‘I didn’t expect a white-ass motherf**ker in here…’

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Although Roy Jones jnr was pound-for-pound the best fighter of the ’90s, he never became the star he might have as his notoriously difficult personality got in the way of public acceptance. Ewan MacKenna got a taste of it…

 

Ed Keenan asks for a quick word as Roy Jones jnr leaves his five-star London hotel and heads for the limousine awaiting him outside. Working for an events company that has been long-involved with the boxer, he insists that there be no questions about animal fighting because his client is a little vocal and impassioned about the subject and he can’t stop himself once he gets going. He’s defended Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback who’s done jail time over the offence. He boasts about raising roosters for cockfighting on his 88-acre ranch in Cantonment, just outside his home town of Pensacola, Florida. He’s even admitted to breeding pit bulls to fight on his property, saying in the past, “I was letting them fight to a degree, but not like that serious. I just let my dogs get down five, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Maybe like the longest I let them go was a half-hour, but I never let them fight to the death ’cause I can’t take that.” His reasoning for this pastime?

Some of the dogs liked it.

Inside the limo, the scene is as bizarre as the cast. Jones sits at the back, staring and poking at his mobile phone like a surly teenager. Coylette James, who formerly worked with Don King, has to crawl on all fours past the minibar and to a vacant seat at the other end due to spatial restrictions and from then on doesn’t utter a word. John Wirt, the smartly-dressed CEO of Jones’ promotional company Square Ring, takes his place as does his manager/advisor McGee Wright. The latter two talk from end to end about why they are in the English capital to begin with.

“So what’s the deal with this anyway,” says a bemused Wright.

“We are doing a Saytana (sic, Setanta) promo for the fight,” answers Wirt.

“This little skit here,” asks Wright, looking down at a page plan for the advertisement, “is that what they all going to be doing?”

“Yeah, Joe (Calzaghe)’s been there and done that already, he may have already left. As I understand it, it’s like a wax museum hall of fame and they going to put make-up on Roy and make him look like a wax figure. They are going to come to life and start fighting each other as the guard walks through, or something like that.”

“Where’s Saytana from anyway,” queries Wright.

“The UK, but it’s in Ireland and Australia as well.”

“Ireland’s in the UK?” asks Wright.

“Yeah,” says Jones opening his mouth for the first time.

“So there’ll be a lot of Irish going to watch Calzaghe fight Roy then,” says Wright, getting lost in the logistics of it all.

They chatter back and forth as the limo leaves the car park and still Jones stabs and jabs at his phone, showing no interest in what awaits him later or what surrounds him now. When he is finally forced into conversation, he talks with all the charisma of a wood-burning stove and it’s easy to see why HBO laid him off as their analyst. Having called a couple of fights in 2005 for the America’s premier boxing network, he was swiftly dropped from their plans in January of 2006. The president, Ross Greenburg, said that, “Roy was not able to give the commitment we needed as a broadcaster. It was an issue of time, effort and preparation.” HBO also cited his failure to attend production meetings and his complete disinterest. These traits are constantly on show with the greatest boxer of recent times and clearly tolerated by those who make a living off his back.

So tell me about Pensacola and growing up there, you inquire.

“It’s a country town, it’s fine,” he replies without raising his head from more important issues and without raising his voice above a barely audible level.

So you liked it?

“Was fine I said.”

Did you ever see yourself getting out of there?

“Yeah.”

Any chance of expanding on that a little?

“I knew I was getting out of there. People there always wanna put you down, say you going nowhere. I was always going somewhere. Ain’t nobody was gonna stand in my way, stop me doing my thing. I was always gonna prove them wrong and make it and show it can be done.”

But did you ever expect to make it this far, to find yourself in the back of a limo on the other side of the world, recognised by everyone?

“Yeah, I knew. I just didn’t expect a white-ass motherf**ker in here, in the back of my limo.”

There’s an awkward laugh from the rest of the passengers, but Jones is serious and they all know it. It’s this attitude that’s seen him ruin his ring reputation the minute he steps outside it. In America, where they deal with him on a more regular basis, writers run sweeps when the clock races by a press conference start time. The most sought after are usually split between an hour late and him not showing at all. Perhaps it’s down to those around him that refuse to put a stop to his carry on over the years and who laugh at his arrogance and ignorance. Perhaps the success that has gotten him here is to blame. Perhaps it is his background and upbringing back in Florida that made a young boy grow up too quickly. You ask about his dad and the laughter quickly turns to a stunned silence.

“What about him?” growls Jones.

Is he the reason you are here today, fighting for a living?

“Ain’t nothing to do with him. I was always going to be a fighter. Started when I was five and always wanted to be the best. Even though you weren’t supposed to start till 10, I was fighting when I was five ’cause I knew I was going to be the best.”

Come on, boxing had nothing to do with your Dad?

“No”

But he was a boxer.

“Yeah.”

Surely there’s a link.

He interrupts, looks up for the first time at the London landscape passing him by. “Out there, there’s a horse,” he enthuses to Wright. “Hey, there’s three of them.” He nearly manages to crack a smile and by the time he returns to the screen in front of him, he doesn’t want to get back into the subject of his father and everyone seems relieved. It’s obvious why.

***

Roy Jones snr battered and bruised his son. He was vicious and he was abusive. As a child, he would bring him to watch roosters tear each other apart. Near the family home, he’d regularly take Roy jnr to a nearby wasteland and have him fight boys five years older than him. “Whenever I made a mistake or got dog-tired, he’d whup me with a plastic pipe,” he once said. “Other times, he’d take a water hose to me – sometimes a belt. He’d make me get up, telling me to fight back, always asking, ‘Well, boy, you a kingpin or a participant?’ I always said the same: ‘Kingpin, kingpin.'”

In the past Jones jnr predicted Floyd Mayweather would beat Oscar De La Hoya because his father was in the Golden Boy’s corner. Having been beaten up in his third bout with Antonio Tarver in 2005 he claims he made a conscious decision to lose because he didn’t want his father getting any of the credit. He said Big Roy tried to push Alton Merkerson, his long-time trainer, off the side of the ring so he could get his friends into camera shot.

“If I had won the fight my father would have gotten all the glory and he didn’t deserve it,” Jones said. “If I had knocked out Tarver they would have said it was because of him. My father don’t deserve this. Where were you the last 12 years? He’s a sharp guy. Having him was more bad than good. He’s a good boxing guy. But he’s not good for me.”

Everyone understood his dislike of his father but nobody believed it was the reason for his second defeat against Tarver in the space of 18 months. Did your background and relationship with your Dad turn you to God in the way that it has, you ask, trying to tempt him out of a humour he’s been mired in for as long as anyone can remember.

“No.”

But you constantly talk about God?

“‘Course. He’s the reason for everything, you don’t understand that?”

You tell him you’re borderline atheist. It’s enough for him to make eye contact for the first time and it’s vaguely menacing. His mood grows a little darker.

So tell me about the 1988 Olympics…

“I won silver, was the best boxer of the tournament.”

But the final?

“What about it?”

Does it hurt?

“No.”

Well, do you’ve any thought on it?

“What happens just happens. God has a plan for us all. I’m not bitter about it. I know I was the best boxer.”

He did too. He apologised, right?

“Yeah.”

There was talk after the 2002 winter Olympics that you might get the gold medal, even all those years later.

“Didn’t happen.”

I know that, but are you still looking for it or did it anger you that you didn’t get it so long after?

“I don’t really know what’s happening. I don’t really care anymore.”

Was that the low point of your career though?

“No.”

What was?

“There’s been no lows.”

What would you change?

“Nothing”

We’re talking about what should have been the first truly great international moment of Roy Jones, the boxer. Before the 1988 Olympics he was already being described as the most naturally gifted fighter to waltz across the canvas since Sugar Ray Leonard, a fighter who was as quick as he was powerful, as brilliant as he was cocky. A gold medal seemed a certainty, as he sluiced through the opposition. In the final he came across Park Si-Hun, a local fighter whom he beat up landing 86 punches to 32. The decision went the other way and in the press conference later that day, the gold medallist apologised to the silver medallist.

The light-middleweight had been so blatantly robbed that he was still awarded the Val Barker Award for best boxer of the tournament despite losing the fight three-two on the scorecards. Moroccan judge Hiduad Larbi who scored the fight 59-58 later admitted falsifying his marking. So did Alberto Duran of Uruguay while Bob Kasule of Uganda scored the bout even but awarded the gold medal to the South Korean on “aggressiveness”. An investigation in 1997 found the three had been wined and dined by their hosts before the fight and in 2002 hope was raised that Jones might eventually get his hands on the gold. It was then that the IOC awarded winter Olympic figure skating golds to both Russian and Canadian teams after it emerged a French judge had been bribed.

“Was never sure about going professional until that happened,” says Jones eventually. “It made up for my mind for me. That’s the way God works. See now what I’m talking about?”

By 1992 he’d won his first 17 professional fights by knockout but by the mid-’90s, that record had slowed. The wins kept coming but the judges were more involved as he was blatantly reluctant to finish fights before the end, at times turning and begging referees to step in and finish it while his opponents stood dazed. Was that because of Gerald McClellan?

“Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. I could win, no point in hurting people too badly. Nobody cares about what happened him when he got out of the ring. People just wanted him to box and nobody wanted to take care of him once he got beat up and hurt. Nobody’s gonna take care of me only me. And people want a show too. I wanted to box, where’s the fun in knocking a guy out? I was putting on shows. Still am.”

Was it the case too that you couldn’t get a fight?

“I could get all the fights I want. That’s no problem. There are always guys out there.”

Like Steve Collins?

“Well, I don’t know about that.”

You know him right?

“I heard him talking a little bit.”

About wanting to fight you?

“Yeah.”

And you never took him up on it?

“I ain’t wasting my time coming all the way over there to see him, to fight him. He talked all he wanted but if he wanted to fight Roy Jones jnr, then he comes, he takes time out, he asks me. Not the other way around. That’s not the way it works.”

Some people thought that you were scared?

“Some people don’t know shit. I’d fight anyone but they come to me. I’m still fighting anyone who wants to fight me. Whatever happened to him anyway? I have my fun, he’d have been no different. ”

That incident in 1994 was fun too, you suggest, trying to spark a reaction.

“What incident?”

In Nassau, in the Bahamas…

“I don’t remember no incident?”

In the airport?

“Nope.”

With the gun?

“Ah yeah, the gun. They just took it off me, shot it a few times, it was fine.”

His face glows with pride as you inquire what he was doing carrying a gun through airport security in the first place.

“I had it with me and was bringing it home.”

Why carry a gun though?

“I always have a gun. When you grow up in the country you gotta have a gun. I always sleep with a gun. It’s not to shoot no one but shoot animals. If there’s some big ass snake or something else, what you gonna do? You gotta have a gun to take care of it. All a country thing.”

Did you worry about the affect it might have though?

“Nah, I was just worried about getting it back. I didn’t have it for no bad reasons so that didn’t matter.”

***

When an old cricketer leaves the crease you never know where he’s gone. An old boxer is rarely spared such a mysterious exit. Four years ago Roy Jones sat in the back of an ambulance with the world thinking the last great fighter was finished as he snaked his way towards an Atlanta hospital. Voted Fighter of the Decade for the ’90s by the Boxing Writers Association of America, he’d been knocked out by Glen Johnson, making it two defeats in a row.

This was the man who’d danced through the 1990s, who’d showboated with his hands behind his back, whose only defeat across the decade came when he kept punching Montell Griffin after a knee had been put down and who he knocked out in the first round in their rematch four months later. This was the man who this decade became the first former middleweight title holder to win a heavyweight title in 106 years when defeating John Ruiz, who popped up in The Matrix Reloaded as Captain Ballard and found time to start a rap career. This was a guy that had once looked untouchable. Now he looked down and out.

“I was never finished. Not now either. I knew I was going to be here. I’m not going to be finished after this. I’m going to keep fighting after this fight with Joe is over. Should probably do some acting too. Keep on with the music. I’ve a song out about this fight. You should give it to him, Ed.”

You seem to get on very well with Joe, is that unusual?

“Why wouldn’t I? We’ll have enough time not to get along on detonation day.” And then there’s that laughter again, filling the limo with falseness and keeping Jones padded and away from the real world he left a long time ago.

Back in 2003, Jones penned a piece for Esquire magazine. The final paragraph read as follows:

I ain’t the toughest motherf**ker in the world. I ain’t Mr Superman. Not trying to be Mr Tough guy, don’t want to be. Tell you one thing though: I’m one of the smartest motherf**kers in the world. You’ve been talking to a f**kin’ genius.

As he leaves the limo, as Coylette awkwardly gets her dress caught on a seat, as Wirt comes over and apologises because Roy is like that sometimes, you feel he’s anything but. He’s just an ageing man who never grew up and who’ll soon be leaving his amazing gift behind him.

28 September 2008
Sunday Tribune
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