SI Vault
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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Even with the three-inch steel spur running through his skull, the Rooster did not forget the secret. Even with the blood fever making the dogs yip and the men close in howling, "It's over! He's dead!" Even with the teenager's nervous fingers trying to yank the metal from the rooster's brain, with the talons of the other rooster at its throat. Even then....

The boy's heart was beating its way up his throat, but he couldn't show his fear or sorrow for his bird. The boy's father would smell it and carve it to shreds, for one thing, and for another, the boy was 17 and planning to go to the Olympics to fight the best fighters in the world. The triumphant rooster flapped wildly, the blade on one foot ripping the air while the other foot tried madly to extract its blade from the limp bird's head. The teenager held his breath and tried again to disentangle the roosters without getting slashed.

He could see that the men were right; the spur had entered near one ear and come out near the other. But a shock went through the boy's palms as he finally worked the blade loose: Crazy's heart was still pulsing! "He's alive!" the boy called.

"Blow on him!" his father shouted. "Keep him warm!"

The boy blew up and down Crazy's spine and then set him on his feet. Hallelujah, the damn rooster was still itching to fight; the men stared in disbelief. Crazy struck and pulled back, feinting, inviting his enemy in, remembering what most dead cocks hadn't learned: the importance of distance, the significance of space. The other bird lunged, exposed himself...and suddenly was dead, and the boy was whooping, hugging Crazy to his chest.

By the end of this story the boy will be a man, and there'll be fighting roosters everywhere, hundreds of them in cages all over his land. By the end he'll be known as the best boxer, pound for pound, in the world, 28-0 with 24 knockouts, the super middleweight champion whom some will call the best boxer since Sugar Ray. Not Leonard. Robinson. "Forget Leonard," WBC light heavyweight champion Mike McCallum will say. "This boy is faster than Leonard. He hits harder, and he can knock you out when he's going backwards. You'll see."

If you, the reader, are asking yourself, Roy Jones Jr.? The best fighter in the world? Why have I barely heard of him?...well, that too, by the end of the story, you will see. You'll know, like the rooster, all you need to know about distance.

To get there we'll have to travel way out into nowhere, deep into the pine and oak and cornfields 25 miles north of Pensacola, Fla. It's not a place for a fight story—can you name three American champions in the last half century who came from forest and dirt? Boxing is the heart's cry for personal space; everywhere out here there's space. You can't smell desperation here. You won't find any boxing gyms.

Look closer. Smell again. It's 1979. Down by the washed-out creek bed, in the clearing in the woods behind the little cinder block house on Barth Road, there are pigs, dogs, roosters, a bull, a horse...and a homemade ring. There's a barrel of a man with a dagger tattooed on his arm and a long piece of PVC pipe in his fist. There's a skinny 10-year-old boy. Always remember this: Nothing ever comes from nowhere.

The boy was five when this started. Big Roy on his knees, cuffing and slapping at Little Roy, taunting him: "What's wrong? Gettin' tired? Told you you were too little. Told you you weren't quick enough. Oh, here we go. You cryin' again? Little girlie-girlie cryin' again?" Yes, Little Roy was crying again, crying rage and frustration at how easily his father dominated him. He would promise his mother every day not to fight Big Roy that night, but then his mind would start imagining new and surprising angles of attack, shocking and unprecedented punches, and by eight o'clock that night, fresh from his bath, he would be flailing and sobbing in his pj's again. It wasn't fair. He had to get close and risk, but his father didn't.

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