”After Mike Tyson, I’m Done.” – Roy Jones Jr, November 2003.
When Roy Jones Jr packed on eighteen pounds of muscle to defeat John Ruiz for a heavyweight strap in 2003, the pound-for-pound phenomenon from Pensacola had, in the eyes of many, a genuine claim to being one of the greatest fighters who had ever lived.
A combination of some short memories and a heavy dose of hyperbole there perhaps, but looking at Roy’s decade long run of world title fights – collecting championships in four weight classes from middleweight to heavyweight with a dominant swagger and displaying a unique brand of freakish athleticism – you can forgive people for getting a little carried away at the time. When Jones returned to light heavyweight after Ruiz and reclaimed a bunch of titles from Antonio Tarver, he stood with a record of 49-1 (38 KOs), with the only blemish on his record a disqualification defeat to Montell Griffin that he’d avenged by first-round knockout.
In the ring immediately after his victory over Tarver, the 33-year-old Jones told Larry Merchant he had plans for one more fight before retirement.
A bout with “mega dollar heavyweight”, Mike Tyson.
“After Mike Tyson, I’m done,” Jones told the veteran broadcaster. “If I don’t get Tyson, I’m done.”
The bout of course never materialized, and Jones eventually agreed to a rematch with Tarver at light-heavy instead, suffering a second-round knockout defeat in arguably the most shocking coup de grâce witnessed in a boxing ring since Tyson himself was knocked out by Buster Douglas. It precipitated a dramatic fall from grace for Jones, who would be knocked out again just four months later by veteran Road Warrior Glen Johnson. After a hiatus of almost a year, Jones then returned to fight Tarver for a third time and lost by clear decision in an underwhelming distance fight – Superman’s third consecutive setback, putting his fighting legacy as one of the true all-time greats on shaky legs. Fifteen years on, and Jones’s standing amongst the greats hasn’t really ever recovered from that trio of defeats.
Jones would go on to add another twenty-two bouts to his pro ledger after the third Tarver fight, finally retiring in February 2018 with a low-key ten-round decision over club fighter Scott Sigmon at Pensacola Civic Center. He would lose on five more occasions, including three brutal knockout losses at cruiserweight to Danny Green, Denis Lebedev and Enzo Maccarinelli, fighters who – with all due respect to those guys – would have been embarrassed by Jones in his pomp.
When he eventually hung up the gloves, it was something of an undignified end for a fighter as great as Roy Jones Jr was.
But it could have been all so different.
Last month saw the sixteen-year anniversary of Jones’s shocking knockout defeat to Tarver, meaning – particularly with the heightened feeling of nostalgia for classic sporting events right now, thanks to lack of action afforded by the COVID-19 pandemic – that the fight has been replayed copious times across social media and various boxing sites recently, with fans and writers providing their two cents on Jones’s legacy, and their memories of the night his aura of invincibility was shattered.
In other, entirely separate news, a 53-year-old Mike Tyson has announced that he plans to return to the ring this year for a money-spinning exhibition bout, following recent footage of the The Baddest Man on the Planet looking devastating in the gym, throwing trademark hook-body-and-uppercut combinations on the pads. In COVID-19 inflicted sports absence, Tyson’s supposed interest in fighting again has also generated plenty of attention on boxing sites and social media alike, as well as some pretty ridiculous talk that he could come back right now and wipe the floor with any of boxing’s current heavyweight stars.
Tyson may have been too much for Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, and his 6’9” gypsy namesake when he was in his 80s heyday, but to suggest that he could come back now – at 53 – and do so is pretty absurd. Let’s not forget that fifteen years ago, when he was still in his thirties, Tyson was knocked out in six rounds by Kevin McBride. Let’s not forget how, sixteen years ago this coming July, Tyson was also dispatched in four rounds by Danny Williams.
Iron Mike’s shock loss to Williams came just two months after the fateful night in which Tarver had flattened Jones, which is interesting. A pay-per-view extravaganza of an event between two of the biggest names in the sport had been on the table in late ‘03 and early ‘04, but within a matter of months both men’s reputations had suffered irreversible harm, and the bout was gone forever.
The recent spotlight placed on both men’s fortunes of the time got me thinking however. What if the bout between the two had materialised, and the 49-1 Jones had gone on to fight “mega dollar heavyweight” Tyson in 2004, instead of rematching Tarver, and then sailed off into the sunset?
Looking at Tyson being stopped by Williams, in fact, looking at Tyson two years earlier against Lennox Lewis – which, at least according to Mike’s autobiography Undisputed Truth, he barely prepared for as he was at the height of his struggles with cocaine and sex addiction – he was a shell of his former self. 2003 also saw Tyson dealing with the distractions of a divorce from his second marriage and eventual filing for bankruptcy. In 2004, it’s not unfathomable to see Jones scoring a win over Tyson.
Back at heavyweight, Jones may have regained some of the strength his body had lost from dropping weight for the first Tarver fight, and he already displayed versus Ruiz a year prior that he could outmanoeuvre a heavyweight for twelve rounds. Now, in normal circumstances, I wouldn’t dream of comparing the task of keeping Mike Tyson at bay with that of John Ruiz. But we’re talking about the 2004 Mike Tyson here; the Tyson that was not only years past his best, but at the apex of his self-destructive behaviour, fighting only for paydays, and really struggling to deal with his many demons outside of the ring.
No doubt Tyson would still have been dangerous in the early rounds and there is of course the very valid argument that if Tarver could catch Jones and starch him, Tyson may damn near have taken Jones’s head off had he landed big. But you’d also have to assume that facing Tyson, Jones would have been much more switched on and mentally focused than in a rematch with Tarver, a guy he’d already beaten – albeit controversially – and who he’d really had no great desire to fight again. The fight with Tyson could have been Jones’s swansong and Roy’s comments from the time suggest that the opportunity to end his career on that note would have driven him to be as primed and disciplined as he ever was, to finish on a high.
“With Tyson it don’t matter if there’s no title,” Jones told Donald McRae in an interview for The Guardian. “Tyson is a legend. I never dreamed I’d fight for the heavyweight championship but I went out and won it and, now, to fight Tyson on top of that? C’mon, that’s the ending to beat all endings.”
So let’s entertain it. If Jones had fought and beat Tyson, and retired 50-1* (38 KOs), with only an emphatically avenged disqualification loss, titles at four weights and victories over a number of hall of fame fighters – James Toney, Bernard Hopkins, Mike McCallum, Virgil Hill and Tyson – where would he now sit amongst the sport’s pantheon of greats?
I’ve no doubt that many fans would put him at the absolute summit. And I think even some of the sport’s more respected historians would place him pretty close to it.