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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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What are we to make of Roy Jones Jr. then? Here we have an aberration, a knockout puncher who virtually never gets hit, a fighter who devastates from afar. One whose refuge, when the pressure upon him builds, isn't the city fighter's refuge; one who won't touch alcohol, drugs or cigarettes ever, or a woman for three weeks before a fight. One who won't go into the water with the boxing sharks, won't buy a house that's not in the woods, won't go near anything he doesn't know, won't forget to leave space between him and the other man inside the ring, just like his father always did outside of it. Because a fistfight is not unlike a relationship: If you can hold back, it's the other person who must extend and expose himself.

It turns out he was right, all those years as a kid when he daydreamed of suicide and carried the switchblade: Something had to die to release him from his father. Who could've guessed it would be a dog? And so it happens, finally. At age 23, Roy turns his father's weapon upon his father. He moves out of the trailer next to his parents' house and into Stanley Levin's place and starts planning to purchase a house on eight acres. He calls Merkerson and asks him to be his new trainer. "Told you I'd need you one day, Coach Merk," he says. That's the difference between Little Roy and his father. He's so fiercely independent that he can barely stand to be massaged, but he understands that it's O.K. every now and then, with a trustworthy person, to need.

For five straight days Roy arrives at the gym to work out before his father trains his other boxers. For five straight days—even though the Levin brothers, not Big Roy, are paying the rent on the gym—he finds a new lock on the door and chops it off with bolt cutters. As he listens to his feet and the jump rope tapping the floor in the empty gym, he feels a sadness and an absolute certainty: There's no turning back.

The sharks sniff the blood. Promoters and managers besiege Roy and Stanley Levin with calls, offering cash and condos and cars, all singing the same verse: "The only way you'll make it to the world title is with someone who's established. Otherwise they'll freeze you out." King comes to Pensacola three times, telling Roy he needs to link arms with a brother and bust out of these backwoods, ride the same limo to stardom that other boxing prodigies do. Roy shakes his head no. He is too much his father. He won't give up the distance.

This is no fool's rebellion, no conflagration of all his father's values. He's decisive—clearly he has been mulling the course he would take during all those silent years. He's happier, more playful, too. He sticks pillows under blankets in his hotel room the week before a fight to convince Merk he's napping and then slips off to play basketball and titters about his coup for days. "Lettin' out the kid in me," Roy says, "that I hardly ever could as a kid."

But he knows what he has lost, too. It's a security he always took into the ring: the little boy's belief that if he made a mistake and got hurt, badly hurt, nothing terrible would happen; his father would save him. But losing that is what it takes to be a champion, he decides. Being that one step closer to the edge.

In his first match without his father, he TKO's Glenn Thomas in the eighth round. Big Roy refuses to attend the fight. The silence between the two men hardens. The stakes are clear but never spoken: If the son stumbles—if fame or money undoes him, if he loses a fight—the father is proved right. Little Roy's not a man. He's still a boy.

Eleven months after the split, Little Roy decisions Bernard Hopkins to win the vacant International Boxing Federation world middleweight title. But who is Bernard Hopkins? It's not enough to prove his father wrong, not enough to appease critics who sneer at his opponents and wonder why he has never fought a champion. It's going to take a true rite of passage, a definitive test of manhood. Not Thulane Malinga, Fermín Chirino or Daniel García, whom Roy dispatches in quick succession. Not top IBF middleweight contender Thomas Tate, whom Roy savages with an astonishing flying left hook in the second round. It's going to take a fistfight with the man who's undefeated in 46 bouts, the super middleweight champion who wins by intimidation, the one acclaimed by many as the best fighter, pound for pound, on earth. It's going to take James Toney.

It finally happens in November 1994. "Roy Jones," HBO commentator Larry Merchant declares just before the fight in Las Vegas, "has avoided all the toughest opponents. We don't know if he's a superstar or a fraud." A few minutes later they start knowing. Over and over Roy strikes and vanishes. Toney's a man locked inside the large house of his own body, hearing a rapping at the back door, running there but finding no one. Then a ferocious banging at the kitchen window, rushing there—nothing. Then a pounding at the bathroom window, spinning over there—nothing. Now it's the front door; now it's the dormer window in the attic. Who's there? No one, nothing. Toney gropes, he reaches, he lunges. He goes down in the third round, gets up and gets tagged again and again. Little Roy smashes the boxing axiom, the inverse between damage and distance.

Ross Greenburg, executive producer of HBO Sports, turns to his broadcasting team of Merchant, Jim Lampley and Gil Clancy, blinking in disbelief after Jones has won by a margin so overwhelming that The Ring magazine will call it the most dominant big-fight performance in 20 years. "Listen, guys," Greenburg says, "we were there for Leonard and Hagler and Hearns and Durán in their prime. I think Roy Jones gets in a ring and beats them all. I've never seen that kind of punching power and speed in one man. I can't imagine what it would take to beat Roy Jones."

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