Roy Jones Jr. burst onto the boxing scene in 1988, when he was robbed of an Olympic gold medal in one of the sport’s worst decisions.
Everyone realized his talent – he was named as the outstanding fighter of the Olympics – and he went on to a brilliant professional career. He started as a junior middleweight, but picked up his first major win at middleweight, beating Bernard Hopkins for the IBF belt in 1993.
A year later, he beat James Toney to pick up the IBF title at 168 pounds, and when he beat Antonio Tarver nine years later, he was the unquestioned king of boxing. He was 49-1, he’d won titles from middleweight to heavyweight and his only loss had come on a disqualification when he hit Montell Griffin when Griffin took a knee to avoid punishment.
Jones avenged the loss with a first-round knockout of Griffin, and after winning a razor-close decision over Tarver, he could have walked away from the ring as one of the five greatest fighters in boxing history.
Sadly, that’s not how the sport works. Twelve years later, Jones is now fighting as a Russian citizen – publicly joining forces with Vladimir Putin in order to find one of the last places on the planet that will allow a 46-year-old man to step into a ring.
Last weekend, Jones was brutally knocked out by little-known Welsh cruiserweight Enzo Maccarinelli. Jones dropped onto his face, completely unconscious except for a scary twitch in his leg. After lengthy treatment, he was able to walk out of the ring.
Wednesday, he called a press conference in Moscow, and boxing fans and writers around the globe hoped it would be to finally announce his retirement. After all, Jones hasn’t had a decent win since beating Jeff Lacy in 2009, and hasn’t beaten anyone at the championship level since the win over Tarver in 2003.
He’s lost eight times, though, being knocked out by Tarver, Glen Johnson, Danny Green, Denis Lebedev and now Maccarinelli.
Jones, though, didn’t announce his retirement. While he confirmed that he plans to work as a trainer, opening a string of gyms throughout Russia, he plans to continue as a fighter.
“This first fight as a Russian will not be the last,” he said to The Guardian. “This is just the beginning. I said I wanted to finish my career, but now I feel a responsibility to re-enter the ring.”
That shouldn’t happen. There’s no way Jones can win a fight of any importance, and there’s a significant chance of him suffering permanent injuries in the ring. At this point, it isn’t even about money – he’d make more money as an announcer in the United States than he is making fighting on small cards in Russia.
It would be easy to blame Russia for letting him fight, but this is hardly a problem unique to that part of the world. Tarver is still fighting at the age of 47, and I covered the last fight of Tommy Hearns’ Hall of Fame career when he was 47 and unqualified to serve as a sparring partner for a decent fighter.
Today, at the age of 57, Hearns rarely speaks in public, and when he does, he sounds nothing like he did when he was one of the greatest fighters of the 1980s. When he attends a Pistons game, he moves like an 80-year-old man.
Hearns never had to leave the United States – he continued to get a license in several states even as his physical condition obviously worsened. Again, it wasn’t because people were using him to make big money – his last fight was the night before the Super Bowl in Detroit, and drew a tiny crowd.
The problem is that, when it comes to licensing fighters, no one is in charge. The state of Nevada might refuse to grant a license to a fighter for medical reasons, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t get licensed in another state or another country.
There are, of course, numerous sanctioning bodies that claim to exist for the good of global boxing – the WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO and IBO among them – but they don’t do anything but collect money for the dozens of titles they continue to invent.
Ironically, it is Jones who hit on the only possible answer. While discussing the things that he wants to do in Russia, he mentioned starting a union for fighters. That might not be the exact answer, but once the fighters realize that without them, the sport doesn’t exist, things could change drastically for the better.
Boxing goes nowhere without the fighters, and if the top 15 or 20 pound-for-pound boxers in the world banded together to demand better conditions, they would have to be taken seriously. They could force global medical and licensing standards, better health-care coverage for in-fight injuries and an end to extortionate sanctioning fees for bogus titles.
Does all that sound like a pipe dream? Probably, but that’s been the case when athletes in every sport have tried to unionize. In this case, Jones could start the movement that finally ends his career.