By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
Roy Jones' fall from the pedestal was hard and sudden. On Saturday, he hopes to pick up whatever is left.
Sugar Ray Robinson, a popular pick as the greatest of all time, lost a 10-round decision to someone named Joey Archer.
Muhammad Ali went to the Bahamas and was beaten by Trevor Berbick.
The great Joe Louis was knocked out by Rocky Marciano.
Sugar Ray Leonard was knocked out by Hector Camacho.
The list is decades long and, after crushing knockout losses to Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson, includes Roy Jones Jr. Come Saturday, however, Jones has a chance to expunge his name and reclaim his position in boxing's hierarchy. "He says he's not going to go out losing like that and he doesn't have to because he is still capable of being the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world," longtime trainer Alton Merkerson said. "I think what's on his mind right now is that "I'm different than what you think I am. I am not a washed-up fighter. I am still the best fighter out there and you'll see that after the fight.' "
But many think the damage is done. A win over Antonio Tarver in their light heavyweight fight Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa may provide Jones a measure of redemption, but what else? The mystique is gone, the curtain has been pulled back, and the one-time wizard and winner of 49 of his first 50 fights is now just an ordinary fighter looking for revenge.
"If he's chasing the full restoration of his legacy, he's chasing something that he really can't get," HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley said. "But if he is chasing the satisfaction of just winning this one and being able to walk away and say, "I beat Tarver twice,' okay, that's within reach."
As Mike Tyson proved when unmasked by Buster Douglas, the road back is long, and often dead ends.
As if to show he is serious this time, Jones (49-3, 38 knockouts) has brought his father back into camp. Roy Sr. is credited with making his son a devastating fighter before problems between the two forced a split. Father and son have had a chilly relationship over the years.
To Tarver's chagrin, Jones has shown no interest in promoting the fight, avoiding news conferences and denying requests for interviews.
All of this is supposedly a sign that Jones, 36, is more focused than he has been in a long time.
"Roy is going to be ready for this fight," Merkerson said. "He's doing the right things. He's focused now. He's not in a depressed mood like he was before, and maybe because his dad came back on might have been a motivating factor. Looking at himself in the mirror might have been a motivating factor.
"I don't know exactly what it is, but he's the old Roy that I knew back in the early '90s."
Merkerson said he had a bad feeling before the second Tarver fight May 15, 2004, and the fight against Johnson on Sept. 25, 2004, in Memphis.
"The previous few fights, Roy's performance wasn't what it should have been," Merkerson said. "I think he really got tired of the sport of boxing. He was bored, all of the criticism about him not fighting anybody, all of the negative input just made him fed up with boxing.
"At that point he was ready to leave boxing and leave it as it stood. That had a lot to do with his performance."
Others say Jones' lack of competition finally caught up to him. Critics are unimpressed that before moving up to take the WBA heavyweight title from John Ruiz in 2003, Jones' previous seven opponents had a combined record of 173-5-2, and three were unbeaten at the time. Two, Clinton Woods and Julio Gonzalez, had just fought for the IBF light heavyweight title. Another, Eric Harding, beat Tarver three months before losing to Jones.
Jones' defenders say these were good fighters who their man just made look bad.
But since beating Bernard Hopkins in 1993 for the IBF middleweight title and James Toney a year later for the IBF super-middleweight title, there wasn't a career-defining fight in the bunch with the exception of the unanimous decision over Ruiz.
Jones, who never formally announced his retirement and has been working as an analyst for HBO, will have a difficult time holding his place in the all-time rankings because in their prime, the other greats fought other greats. Win or lose, they had their foils, their wars, the kind of stuff that makes it easier for fans to retain their admiration despite the final losses.
"Here's a guy that was running away from the pack like Secretariat winning the Belmont by 30 lengths, and now people are starting to question the quality he was running away from," former Tyson trainer Teddy Atlas said. "Exactly what was he 30 lengths ahead of? ... But now that he's lost and lost in devastating fashion, I think people are asking that question louder and more often."
At the moment, the defining fights of Jones' career may be his last two.
On May 15, 2004, at 10:30 p.m., Jones was considered by most the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, an all-time great and a legend.
That night in Las Vegas against Tarver, whom he beat Nov. 8, 2003, Jones threw a right hand that missed.
Tarver countered with a left that didn't.
The air was sucked out of the Mandalay Bay Events Center as Jones crumpled to the canvas and onto the bottom rope in the second round of the scheduled 12-rounder. Referee Jay Nady counted out Jones' aura of invincibility.
The knockout was as stunning as Tyson's at the hands of Douglas in 1990. A few months later, Johnson, a journeyman with nine losses, battered Jones for nine rounds. It was an embarrassingly bad performance for Jones in what was supposed to be a tuneup, and ended when a right hand from Johnson landed flush.
There would be no attempt to rise from the canvas, just numbing fear as Jones was knocked cold, twitching on the canvas for 10 minutes.
"I've never seen a truly great fighter get knocked onto the ropes unconscious ... knocked out cold before ... and I saw Roy Jones get knocked out twice in a row," Lampley said.
With Robinson, Ali and Louis, greats who Jones always has been compared favorably with, the end was evident and anticipated. They did not grow old overnight.
Jones, it seemed, did. No one expected his rapid decline.
"I don't think that boxing historians have been able to find a case in which a great fighter, or a fighter presumed to be a great fighter, came to such an ignominious end," HBO analyst Larry Merchant said. "Now, many of them have been stopped at the end of their career, Joe Louis, Ali, all of them. But not in the sense that nobody saw it coming, then nobody saw it coming twice, and how they were such definitive knockouts against a guy who at one point in his career rarely lost rounds.
"Especially for younger generations - this was their Ray Robinson - I think it came as a great shock."
For Tarver, Saturday's fight is about overcoming the huge obstacle that is Roy Jones. Despite his win last year, he remains in the former champion's shadow, his popularity paling by comparison. If anything, Tarver has turned Jones, once derided as cocky and arrogant, into a sympathetic figure.
It's also about money - about $5-million each with a portion of the pay-per-view buys. It's about championships. It's about respect. It's about the next fight and his future.
For Jones, it's about one thing: legacy.
Will he be remembered for the foes he vanquished with such ease, or will he be remembered as a great boxer who ran out of no-names to fight and hung on too long?
Will a victory be enough to erase the knockouts and restore him to his place atop, or at least near the top, of the boxing world?
"Once you've been known for being a great fighter, that's something that you can't take away," Merkerson said. "Personally, I don't think Roy has anything that he needs to prove to anybody because he had already proved that before by winning the middleweight, super-middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight titles and that can never be taken away. I don't think he is interested in proving anything to society or the boxing world - I think he is concerned with proving something to himself and doing the right thing."