This is the seventh piece in a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. Learn more about the 1st U.S. edition of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing.
Three long years under a hot sun came between Roy Jones, Jr.’s first fight outside Pensacola, Florida, and his second. In that time, as Jones, Jr. watched on from the grasslands, Mike Tyson would burn up in a fever dream, then blow out; an unfamiliar pug off the gridiron named James Toney would swap Ann Arbor for the middleweight jackpot in 1991; Michael Carbajal and Ray Mercer—both teammates in Seoul in 1988—would notch titles at light flyweight and heavyweight, respectively; and Riddick Bowe would begin rumbling towards a $100 million contract with HBO/TVKO.
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Jones, meanwhile, after beating Johnson and Ron Amundsen in consecutive fights on NBC in 1989, found himself laboring in obscurity on the Panhandle coastline, “an invisible fighter,” as ABC boxing commentator Alex Wallau called him, seemingly cursed to toil in isolation under unforgiving skies—about as far away from the media spotlight as he was closely watched by his father’s gaze.
It was hard to find rhyme or reason, either for Jones or the boxing commentariat, in his sudden banishment from popular consciousness. Yes, Jones had returned home from Seoul with only a silver to show for his brilliance, but his unthinkable homecooked loss to Park Si-hun in the gold medal contest had won him a widespread sympathy his natural diffidence might not otherwise have easily inspired. Jones was de facto a winner if not de jure: despite the silver, he had been awarded the Val Barker trophy as the outstanding fighter of the tournament. Once the Games were finished no signature on the American side was more hotly sought after, either by promoters or trainers—Bob Arum, Don King, Lou Duva, and Butch Lewis all scrambled to secure his promotional rights. Even Emanuel Steward came close to bringing Jones to the Kronk Gym. Jones had thrived in Seoul under the liberal stewardship of Alton Merkerson, whose laissez-faire approach belied his background as a Vietnam vet. Yet on returning to Pensacola, his mother would urge him to stay there—which meant continuing under the tutelage of his domineering father.
Formerly a clubfighter and aircraft electrician, Roy Jones, Sr. had drilled his son into fighting shape since the age of five. But their relationship, far from stable or even merely functional, was built on traumatic foundations. A notoriously undemocratic taskmaster, Jones, Sr.’s props for his infant son’s training had included belts, pipes, and bats—“to keep the bluff on him,” as he told Donald McRae in 1994. “If I gave him all those whuppings like he says,” Jones, Sr. added, “it’s what he needed. If I gave him three, he needed five. If I whupped him a thousand times, then he needed it a thousand times.” Cajoled as a child into trying to hit his father, years later Jones would recall the goads and taunts that accompanied his flailing punches to Gary Smith in Sports Illustrated: “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?”
While the well-heeled awoke groggily in the 1980s to a cascade of revelations about abuse in the Michael Jackson household, Jones was being forced to submit to his father’s own brand of sink-or-swim schooling and seemingly loveless love. Overburdened, overpowered, and over-fathered, Jones would turn down Steward, Lewis, Duva, King, and Arum, to continue labouring on his father’s watch. Financial aid came from the lawyers Fred and Stanley Levin, with whom Jones, Sr. formed the promotional outfit Square Ring. Former MAPS promoter-fraudster Harold Smith, recently released from jail after spending five years inside for embezzling $21 million from Wells Fargo, was brought on board as a consultant. Quickly Jones would find himself locked out of meetings in which he was the topic, barred by his father from discussions about future fights. Jones, Sr.’s downbeat response to Ferdie Pacheco after his son’s second fight on NBC would soon seem prophetic. “There are some things we need to work on, not some major things,” Jones, Sr. had told Pacheco after seeing his son raze Stephan Johnson via a crashing left uppercut in the eighth round. “The most important thing is I intend to keep him ready. He say ten rounds right now—well, you know, he’s young, and I never tell him what he can’t do, but we just gonna play it by ear.”
Whatever playing it by ear meant, by ’92 it seemed clear that it involved going nowhere fast. Soon a lucrative offer by NBC to secure TV rights for Jones would be knocked back by Jones, Sr. Instead his son would find himself flattening no-hopers in the middle of a boxing backwater, no longer moving forward so much as going in circles. While Jones had beaten boxers with winning records in his second and third bouts, now he was consigned to beating up on improbables, incapables, and incompetents in Pensacola. One, two, three bad fights rapidly become six, seven, eight, before meager crowds of barely two thousand at the Interstate Fairgrounds and Bayfront Auditorium. Worse was to come when Jones fought a Texan clubfighter calling himself Derwin Richards in July 1990—only to discover that Richards was, in fact, a fake, whose real name was Tony Waddles. Now he could add an imposter to his illustrious list of opponents. Once thought the hottest commodity in American boxing since Ray Leonard, Jones wasn’t fading fast so much as he was fighting in absentia.
All that began to change in the summer of 1992, when Jones sometimes razzle-dazzled, sometimes stutter-stepped his way to a convincing decision on USA Network against the hard-as-nails future middleweight titlist Jorge “Locomotara” Castro. Yet what propelled a transformation in Jones’s fortunes was not only a return to competitive action against Castro, himself then two years away from knocking John David Jackson senseless with a reeling half-blind version of what he would call, after Maradona, la mano de Dios. For years now, the outward veneer of Jones’s relationship with his father had concealed more violent undercurrents. Such was the tension at home that Jones, when he was not near suicidal, had taken to arming himself with a knife. But all that rage and wrath spilled out suddenly into public in the strangest fashion imaginable on July 29, 1992, when Roy Jones, Sr. shot dead his son’s rottweiler after it attacked his eight-year-old daughter. Leaving the dog, collapsed and corkscrewed, to soak in a pool of its own blood, Jones, Sr. announced: “You know, I killed your dog.” Yet if he expected forbearance or resignation on the part of his son he was soon to be proven wrong. Finally, Jones was hurt beyond acceptance. The next thing Jones, Sr. knew, his son was speeding off.
Free to shape his own destiny, Jones parachuted in Merkerson as trainer and signed a three-fight deal with Arum. Almost immediately he found himself on HBO, the network with whom his name would soon become synonymous, fighting against Percy Harris on December 5, 1992, in Atlantic City. At 15-3, Harris was a decent pro whose losses had come against unbeaten fighters in Ray McElroy and Lamar Parks and a little-known middleweight called Bernard Hopkins. But he had never seen anything like Jones.
Stepping out of his corner with his hands high, Jones resembled for a mere matter of seconds an orthodox fighter. But once Harris thrust out his first left jab in the opening seconds, the game was up. Dropping his hands and dancing delicate skip-circles back around the ring, Jones let Harris follow him toward the opposite corner before suddenly snapping out a screaming left hook against the side of Harris’s head. Already dazzled by the whirring hands before him, Harris let his left drop slightly below his chin—at which point Jones let go of a blurring windmill right that sent him hurtling to the canvas. Harris climbed to his feet looking dazed and confused.
When the fight restarted, Harris resumed his tactic of trying gamely to jab at Jones, clinging grimly to the hope that his punches might catch up with him even after they’d missed. But faced with an opponent whose advantages in speed were best measured in light years, Harris found himself rapidly overwhelmed. Another outrageous left hook sent him flying back against the ropes, before a flurry had him stumbling in pirouettes across the ring. With a minute to go Jones feinted a right before throwing it anyway, drawing guffaws and gasps from the crowd as Harris was collapsed once more to the floor. “When you have hands that fast you can break all the rules,” Larry Merchant wryly observed, after Jones had dropped a now punchless Harris again—and brought the crowd to its feet—in the second. When Jones finally put Harris out of his misery and into retirement at the end of the fourth, it was clear that a major talent had emerged again.
More important, despite sharing the card with James Toney and Iran Barkley, Jones was all anyone could talk about afterward. Donald Trump invited him back to Atlantic City to sit with him at ringside in December. Column inches in the New York Times hinted at a future star. “When you look at him in the ring, his ability and charisma pop out at you,” Arum gushed. “Sugar Ray Leonard had it. How do you quantify it? You don’t, but Roy Jones has that same quality. When he climbs in the ring, people say, ‘Wow.’”
Now Jones was just a single fight away from a shot at the middleweight title, against a once-beaten former convict named Bernard Hopkins. Those long nights shadowboxing against his father might never be forgotten, yet in time they would recede into the rearview mirror. Now there was only the moment—inside Caesars Palace, on February 13, 1993. Now there was only the moment—tattooing Glenn Wolfe to body and head, stopping him inside the first round, Wolfe not sure whether to fall or hide, his hands and feet a fatal blur. Now there was only the moment—and the infinite possibilities that moment contained. And there he was, Roy Jones: the future now, then.