As a cockfighter, Roy Jones Jr. owned a gamecock farm and a cockpit in Louisiana.
Roy Jones, Jr. (born January 16, 1969) is an American professional boxer and actor. As a professional, he has captured numerous world titles in the middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. He is the only boxer in history to start his career as a light middleweight (154 lbs) and go on to win a heavyweight title.
Jones left his mark in boxing history when he won the WBA Heavyweight title, becoming the first former middleweight champion to win a heavyweight title in 106 years. Jones was named “Fighter of the Decade” for the 1990s by the Boxing Writers Association of America.
– Gameness til the End
June 26, 1995
Roy Jones Jr., the best boxer pound for pound, was raised under the rules of cockfighting: win or die
Even with the three-inch steel spur running through his skull, the Rooster did not forget the secret. Even with the blood fever making the dogs yip and the men close in howling, “It’s over! He’s dead!” Even with the teenager’s nervous fingers trying to yank the metal from the rooster’s brain, with the talons of the other rooster at its throat. Even then….
The boy’s heart was beating its way up his throat, but he couldn’t show his fear or sorrow for his bird. The boy’s father would smell it and carve it to shreds, for one thing, and for another, the boy was 17 and planning to go to the Olympics to fight the best fighters in the world. The triumphant rooster flapped wildly, the blade on one foot ripping the air while the other foot tried madly to extract its blade from the limp bird’s head. The teenager held his breath and tried again to disentangle the roosters without getting slashed.
He could see that the men were right; the spur had entered near one ear and come out near the other. But a shock went through the boy’s palms as he finally worked the blade loose: Crazy’s heart was still pulsing! “He’s alive!” the boy called.
“Blow on him!” his father shouted. “Keep him warm!”
The boy blew up and down Crazy’s spine and then set him on his feet. Hallelujah, the damn rooster was still itching to fight; the men stared in disbelief. Crazy struck and pulled back, feinting, inviting his enemy in, remembering what most dead cocks hadn’t learned: the importance of distance, the significance of space. The other bird lunged, exposed himself…and suddenly was dead, and the boy was whooping, hugging Crazy to his chest.
By the end of this story the boy will be a man, and there’ll be fighting roosters everywhere, hundreds of them in cages all over his land. By the end he’ll be known as the best boxer, pound for pound, in the world, 28-0 with 24 knockouts, the super middleweight champion whom some will call the best boxer since Sugar Ray. Not Leonard.Robinson. “Forget Leonard,” WBC light heavyweight champion Mike McCallum will say. “This boy is faster than Leonard. He hits harder, and he can knock you out when he’s going backwards. You’ll see.”
If you, the reader, are asking yourself, Roy Jones Jr.? The best fighter in the world? Why have I barely heard of him?…well, that too, by the end of the story, you will see. You’ll know, like the rooster, all you need to know about distance.
To get there we’ll have to travel way out into nowhere, deep into the pine and oak and cornfields 25 miles north of Pensacola, Fla. It’s not a place for a fight story—can you name three American champions in the last half century who came from forest and dirt? Boxing is the heart’s cry for personal space; everywhere out here there’s space. You can’t smell desperation here. You won’t find any boxing gyms.
Look closer. Smell again. It’s 1979. Down by the washed-out creek bed, in the clearing in the woods behind the little cinder block house on Barth Road, there are pigs, dogs, roosters, a bull, a horse…and a homemade ring. There’s a barrel of a man with a dagger tattooed on his arm and a long piece of PVC pipe in his fist. There’s a skinny 10-year-old boy. Always remember this: Nothing ever comes from nowhere.
The boy was five when this started. Big Roy on his knees, cuffing and slapping at Little Roy, taunting him: “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?” Yes, Little Roy was crying again, crying rage and frustration at how easily his father dominated him. He would promise his mother every day not to fight Big Roy that night, but then his mind would start imagining new and surprising angles of attack, shocking and unprecedented punches, and by eight o’clock that night, fresh from his bath, he would be flailing and sobbing in his pj’s again. It wasn’t fair. He had to get close and risk, but his father didn’t.
Now he’s 10, with a fight coming up next week on Pensacola Beach against a 14-year-old who’s 16 pounds heavier. Nothing new. Big Roy’s always throwing him in over his head, daring him to be a man, preparing him for the cruel sport that he, not Big Roy, has chosen. Didn’t Big Roy give him a shotgun at Christmas when he was six, have him driving a tractor when he was seven? “Thought I’d pass out cold when I saw that,” the boy’s mother, Carol, says. Once when the two Roys were fishing, wading in surf up to Little Roy’s chest, Big Roy shouted, “Sharks! Two of ’em!” and the boy dropped his rod and went thrashing for land. “What are you doin’?” the father demanded. “Where’s your rod?” Trembling, the boy pointed toward the water. “Go get it,” Big Roy said.
In crept Little Roy, certain he was about to be devoured for a fishing rod. Oh, he couldn’t swim? A year later, when the boy was eight, Big Roy heaved him into the Gulf of Mexico, water two feet over his head—that’d learn him. He thrust Little Roy onto a horse, then a bull. “Ride ’em,” he said. The child, at first, couldn’t quite cover his panic. “You’re too much like your mother,” Big Roy would grumble when Little Roy ran into her arms. “You’ll never do nothin’ if you’re scared.”
Eventually he learned to protect himself. When his father slept he would tie to a fence a horse that others wouldn’t ride, and he would conquer it alone. “After a while I didn’t care about gettin’ hurt or dyin’ anymore,” he says. “I was in pain all day, every day, I was so scared of my father. He’d pull up in his truck and start lookin’ for something I’d done wrong. There was no escape, no excuse, no way out of nothin’. Every day it was the same: school, homework, farmwork, trainin’. Gettin’ hurt or dyin’ might’ve been better than the life I was livin’. So I turned into a daredevil. I’d do anything. Didn’t make much difference. Used to think about killin’ myself anyway.”
The 10-year-old boy feels so alone. Some children are too intimidated by his father to come around but most just live too far away. He makes his alliances with animals. With the dogs that snarl at everyone else. With the bull that he has learned to ride. With the Shetland pony, Coco, that he has taught to rear up, just like the Lone Ranger’s Silver. With the goat that followed him onto the school bus in second grade. With the blue-feathered gamecock his father will soon give him. He’s always on to the next thing, the little boy, with a restlessness that the open country and the brutal sun can’t leach from him. When the train rumbles through the trees not far from his home, Little Roy dreams of leaping onto it and letting it take him…where? Somewhere far from the cinder block house where his father will be returning soon from another day’s work as an aircraft electrician at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Somewhere the belt and the switch, the PVC pipe and the extension cord can’t reach. “The whippin’s didn’t last that long,” Little Roy’s younger half brother, Corey, says. “Maybe 20 minutes.”
Big Roy’s a monster, right? Look closer. Smell again. Soon Big Roy will be inviting kids from all over into his makeshift gym. Kids with no playgrounds, no direction, no fathers. Kids from trouble. Soon Big Roy will make sure a retarded boy named Chris gets his turn on the bag and in the ring, will make certain no one insults or bullies him—it’s the same impulse that earned Big Roy the Bronze Star in Vietnam for rushing through a veil of bullets to save an ambushed mate. “You could give your two-week-old baby to that man, go on vacation and not think twice,” says Doris Grant, an old family friend. “Big Roy’d take care of it.” Soon he’ll be wolfing down dinner, training the boys from 5 p.m. till 10 or 11, doing the farmwork till midnight, rising at five to go to work again. Soon his paycheck will be vanishing, gone to buy the kids boxing shoes and speed bags and vitamins. Soon he’ll be working extra jobs on weekends to finance the kids’ trips to tournaments in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia. Soon he’ll be selling the tractor and the hogs so he’ll have more time and money for the kids. Going to the dog track with his last two bucks, praying he can turn it into $50 or $60 so they can box on Saturday in Biloxi. His vacations will be a dozen kids jammed into a van, a dozen bologna sandwiches crammed into a bag, creeping home 10 miles under the speed limit so the gas tank doesn’t go dry, relying on a piece of wire to hold the door closed so the kids don’t all tumble out. He’ll be poring over their report cards, patting their heads for A’s and B’s, cooking crabs and oysters for them on Friday evenings. “Seemed closer to the other kids,” says Little Roy, “than he was to me.” He’ll be selling the farm, moving into Pensacola—giving up his biggest prize, giving up distance. He’ll be running the Escambia County Boys Club boxing program in an abandoned building, rigging wires to the power lines outside to pirate electricity, herding everyone to the H&O Cafe a few blocks away when the boys need water and a toilet. Asking folks all over, asking his own sister, for contributions to keep this crazy, cobbled crusade alive.
That’s the hardest thing of all for Big Roy. Asking. Needing. How many years has he gone without seeing a doctor? You’re only hurt if you think you’re hurt, he keeps telling his boxers and his five children. How many days did he let that pain in his right side go before he staggered into his father’s house in Pensacola 14 years ago and sagged to his knees, moaning, “Just tired,” waiting for someone to force him into a car and take him to a hospital before his appendix burst?
There’s only one cure for needing: distance. Needing ate you up when you were one of 12 children growing up in a small house under a hard old man like Tippy Jones; needing could possess you, suck your lifeblood away, so move away from it. Where did Big Roy go the day they buried his mother? Four hundred seventy miles away, to Tampa, with one of his boxers. Where did he go at 17, after Tippy challenged him to fight and Big Roy swung a two-by-four at him, then flung it aside and ran rather than swing at his own blood again? To the Job Corps, to Indiana, then to pick fruit on farms all over the West and down to Mexico to box. To fight in small arenas for a few hundred bucks, in barrooms for a twenty, trying to work what was left of the needing out of his blood.
Where did Big Roy go when his father died? Oh, he nearly crumbled that time. He walked toward the funeral home, heart pounding with memories of Tippy stepping over the bodies of his children asleep on the floor each dawn, going off to work in construction all day and then cutting lawns till after dark. Memories of father words nearly identical to the ones Big Roy uses with his son: “I thought you were a man.” Big Roy blinked at the mourners trying to ease him inside the funeral home…and somehow, at the last moment, saved himself. He remained outside. Nearly burned up with fever the next day, but nobody saw him cry.
O.K., so he made mistakes now and then, got too close to beer, to women, to fists. So he fathered that second son out of wedlock, seven years after Little Roy was born. His firstborn son would remedy all that. Big Roy would make sure of it. His firstborn would be champion of the world one day…from a distance.
Happy? You’re ready for a happy moment? Happy’s when Big Roy lumbers into the house after another 14-hour workday, sees Little Roy and his sister Tiffany wriggling around to some R&B and snorts, “You kids don’t know how to dance,” and then starts doing the Funky Chicken and the Shovel around the room. Really happy? “You never saw Big Roy happier than when he was at a cockfight,” says Wilfred Grant, a friend from north of Pensacola. “Happy like a little kid openin’ his presents on Christmas mornin’.” Happy like a man who’s in a place that proves what he always suspected about life, a man in the pit where all complexity vanishes and every male bird has but one choice: conquer or die.
Little Roy can’t help it; he gets swept up in it too. He’s in a war for survival, just like the birds, and he’s looking everywhere for clues. What makes the blue-gray rooster do what he does that day at the cockfight in Prairieville, La.? What makes him stagger—all but comatose, being pecked and slashed to pieces—to the pit wall, use it like a crutch to hold himself upright and somehow end up killing his opponent at the end of a two-hour war? There’s a lesson his father never taught him. Everything can be a survival skill. Even leaning.
Little Roy goes out in his yard and studies the birds that Big Roy collects. The way the male bitties have to scurry out of the way of their fathers from the day they’re born, the way fathers and sons must be placed in separate cages by the time the offspring reach six months so they don’t kill one another. It soothes him. Maybe there’s nothing so wrong with the way he’s growing up. Maybe it’s just how God makes fathers and sons.
He’s 15 now, wearing shoes his feet are about to come through. He’s learning the game. He won’t ask his father for new shoes. He’s riding home from three fights in Mississippi, feeling the way roosters who make it out of the pit must feel. Just beat a kid in a high school gym in Ocean Springs, tattooed another at the Air Force base in Biloxi and then polished off one for the road at a golf course in Gulfport—all in one day. His soul emerges in the ring; he struts and preens the way the great fighting roosters do. He has already won the National Junior Olympics title at 119 pounds. Slick? It’s like Jackie Holley, a woman who also trained under Big Roy, says: “Snot and okra had nothin’ on Little Roy when it come to slick.” His career is so different from the old man’s. The boy’s opponents barely touch him. He’ll be rocked only once, during an amateur fight against Frankie Liles, but won’t go down.
Now it’s late, and the other boxers in the van are asleep. The boy hasn’t seen or felt any love, can’t read it in the way Big Roy’s hands get so worried before his son fights, the way they keep double-and triple-checking pockets for tape, scissors, cigarettes. Now’s the only time Big Roy will let it squeak out. “Fought good today,” he says. That’s it. He’ll tell his friends and the people he asks for donations that the kid’s going to be a world champion, but that’s it for the boy.
Tomorrow Little Roy will be back under the 95° sky and his father’s glare, pistoning out the push-ups, skipping rope for up to an hour, sparring eight rounds with no break, fresh partners coming at him every three minutes. Running circles round and round Big Roy’s sawed-off broomstick, one finger on its tip, until he’s drunk-dizzy, then coming out jabbing, feinting, moving, readying himself for the day when he’s staggered by a punch. Bobbing and weaving under the two long crossed boards that bristle with nails to let him know when he makes a mistake. Holding a brick in each hand, arms straight out, for three minutes, four, five…. Doing wind sprints under the interstate that runs through Pensacola on concrete pillars, his father nipping at his heels with the PVC pipe, stinging the backs of his thighs whenever he slows, screaming, “Wanna be a participant—or a kingpin?”
“Then what’s wrong with you?”
What is love, anyway? If a man’s life has convinced him that the world is a cockfight, then it’s love to turn his son into the most powerful cock of all, isn’t it? Isn’t it? “He’d slap Little Roy, punch him, scream at him,” says Nelson Fountain, another of Big Roy’s boxers. “You’d never know it was his own son.”
“Wasn’t the ideal way to raise a kid,” says Little Roy’s mother, Carol. “But I can’t say it was bad.” Can’t say because there was so much closeness in Carol that it balanced Big Roy’s distance. “Any other boy,” says Tiffany, “would’ve run away.” One thing holds Little Roy to the fire. He senses that it’s baking something hard and lasting. He knows that if he runs, he’ll be an average man. Average like the opponents wilting in front of him just when he’s beginning to feel that terrifying surge come through his arms and wrists. “I prayed to God, just don’t let me be average,” he says. “Let me be great at something.” Because? “Because I knew if I was average, he’d dominate me all my life.”
So he doesn’t run away. He doesn’t argue. He just carries a switchblade. A switchblade and a dread, growing each day as he draws nearer to manhood, that he’s going to have to use the blade against his father. “He’d keep screamin’ in my face in front of people, tryin’ to pick a fight with me, just to prove he could still beat me,” says Little Roy. “But I wasn’t gonna fight him. I had too much respect to fight him. I’d just kill him. Or he’d kill me. That’s the fear I had in my heart.”
Here’s his chance. The shadow’s gone. Little Roy’s in a dorm in Seoul, Korea, a million miles from his father’s house. No Big Roy in his corner. No Big Roy in the gym. Can’t even hear Big Roy hollering from the stands when Little Roy enters the ring in the 1988 Summer Olympics.
“Finally in my own world, by myself, like any other man,” Little Roy says. It’s an amphetamine, this freedom. He can’t sit still. Can’t sit with his teammates in the chow room, can’t sit with them in the TV room, can’t ride the bus with them to functions. It seems strange to the others, especially since, at 19, he’s the youngest member of the team. “Where’s Roy?” they keep asking. He’s hurrying to the gym to do what his father wouldn’t let him do before fights: play hoops. He’s talking to girls. He’s doing roadwork two or three times a day, dashing into the boxing gym at 11 p.m. to squeeze in extra workouts—because he has chosen to. He senses what’s at stake. To win a boxing gold medal, you must be a man. Your own man.
He makes a new friend, an assistant coach on the U.S. team named Alton Merkerson. Smart as hell, a Vietnam vet, with the oddest notion Little Roy’s ever heard from a boxing trainer. Having noticed that Roy doesn’t turn over his fist as he’s finishing his left hook—the classic way a hook is delivered—Merkerson doesn’t try to change Roy’s punch. Instead he suggests that Roy consider adding the turned-over hook to his arsenal. No ultimatums. No PVC pipes. A “democratic” trainer, Merk calls himself. Roy files it away. That’s two people he can turn to if he ever gathers the guts for the showdown with his father. There’ll be Coach Merk to train him…and Stanley Levin, the affectionate, curly-haired Pensacola lawyer whose money and sweat have helped keep the Boys Club boxing program alive, to help Little Roy financially and to hug him like a father…. He catches himself. No time for daydreaming now. There’s business to be done.
He’s awesome in the preliminary rounds. “You’re different from the other American boxers,” a member of the U.S. women’s basketball team tells him. “They all look like they’re in a war. You don’t get hit. It’s like you’re floating in and out.” There, but not there—just what his teammates have noticed about him outside the ring. During meetings they notice something else. Even though he’s the youngest, the kid from the sticks, it’s as if he’s the oldest. As if he has been through a furnace even hotter than the ghetto fighters have. They start turning to him for advice. Little Roy becomes the leader.
In his second bout he devastates a Czechoslovakian fighter, scoring two standing eight counts, winning a 5-0 decision. The U.S. boxers spill out of the locker room to greet friends and relatives. There’s Big Roy. “You’re not throwin’ enough punches!” he shouts at his son. Little Roy wants to crawl down a hole.
“He’s been too quiet, there hasn’t been any ionization,” Big Roy tells a reporter. “You touch him, you don’t get that spark coming off. I’m going to get him some electricity.”
It’s humming through Little Roy—it’s just not Big Roy’s juice. He cruises to the final, where he’s brilliant once more. He takes apart South Korea’s Park Si Hun, scores a standing eight count, out punches Park 86 to 32…and loses the gold-medal decision 3-2. What? It’s incomprehensible. The judges who voted against him will be banned from officiating international amateur matches for two years, 50 Korean monks will come to Roy to express their shame, and he’ll be voted the outstanding boxer of the Games—but the decision stands. Little Roy’s chance is gone. Big Roy consoles his son. Sympathy is power too.
By the end of this story Little Roy will have taken a dozen young men under his wing, kids from all over, kids from trouble, just as his father had done before him. He and his company, Square Ring, will have bought an old house in Pensacola and converted it into a clubhouse, with a gym and a billiards room and a big kitchen and with bedrooms upstairs to lodge boxers. It’ll be his dad’s dream, what he hammered and nailed and begged for all those years, but his dad won’t be there.
By the end there’ll be a 26-year-old champion going out into the Pensacola community relentlessly, appearing almost compulsively at charily events, high school banquets and grade school classrooms, reaching outward, perhaps, for what he cannot grasp close by.
There are virtually no good stories to tell in the history of boxing fathers and sons. There are the stories of Joe and Marvis Frazier, of Bill and Buster Douglas, of Bob and Tony Tucker. Stories of the Howard Davises, of the Tony Ayalas and of the Bob Czyzes, Srs. and Jrs. Tales of recklessness and overcaution, of jail terms and shattered promise. A great fighter is a man alone on a path. He must feel that he is the maker, not the made. He must feel that he fathered himself.
They begin arriving soon after Little Roy returns from Korea, offering themselves to take Big Roy’s place. Leonard and his lawyer, Mike Trainer. Butch Lewis, Lou Duva and Emanuel Steward. Little Roy stares at the scar on his forearm from a childhood whipping, closes his eyes, draws a deep breath. He’s ready to sign with Steward—a contract calling for $300,000, a car, a house and a horse for Roy Jr.; $60,000 for Roy Sr.; and a $25,000 trust fund for educating Roy’s siblings—and then he goes to his mother. Carol knows what this will do to her husband. “Your father got you this far,” she says. “Give him a chance.” How can Little Roy say no? He remains beneath his father’s thumb.
Big Roy’s got a plan. He’s not going to do this with city cats, with insiders, with boxing big shots—some of whom are the very same guys who threw him to the wolves for a few pieces of silver when he was a boxer 15 years before. He’s going to take the country road. He’s going to hit the jackpot without ever entering the casino. Square Ring Inc. is formed. Levin, the local lawyer, will arrange for the fight sites, handle the ticket sales and line up the undercards. His brother Fred, one of America’s top trial attorneys in earnings, will negotiate with the sharks and help bankroll the operation till the big money rolls in. But Big Roy will call all the shots: Who Little Roy will fight, when, where and how, and what’ll be served at the postfight party. He’ll decide where Little Roy will live—in a trailer right next to Big Roy. Rather than risk a showdown, Little Roy won’t even attend Square Ring meetings.
There’s one immediate problem. Nobody in Square Ring has ever walked in the snake-infested swamp of big-time professional boxing. Big Roy looks around for a consultant, someone who knows the inside—but from the outside. He hires Harold Smith, a former boxing promoter fresh from five years in prison for embezzling $21.3 million from Wells Fargo Bank.
The arrangement goes smoothly for the first four fights. Two are nationally televised, NBC playing the story of the cheated Olympian like a Stradivarius. Little Roy TKO’s all four opponents. People call him the next Sugar Ray Leonard. No outsider knows about the day he comes to the gym coughing, so feverish he’s hot to touch, and Big Roy growls, “He’s sparrin’. Glove him up!” No outsider sees Little Roy take out his anguish on three straight partners, pounding the third one to the floor, waiting for him to rise and continuing to pummel him even after Big Roy shouts, “Stop! That’s enough!” No outsider hears Little Roy hiss, “Get him out of here if you want me to stop.” No outsider sees him walk silently out of the ring and out of the gym as his father pulls the dazed sparring partner away.
What everyone sees is Roy’s star quality, the way he shimmies into the ring wearing shiny costumes, leaps onto the ropes and pumps his fists. The way he dances around his opponents, watching, waiting for their vulnerability. The way they begin to stalk him, thinking they know his kind, and then are stunned to find themselves being hit with left hooks that no dancer should be throwing. Punches arriving from improbable angles, in preposterous sequences, blurring even in slomo: four left hooks in a row; no, that’s five; or is it six? What are his hands doing down by his hips, why’s he leading with hooks instead of jabs? Doesn’t he know those things can get a boxer killed? But no, he’s so blindingly quick, he gets away with murder—and commits it at the same time.
It’s clear what Big Roy needs to do, and everyone tells him so. He needs to align with a big-name promoter like Bob Arum or Don King, needs to take fights in big cities, needs to fight better opponents to put the boy on track for a title fight. Whoops. That’s the wrong word. Each time Big Roy hears need, his eyes cloud, and he takes another step back.
“Everybody expects us to keep going forward, but we’re tricking them,” he tells Fred Levin. “We’re pulling back.” Maybe it’s because the son’s about to eclipse the father. Maybe the father truly believes that lame and celebrity, if they come too young, will weaken his son. Maybe he can’t bear risking the chance that one day he will find himself sitting in the corner, helpless, watching another man bludgeon his child’s head. And maybe it’s that word, that wrong word everyone keeps using. This is real life; it’s probably all of those maybes together.
Suddenly, the man who chucked his son into the Gulf of Mexico won’t let him near a puddle. Little Roy’s next 11 fights, from the autumn of 1989 through the late summer of ’91, last an average of 2½ rounds. Ten of them are in Pensacola, and all draw fewer than 2,500 fans. One opponent, Derwin Richards, turns out to be an impostor named Tony Waddles. Another opponent, Ricky Stackhouse, has lost five of his last 10 fights and is under medical suspension in New York. Then comes Lester Yarbrough, loser of seven of his previous 10.
The boxing world scoffs. Big Roy flares: “Boys don’t win world championships. Men do…. He’s not ready. You don’t give a kid $2 million and the prestige of a world title. Otherwise you end up with a Mike Tyson…. If I’m gonna be blackballed for lookin’ after my son, well then, go ahead. Call me Tar Baby!” And gradually the boxing world loses interest. “An invisible fighter,” ABC boxing commentator Alex Wallau calls Little Roy.
Little Roy’s scared. His career is three years old and already fading. He calls Merkerson and repeats what he says every four or five months: “Remember, Coach Merk, don’t tie yourself up. I might need you.” Finally he gets a fight with a name fighter in a name city: Jorge Vaca in January 1992 in New York. He annihilates Vaca in the first round. He watches his father rubbing elbows with the half-dozen Pensacola buddies whose airfares he has paid with Little Roy’s earnings and doling out $500 to each of them to enjoy the Big Apple for an extra day. Who knows, maybe Big Roy’s taking less of a cut than other managers—but if he would just explain the decisions to Little Roy, just give his son some voice….
The tension grows. One night a dog attacks a couple of Little Roy’s gamecocks outside his trailer. He and friends fire shots to scare off the dog, and Big Roy, uneasy with the gunshots, shouts over that if there’s any more shooting, shots will be coming back. Suddenly the son and the father are screaming, threatening to turn their guns on each other, and Carol’s begging Little Roy to go back to his trailer and stop this madness.
During training, the air between the two men sizzles, two decades coming to the skin and lying there like sweat. It’s hot that day in June 1992. The Rottweiler, the one that Little Roy has borrowed from a friend for breeding, ducks under Roy’s trailer and stares out, panting. Big Roy has never seen the Rottweiler before, and what he doesn’t know makes him uneasy. “If he growls at me,” he has warned Corey, “I’ll kill him.”
Little Roy’s out in his Jeep with friends. Here comes his sister, eight-year-old Catandrea, running toward his door. The flapping legs and arms startle the dog. He bolts from under the trailer and leaps at the little girl. His teeth rip into her arm. Big Roy hears her scream, grabs his shotgun and comes out on the run.
There’s Corey, tearing the dog away, lashing it to a tree. There’s Carol, scooping Catandrea into a car, rushing off to a hospital. Big Roy looks at the dog on the leash and lifts the shotgun. He squeezes the trigger three times, then walks away. He returns a few minutes later with a Glock 9-mm pistol. Two more bullets go into the dog’s head.
It doesn’t take long for the news to find Little Roy: that his sister’s safe, with a dozen stitches. That his friend’s Rottweiler has been killed—not in the act of attacking Catandrea, when Little Roy, too, might have shot it, but afterward, on a leash. And it runs through him: This is it. This stands for everything. This is it.
He’s in the passenger seat of his Jeep, a friend driving, as they roll up in front of the trailer. They stare at the dead dog. A 9-mm Beretta lies in Little Roy’s lap. Two sentences lie in his head: I’d rather be dead than take this anymore. I’d rather be in prison.
His father, in his own car, rolls up alongside the Jeep. He says nothing about Catandrea. “I killed your dog,” he says. It hangs there in the air, so matter-of-fact, so loaded with challenge. Little Roy cradles the gun. A moment passes. “Let’s go,” he finally tells his friend.
Distance is seldom the bent of the great knockout punchers. Their nature draws them nearer and nearer to that which prickles their fear and temper, their confusion and lust, as if sensing that they cannot wreak havoc without ingesting it first. So they keep wading in—outside the ring as surely as inside it—sacrificing perspective for destruction until the price grows too steep. You could look that up.
What are we to make of Roy Jones Jr. then? Here we have an aberration, a knockout puncher who virtually never gets hit, a fighter who devastates from afar. One whose refuge, when the pressure upon him builds, isn’t the city fighter’s refuge; one who won’t touch alcohol, drugs or cigarettes ever, or a woman for three weeks before a fight. One who won’t go into the water with the boxing sharks, won’t buy a house that’s not in the woods, won’t go near anything he doesn’t know, won’t forget to leave space between him and the other man inside the ring, just like his father always did outside of it. Because a fistfight is not unlike a relationship: If you can hold back, it’s the other person who must extend and expose himself.
It turns out he was right, all those years as a kid when he daydreamed of suicide and carried the switchblade: Something had to die to release him from his father. Who could’ve guessed it would be a dog? And so it happens, finally. At age 23, Roy turns his father’s weapon upon his father. He moves out of the trailer next to his parents’ house and into Stanley Levin’s place and starts planning to purchase a house on eight acres. He calls Merkerson and asks him to be his new trainer. “Told you I’d need you one day, Coach Merk,” he says. That’s the difference between Little Roy and his father. He’s so fiercely independent that he can barely stand to be massaged, but he understands that it’s O.K. every now and then, with a trustworthy person, to need.
For five straight days Roy arrives at the gym to work out before his father trains his other boxers. For five straight days—even though the Levin brothers, not Big Roy, are paying the rent on the gym—he finds a new lock on the door and chops it off with bolt cutters. As he listens to his feet and the jump rope tapping the floor in the empty gym, he feels a sadness and an absolute certainty: There’s no turning back.
The sharks sniff the blood. Promoters and managers besiege Roy and Stanley Levin with calls, offering cash and condos and cars, all singing the same verse: “The only way you’ll make it to the world title is with someone who’s established. Otherwise they’ll freeze you out.” King comes to Pensacola three times, telling Roy he needs to link arms with a brother and bust out of these backwoods, ride the same limo to stardom that other boxing prodigies do. Roy shakes his head no. He is too much his father. He won’t give up the distance.
This is no fool’s rebellion, no conflagration of all his father’s values. He’s decisive—clearly he has been mulling the course he would take during all those silent years. He’s happier, more playful, too. He sticks pillows under blankets in his hotel room the week before a fight to convince Merk he’s napping and then slips off to play basketball and titters about his coup for days. “Lettin’ out the kid in me,” Roy says, “that I hardly ever could as a kid.”
But he knows what he has lost, too. It’s a security he always took into the ring: the little boy’s belief that if he made a mistake and got hurt, badly hurt, nothing terrible would happen; his father would save him. But losing that is what it takes to be a champion, he decides. Being that one step closer to the edge.
In his first match without his father, he TKO’s Glenn Thomas in the eighth round. Big Roy refuses to attend the fight. The silence between the two men hardens. The stakes are clear but never spoken: If the son stumbles—if fame or money undoes him, if he loses a fight—the father is proved right. Little Roy’s not a man. He’s still a boy.
Eleven months after the split, Little Roy decisions Bernard Hopkins to win the vacant International Boxing Federation world middleweight title. But who is Bernard Hopkins? It’s not enough to prove his father wrong, not enough to appease critics who sneer at his opponents and wonder why he has never fought a champion. It’s going to take a true rite of passage, a definitive test of manhood. Not Thulane Malinga, Fermín Chirino or Daniel García, whom Roy dispatches in quick succession. Not top IBF middleweight contender Thomas Tate, whom Roy savages with an astonishing flying left hook in the second round. It’s going to take a fistfight with the man who’s undefeated in 46 bouts, the super middleweight champion who wins by intimidation, the one acclaimed by many as the best fighter, pound for pound, on earth. It’s going to take James Toney.
It finally happens in November 1994. “Roy Jones,” HBO commentator Larry Merchant declares just before the fight in Las Vegas, “has avoided all the toughest opponents. We don’t know if he’s a superstar or a fraud.” A few minutes later they start knowing. Over and over Roy strikes and vanishes. Toney’s a man locked inside the large house of his own body, hearing a rapping at the back door, running there but finding no one. Then a ferocious banging at the kitchen window, rushing there—nothing. Then a pounding at the bathroom window, spinning over there—nothing. Now it’s the front door; now it’s the dormer window in the attic. Who’s there? No one, nothing. Toney gropes, he reaches, he lunges. He goes down in the third round, gets up and gets tagged again and again. Little Roy smashes the boxing axiom, the inverse between damage and distance.
Ross Greenburg, executive producer of HBO Sports, turns to his broadcasting team of Merchant, Jim Lampley and Gil Clancy, blinking in disbelief after Jones has won by a margin so overwhelming that The Ring magazine will call it the most dominant big-fight performance in 20 years. “Listen, guys,” Greenburg says, “we were there for Leonard and Hagler and Hearns and Durán in their prime. I think Roy Jones gets in a ring and beats them all. I’ve never seen that kind of punching power and speed in one man. I can’t imagine what it would take to beat Roy Jones.”
“Look how this rooster walks in his cage,” Little Roy says. He’s pointing to one of his 400 roosters and chickens as it strides back and forth inside its cage. “See that? It’s his cage. He owns it. It’s his world. Every other male has to respect that. I spent all my life in my dad’s cage. I could never be 100 percent of who I am until I left it. But because of him, nothing bothers me. I’ll never face anything stronger and harder than what I already have.
“I’d rather you kill me than lose my title. Just like these roosters. It’s a very lonesome feeling. Your wife may leave you in this world. Your kids may leave you. Even your parents may leave you. I know what my roosters feel. All you really have is yourself.” A man with that understanding, and with Little Roy’s gifts, could own the cage for a long time. He’s never out of shape. He still plays several hours of basketball a day, whether he’s in training or not. He ran three miles the morning after the Toney fight. At midnight on each New Year’s Eve he’s dripping sweat in the gym, re-proving his dedication to himself. What would it take to undo such a man? Every great boxer is a tightly wound ball of compulsion and circumstance, always with that one dangling thread, if one peers closely enough, that can bring the whole thing apart. Where is that thread in a man for whom every bout now isn’t simply a prizefight but an ongoing war for selfhood, another trial to play out before the eyes of the judge watching his television at home, looking for every chink? Could it be that the only thing that would undo Roy Jones Jr. now would be…his father’s hug?
He was signed by HBO recently to what could be the largest TV deal of any nonheavyweight in history, under which he will fight sVinny Pazienza in Atlantic City on June 24. But who’s on the horizon to test his greatness, to do what Leonard and Durán, Hearns and Hagler did for each other, to make him a household name? Except…unless….
“You know where this is heading, don’t you?” says Fred Levin. “Tyson.”
Roy shrugs. “I could beat him,” he says. “I couldn’t beat a large heavyweight like Riddick Bowe, but Tyson’s only five-eleven. I could reach him. I could carry 185 pounds. I want to do something no one thinks I can do. That’s what a champion does. A warrior is someone who’ll fight to the dying end—that’s what my father is. But a champion is someone who’ll find a way to adapt to any situation and win. That’s what I am.
“I wouldn’t fight Tyson for the celebrity of it. I don’t need that. They can shine the light so bright on your face, you can’t even see what you’re standin’ on, and then one day the light goes off and you look down and see you were standin’ on nothin’. Sure, I’ll do some showboatin’ in the ring—I’m the only true performer in the ring today. But not outside of it. People assume every boxer wants to live the fast life. That’s an escape, not a life. I want a person-to-person life.”
And so he keeps conceding distance to Big Roy in hopes that they can once more be father and son, if not trainer and boxer. He salutes Big Roy on TV after virtually every match, but still his father won’t attend a fight. He gave Big Roy an $8,000 diamond-studded championship ring on Christmas Eve 1994, which Big Roy accepted but keeps in the house. At the urging of a friend, Little Roy agreed to call his dad and wish him a happy Father’s Day last year, but what he got in return was “Thank you” and click. Each time Little Roy visits his parents’ house, Big Roy suddenly remembers something he forgot to do in the barn or becomes obsessed by the ticks on one of his puppies’ fur.
Everyone keeps telling Big Roy that he needs to make peace with his son. “Once you break the plate at my table,” Big Roy tells them, “you can never eat there again.” He won’t discuss his son with reporters. “Just write whatever Roy says,” he tells them. “Write whatever you want.” Only to his three daughters will he let down his guard. “I love my son,” he tells them. “I gave my life to him.”
And then one day, on his mother’s birthday in April 1995, Little Roy tries again. He has just purchased a new house on 81 acres of forest, and he can’t help it: He wants to show it to his dad. He parks in front of the garage where his father still trains boxers. He glances warily at Big Roy. “Like to show you my new place,” he says.
“Busy,” grunts Big Roy.
“How ’bout tomorrow?”
“Busy then too.”
“What about next week? The week after?”
“Gonna be real busy. Maybe sometime after that.”
“After that? Who knows if I’ll be around after that?”
“Tough cookies,” says his father.
The son returns to his farm, his roosters. “That’s it,” he says. “Deep in my heart, I’ll always love him. But I won’t ever talk to him again.” He holds a gamecock near his cheek, then sets it back in its cage and walks toward the woods…precisely the man Big Roy Jones always intended to raise.