There was a sustained roar, equal parts delight and surprise, as Roy Jones Jr. collapsed to the canvas, flat on his back. The suddenness of it, for one thing, was breathtaking—a single punch, out of the blue, a looping left hand that Jones, certainly, never saw. On the button. But also contributing to the turbo-strength clamor of the crowd at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas last Saturday was the quick recognition that boxing's most entertaining condition, instant chaos, once more prevailed.
It happened halfway through the second round of Jones's rematch with Antonio Tarver, a respected light heavyweight who had flown under Jones's radar for years. Even after Tarver lost a majority decision to Jones in November, a fight many thought Tarver had won, he remained relegated to wannabe status. Jones, who has been carrying the best-fighter-pound-for-pound mantle on his shoulders for a decade, was given the champions seemingly automatic exemption: Something—whatever—had gone wrong. Perhaps Jones, who had joined the heavyweight ranks in March 2003 to casually pick off a title there, was debilitated by the 25-pound weight loss the match with Tarver required.
Tarver, 35 (the same age as Jones), has labored without much prestige, fighting, as he said last week, "along the back roads of Philadelphia, fighting at the Blue Horizon for peanuts." Two losses in his first 23 bouts didn't help, but he's always deserved more than peanuts (he recently filed for bankruptcy) and excuses from beaten opponents. So during ring introductions at the Mandalay, when referee Jay Nady asked if either boxer had any questions, Tarver snarled and said, "You got any excuses tonight, Roy?"
The fight was too short to say Jones has finally and instantly become an old fighter or that Tarver succeeds him on the throne as boxing's best. But the course of the last two fights suggests, at least, that Tarver has Jones's number.
In this second one Jones seemed in charge, as usual, pecking away in the middle of the ring. But Tarver had been instructed not to be dazzled by Jones's fantastic hand speed and instead to reply with force. He should just do something, not stand in awe. Here's what he did: As Jones prepared to unveil a characteristic riff (he shot out a punch, prelude to some wonderful combination, no doubt), Tarver responded with a quick left. "Turned out to be shorter than his," explained Tarver, "right on the kisser."
Jones fell, stumbled to his knees, rolled to his side and finally arose at the count of nine but not in good enough shape mat Nady believed the fight could go on.
Tarver, whose gift for highly annoying gab is what lured Jones into a fight in the first place, was able to summarize the action with a 1950s kind of brio: "The script can only be written in the squared circle." Damon Runyon would have kept that line.
In fact, there no longer is a script. Jones muttered some vague complaints after the fight to HBO about middling motivation, uncertain prospects. Heavyweights, he said, are all he could get up for, and why did he ever take this fight in the first place?
A third fight might not happen, and Tarver, while not on the back roads of Philly again, will have to follow Jones's lead and visit the heavyweight ranks to make serious money or headlines. He's talented and tall enough (6'2") that the prospect is feasible.
In any case, with that short left hand, Tarver restored the sense of unpredictability that boxing needs; he created the uncertainty that makes it important. The roar at Mandalay had hardly subsided before people looked at each other and asked, Now what?