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ONE TOUGH BIRD
Gary Smith
June 26, 1995
Roy Jones Jr., the best boxer pound for pound, was raised under the rules of cockfighting: win or die
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June 26, 1995

One Tough Bird

Roy Jones Jr., the best boxer pound for pound, was raised under the rules of cockfighting: win or die

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O.K., so he made mistakes now and then, got too close to beer, to women, to fists. So he fathered that second son out of wedlock, seven years after Little Roy was born. His firstborn son would remedy all that. Big Roy would make sure of it. His firstborn would be champion of the world one day...from a distance.

Happy? You're ready for a happy moment? Happy's when Big Roy lumbers into the house after another 14-hour workday, sees Little Roy and his sister Tiffany wriggling around to some R&B and snorts, "You kids don't know how to dance," and then starts doing the Funky Chicken and the Shovel around the room. Really happy? "You never saw Big Roy happier than when he was at a cockfight," says Wilfred Grant, a friend from north of Pensacola. "Happy like a little kid openin' his presents on Christmas mornin'." Happy like a man who's in a place that proves what he always suspected about life, a man in the pit where all complexity vanishes and every male bird has but one choice: conquer or die.

Little Roy can't help it; he gets swept up in it too. He's in a war for survival, just like the birds, and he's looking everywhere for clues. What makes the blue-gray rooster do what he does that day at the cockfight in Prairieville, La.? What makes him stagger—all but comatose, being pecked and slashed to pieces—to the pit wall, use it like a crutch to hold himself upright and somehow end up killing his opponent at the end of a two-hour war? There's a lesson his father never taught him. Everything can be a survival skill. Even leaning.

Little Roy goes out in his yard and studies the birds that Big Roy collects. The way the male bitties have to scurry out of the way of their fathers from the day they're born, the way fathers and sons must be placed in separate cages by the time the offspring reach six months so they don't kill one another. It soothes him. Maybe there's nothing so wrong with the way he's growing up. Maybe it's just how God makes fathers and sons.

He's 15 now, wearing shoes his feet are about to come through. He's learning the game. He won't ask his father for new shoes. He's riding home from three fights in Mississippi, feeling the way roosters who make it out of the pit must feel. Just beat a kid in a high school gym in Ocean Springs, tattooed another at the Air Force base in Biloxi and then polished off one for the road at a golf course in Gulfport—all in one day. His soul emerges in the ring; he struts and preens the way the great fighting roosters do. He has already won the National Junior Olympics title at 119 pounds. Slick? It's like Jackie Holley, a woman who also trained under Big Roy, says: "Snot and okra had nothin' on Little Roy when it come to slick." His career is so different from the old man's. The boy's opponents barely touch him. He'll be rocked only once, during an amateur fight against Frankie Liles, but won't go down.

Now it's late, and the other boxers in the van are asleep. The boy hasn't seen or felt any love, can't read it in the way Big Roy's hands get so worried before his son fights, the way they keep double-and triple-checking pockets for tape, scissors, cigarettes. Now's the only time Big Roy will let it squeak out. "Fought good today," he says. That's it. He'll tell his friends and the people he asks for donations that the kid's going to be a world champion, but that's it for the boy.

Tomorrow Little Roy will be back under the 95° sky and his father's glare, pistoning out the push-ups, skipping rope for up to an hour, sparring eight rounds with no break, fresh partners coming at him every three minutes. Running circles round and round Big Roy's sawed-off broomstick, one finger on its tip, until he's drunk-dizzy, then coming out jabbing, feinting, moving, readying himself for the day when he's staggered by a punch. Bobbing and weaving under the two long crossed boards that bristle with nails to let him know when he makes a mistake. Holding a brick in each hand, arms straight out, for three minutes, four, five.... Doing wind sprints under the interstate that runs through Pensacola on concrete pillars, his father nipping at his heels with the PVC pipe, stinging the backs of his thighs whenever he slows, screaming, "Wanna be a participant—or a kingpin?"

"Kingpin!"

"Then what's wrong with you?"

What is love, anyway? If a man's life has convinced him that the world is a cockfight, then it's love to turn his son into the most powerful cock of all, isn't it? Isn't it? "He'd slap Little Roy, punch him, scream at him," says Nelson Fountain, another of Big Roy's boxers. "You'd never know it was his own son."

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