GUNS AND FATHERS: Excerpt from Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing

WASHINGTON, D.C. - MAY 22: Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins fight for the IBF middleweight title on May 22, 1993 at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Washington, D.C. Jones won the fight with a unanimous decision in 12 round. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Referee Steve Smoger pulls Bernard Hopkins away from Roy Jones Jr. during their fight at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Washington, D.C, on May 22, 1993. Jones won the IBF world middleweight title by unanimous decision, five months after he beat Percy Harris. (Getty Images)

The following is an excerpt, from pages 178-182 of chapter 6, “GUNS AND FATHERS,” from the 1st US edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing by Donald McRae. Copyright © 1996 Donald McRae.

***

Arum’s head swiveled up slowly. He pursed his lips as if to drink from the chandeliers dripping with champagne rather than light. He marveled at the dazzle as he contemplated the irresistible business of a brutal fight. Then, in a sudden show of piety, the promoter lowered his gaze to the floor.

“Sometimes,” he confided, “it gets too much. It gets ugly. It can go way beyond hype! Then, you’re heading for big trouble. . . .” Bob Arum rubbed his heart, shook his head and, slyly, appeared as a humble man laboring to staunch a feral tide. “Yeah, sometimes we need to tone it down—otherwise it can veer out of control, like a runaway truck. Y’see, the best fighters in the world are very threatening individuals when the mood takes them! But I think we’ll be okay this time. It was much wilder when we had Toney and Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkley squaring off at Caesars.

We called that one ‘Two Angry Men’ and, wow, did it get hot! It was pretty ugly—all their profanity and death threats.”

As if he could confront boxing’s ferocity no longer, Arum shuddered and closed his eyes. In that moment, even Oscar De La Hoya’s golden smile was forgotten.

But, soon, Bob was back, yanking up the war talk. “I’m always terrifically excited about these big fights. Duran–Leonard, Hagler–Hearns, Hearns–Leonard, Leonard–Hagler,” Arum chanted out the middleweight litany of his greatest promotions, snapping a finger in the air for each fight.

“And now we’ve got Toney–Jones, the fight of the ’90s so far, no doubt about it! I don’t think I’ve been as excited for a fight since Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin were about to do their stuff. An’ you know, I see a parallel here. Jones has the same kind of smarts and speed as Leonard—and Toney, well, Toney, he’s my Hagler of the ’90s. What a warrior! Hell,” the Bob-Man chuckled, “the only thing I’ll say against James Toney is that when he swears too much the TV and papers can’t use the copy! It’s too obscene. Now what’s the use of that?”

Rich Uncle Bob blinked blearily beneath the hot lights. He was a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, a former government lawyer who’d made it in a rough business—but he was also nearly sixty years old and he looked weary. Despite his devotion to the dollar, Arum was not an unlikeable man to engage in chitchat. As I had done with King I tried to humor him.

“It sounds as if Toney’s making you yearn for a few more of the clean-cut guys.”

“Not at all!” Arum laughed. “Contrast is everything in this game. Look at me and Don King! The good and the bad, the guy in the white hat and the other in the black. It’s the same in the ring. You’re always gonna need your surly gladiators—Liston, Hagler, Toney. And in all that rough you need to throw in the real diamonds—Ali, Leonard, De La Hoya. Those guys are few and far between. You’re never gonna find that class of act too often in this game.” He shrugged. “Listen, I love the warriors too—y’know, Hagler and Toney are great guys! It just comes natural to them to be confrontational. But, yeah, it can be easier to deal with the guys whose charisma is, well, a little less primal.”

Arum’s voice trailed away as he gathered himself for an upbeat performance in front of the cameras. His glance swept across the ballroom, tracking the ever-growing audience, until it rested on another fighter who had slipped through a side door. Again like King, Arum was nothing if not shrewd.

“Now, there’s someone . . .” I said.
“Yeah . . .” Arum breathed.
“Roy Jones,” I noted coyly, “seems like quite a guy.”
“You could say that.”
“Are you two getting any closer?”
“Not yet . . .” Arum deadpanned, keeping his gaze trained on the prize.
“But you’d love to pin him down to a long-term contract.”
“You said it!” He smacked his lips. “But, hey, there’s trouble there too.
Who knows what kind of demons that kid’s dealing with—maybe it’s something worse than even Toney could imagine.”
“You’d still want him?”
“Boy, in this business, you’d kill to get a piece of Roy Jones. . . .”

***

He remained a mystery. Outside the ring his assurance bordered on the eerie. He found pleasure in appearing remote, in avoiding the bombast marketed by eccentrics like Eubank and Hamed as well as the equally worn path of menace trod by the Tyson–Toney ilk of bad boys. Depending on your response to such extreme self-possession he was either the coolest or the haughtiest fighter in contemporary boxing. I was one of the believers in Roy Jones’s sense of cool. He did not readily try to either impress or intimidate other people. Rather, he kept a distance from the rest, as if he had nothing to prove to anyone but himself.

Yet everything changed when he came to fight. Roy Jones did not so much walk to the ring as prance with proprietorial lechery. The fact that he ground his swirling hips would have been putrid had it not been done with such licentious élan. Yet there was something disturbing about the sight of a young fighter finding rapture in his violence. It was harder still to believe that this abandoned body usually hosted a tranquil outsider to the boxing circus.

Rubbing himself up against the ropes like a sleek cat on heat, Roy Jones entered the ring as if on the point of coming. He shivered like he had reached an exquisite pitch, as if boxing and fucking had melted into one. The intensity of that craving was as shocking as it was exciting. If Tyson and Toney epitomized naked malevolence—in contrast to the hoop-jumping theatrics of Eubank and Hamed—Jones represented a more curious mix. He was both the aesthete and an entertainer who recognized our need to have his savagery dressed up as show business.

But, for all that raunch, a harsher skein unfurled in Jones at the sound of the bell. When I first saw him fight—in Atlantic City in December 1993, on the same bill as Toney—I was astonished as much by Jones’s power as by his speed. He was like a middleweight version of Tyson at his ’88 peak when blurring punches with wrecking-ball effect were thrown from a baffling variety of angles. But Jones’s defense was a spectacle in itself. Where Iron Mike used to buttress his chin behind a rolling evasion of punches and that “peek-a-boo” stance of hands held high, Roy would simply lean back and rely on his reflexes to glide him out of trouble. He was most like The Prince in that respect. Jones did not attempt to block or deflect punches. He wove out of their way as if it might be one of the easiest things in the world to dodge a fast blow hurled by a man not more than a foot away. He made it seem as if it wouldn’t even matter if the punches fell like rain from his opponent’s gloves—such was his ability to stay dry in any ring storm.

In Atlantic City Roy Jones fought professionally for the twentieth time, duly registering the same amount of victories with nineteen of those twenty wins coming by way of knockout. Although his bout against a trier called Percy Harris was a mismatch, it still gave Jones the opportunity to show off his pure clout. After completing his strut, he indulged in horny intercourse with both the sagging ring ropes and the whooping Atlantic City crowd. He whipped off his jacket to reveal a nutmeg-shaded slab of muscle for a torso. Whenever Jones moved, his washboard facade rippled with a zest missing from other fighters’ stockier frames.

He opened his attack with a whirring left hook and an overhand right. A clownish look of alarm spread across Harris’s face as he tumbled backward. Jones did a dainty hula of dance steps to encourage the disbelieving Harris that this was only an early evening game before bedtime. Sad Percy struggled gamely to his feet—but his rickety movements were those of an old man preparing for a sleep as long as it was deep. Jones smiled pityingly at the ring-worn Percy before he clattered in again with frighteningly quick fists landing as much on the body as Harris’s listing head.

I was surprised to see that Jones hardly used the jab—that staple punch that has fed the goals of the greatest boxers. It was as if the jab were too ordinary a punch for him. Another right chopped down on the block, whistling by in the opposite direction to a scything uppercut, which had landed only moments earlier. Harris crumpled to the floor, becoming that cheap suit on a hot night. It seemed as if he would stick to the canvas but, somehow, he dragged himself up.

The second round was only marginally better for Harris. He lumbered forward as Jones zapped hard punches into his face. Then, when courage was no longer sufficient, a clipped right and a casual left hook proved too much. Harris went aground again.

Jones kept him dangling for the third and most of the fourth until, as if deciding that he had amused himself enough for one session, he let loose the last fusillade. A left hook landed a thick blanket over Harris’s distress—mercifully knocking him out just as the timekeeper gonged a close to the fourth. Jones looked down diffidently as the referee pulled on his lowered left arm. But “Little Roy,” like some calm killer in a widescreen western, knew that there was no need to gloat. His job was done. He had won without a mark being left on him. His victim looked like a hole had been blown right through his middle.

***

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