Our heroes are invincible, right up until we realize they are not. We remember Willie Mays for the Catch but can't erase the image of a 42-year-old Mays stumbling around in centerfield. We remember Joe Namath for his dazzling success in New York but can't escape the image of a battered Broadway Joe limping through his final four games with the Rams. We remember Hakeem Olajuwon doing the Dream Shake in Houston long before we cringed watching him come off the bench in Toronto. Growing old is "just a helpless hurt" was how Mays put it.
The kind of hurt that Mays, Namath and Olajuwon faced—the ache of diminished skills, the sting of pity—was one thing. What Roy Jones Jr. is messing with is another matter all together. One of boxing's alltime greats, a former pound-for-pound king, Jones, at 42, has become a traveling sideshow, a name imported by the likes of Danny Green and Denis Lebedev to use as a piñata—an old champ not just beaten, but laid out cold by Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson a full seven years ago and by Lebedev last May. (That's KTFO, as they say on the boxing message boards.)
Last Saturday in Atlanta, Jones kept his career on life support by blowing out Max Alexander, a doughy, limited fighter who wouldn't have qualified as a sparring partner for Jones in his prime. Oh, was Jones good in his prime—electric, a perfect blend of power and speed. He was the Fighter of the Decade in the 1990s, collecting titles in three divisions before jumping all the way up to heavyweight in 2003, when, in beating John Ruiz, he became the first man to climb from middleweight to win a heavyweight title. He was, as George Foreman used to tell people, "an innovative jazz musician always riffing in the ring."
The music soured long ago. It's been eight years since Jones won a meaningful fight and, before Saturday, two since he won any at all. The reflexes have slowed, the power waned. Jones is still a showman—he shimmied for the crowd (of about 1,000), mouthed off to the cameras (of U-Stream, Internet pay-per-view) and pot-shotted an out-of-shape Alexander around the ring—but no longer has the skills to back it up.
So why does he still do it? Jones claims it's not about the money, pointing to the mega dollars he made in his heyday. In 1994, HBO signed Jones to a six-year, $60 million pact, a sweetheart deal that gave Jones the freedom to handpick his opponents. The network upped the ante in 2000, offering Jones a 10-fight, $100 million contract before settling on a three-fight, $20 million deal because Jones (surprise!) didn't think he wanted to stay in the sport that long. Today he's a commentator for HBO, a part-time gig that pays him six figures annually. No, boxing is a calling from God, says Jones, one directing him to keep fighting until he wins a cruiserweight title. And if the Klitschko brothers still have a stranglehold on the heavyweight division when he does, Jones says he will move up and "f--- one of them up too."
But it is about the money, sources close to Jones say, because Jones has lost a lot of it. There was the lavish lifestyle and the familiar entourages. Jones contends that a former accountant stole from him, and former associates say Jones lost north of $10 million on his music label, Body Head Entertainment, and millions more in bad real estate investments. Recent Florida tax records included millions in liens against Jones's properties, though he insists that his widely reported problems with the IRS have been settled.
So Jones soldiers on, searching for titles and the big paydays that come with them—even as boxing fans wrestle with whether to watch or not. For some there is an unnerving satisfaction in Jones's current plight. He avoided some of the biggest challenges in his day, refusing a light heavyweight unification fight against Dariusz Michalczewski. When Jones decided to move up to heavyweight, he submitted a list of opponents that, says former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham, "the network would have had to exhume for him to fight." That now, with his skills eroded, Jones is seeking bigger challenges has some smirking.
No one wants to see Jones hurt, and the fear is that's the only way this can end. He says he received a clean bill of health from the Mayo Clinic in September and that the addition of trainer Tom Yankello to his team has helped him reclaim many of his old gifts. But Jones is playing a dangerous game. His recent losses have been frightening, and the thought of Jones walking into a right hand from Wladimir Klitschko is enough to make a stomach churn. When Mays went down in the outfield, he got up. With Jones eyeing the biggest and baddest in boxing's most punishing divisions, the next time he goes down, he might not.