 50. If Mayweather were to confirm industry suspicions and return in 2016 to reach for his 50th victory, he would still not be in the same peril that is rapidly enveloping Jones.
Three days after he fell face-first at the feet of Enzo Maccaranelli in Moscow, he has yet to indicate he is inclined to follow Mayweather into retirement. The reluctance of a fighter to confront what he knows in his heart is true – that he is finished – is one of the saddest spectacles in sport. No apologies, then, for repeating Barry McGuigan’s ever-relevant mantra: boxers are the first to know when to quit and the last to admit it.
It never appears like this to a warrior, but more significant than the public humbling and the final acceptance of shredded skills, is the threat of irreversible degradation of health, the inability to form cogent sentences, the loss of balance, the blunting of memory. Layered over that, of course, is the dwindling of friends – and that, often, is the spur to fight on.
When skinny kids enter a gym for the first time to test the mysteries of this strange, elemental sport, they often bring with them crushing insecurities. Many don’t come back. Those who stay do so because they find some facility, a knack of getting it right. By the time they become good or excellent, they have to confront a new challenge: performance anxiety, boxing in front of an audience. And when a few are eventually elevated to elite level, they are hooked on the adrenalin of acceptance, the roar of the crowd.
That is what Jones is living for now. Vladimir Putin stroked his ego by giving him a Russian passport when his own sport was quietly looking the other way, hoping he might lie down. So he took the bait.
But Jones – like Wladimir Klitschko against Tyson Fury in Düsseldorf a couple of weekends previously – could not “pull the trigger”, to use the sport’s chilling argot, when he needed to in front of his new and powerful friends in Moscow. Maccaranelli, who, at 35, himself has survived a tough career in which he has suffered seven stoppages, knocked him out almost apologetically.
The Welshman beat him up for four rounds, uppercutting his bobbing head almost at will, avoiding his ill-timed counters, and finishing the job with a chopping right hand on his slack jaw before stepping back to watch the old man crash to the canvas like someone ejected from a nightclub.
Over 26 years, from his 45 stoppage wins, Jones had imposed similarly conclusive, don’t-get-up sentences on opponents 14 times. He knows what it feels like to stand over a senseless foe. There were so many great nights, too.
His fans – who number in the hundreds of thousands – will prefer to remember his victories over Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Mike McCallum, Montel Griffin, Virgil Hill, Lou Del Valle and a late-career Felix Trinidad, as well as his progression from light-middleweight to heavyweight, stretching the boundaries of the impossible in six weight divisions.
The good times began to draw to a close not with his first loss – disqualified in his first fight against Griffin in 1997 – but the night in 2004 when Antonio Tarver, a very good but not great light-heavyweight, pummelled him in two rounds to rip away his three world titles. Four months later, Glen Johnson, a similarly formidable but short-of-eminent opponent, knocked him unconscious in the ninth round. Jones was unable to leave the ring for 15 minutes and spent the night in hospital. The aura had gone forever.
Tarver outpointed him a year later, and the Roy Jones story was pretty much done. Joe Calzaghe gave him a payday at Madison Square Garden in 2008 and retired undefeated. He thought Jones might join him, but the American fought on. Calzaghe will have viewed his compatriot’s destruction of his friend on Saturday night with ambivalence.
Jones had long ago compartmentalised his career, preferring to draw on the old glories rather than the very bad nights, and his inability to compute the relevance of past highs to gathering lows in advancing middle age reflects a worrying deterioration in his judgment.
Maccaranelli’s win, meanwhile, was a strange high point for him, with echoes of similar endings: Terry Downes guiltily beating 41-year-old Sugar Ray Robinson at the Empire Pool, Wembley, in 1962; Larry Holmes reluctantly beating up an old Muhammad Ali in 1980, and Trevor Berbick doing it again a year later; Rocky Marciano finishing the wondrous career of Joe Louis in 1951. There are scores more.
Maccaranelli, one of the sport’s noble participants, had the good grace to drop to his knee in a neutral corner and bless himself as the referee tended his fallen opponent in an arena five miles from the Kremlin. He cared more about Jones’s welfare than he did the victory. It is a shame he is not joined by more people in a business that encompasses emotions from touching compassion to unremitting coldness.