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Roy Jones JR and the Purpose of Detraction – A function behind Hating

By Jeff Stoyanoff

One might think that the picture of Roy Jones stumbling around the ring vainly trying to make it out of the very first round against fringe contender Danny Green would tragically dull our memories of a once transcendent greatness. Yet, the irony is that with each successive loss, most fans become ever more convinced of just how special a fighter Roy Jones truly was. After being knocked out in the first round by Green, message boards were flooded with comments about the most recent loss for Jones. By far, the majority of the comments derided Green’s accomplishment as nothing more than a decent fighter who was in the right place at the right time. To the masses, Green’s victory merely signaled a new low for Jones, not a new high for Green. Of course, there is a strong grain of truth in that assessment. The fact is, Jones has slipped, in fact, slipped is not even accurate. Jones is in a clear free fall from his once lofty perch as a special fighter. However, his recent losses have not served to bolster his detractors who claimed that he was never really tested by great fighters in his career. Rather, the losses are so clearly the product of the erosion of his skills, that they have rather emboldened his fans. The losses have not taken away Jones standing. Instead, they have made us cling that much more tightly to our memories of his dominance. This dynamic might best be illustrated in the appraisal of another recent loss for Jones; his one sided decision loss to Joe Calzaghe.

Here again, the loss is widely considered to be largely the product of Jones descent rather than the vindication of Calzaghe as an all time great. The familiar tune is that a prime Roy Jones possessed the kind of speed and power that would have exposed Calzaghe. Once again, it is hard to completely dismiss that view. Jones clearly was a shell of what he once was. Predictably, Calzaghe overwhelmed Jones with his trademark combination of speed and aggressiveness, but he received very little credit for doing so. The result of that fight is immediately followed by the caveat regarding just how shot Roy Jones was for the fight. Truthfully, there are very few people who honestly feel that that particular match up would have played out the same way no matter when in their respective careers, the two met. The win over Jones actually did more to harm Calzaghe’s reputation among boxing fans than to help it.

Anyone who seeks to play down Calzaghe’s accomplishment will invariably fall back on the fact that he sought out his toughest opponents during the twilight of their careers, most notably Roy Jones. And therein lay a fascinating difference between the two. Both men are viewed with a brand of hindsight that seeks to balance what they actually accomplished in the ring. It is as though we seek a form of homeostasis when we go to analyze the history of certain fighters. The final sad chapters of Roy Jones career serve to remind us of just how good he must have been to have dominated as he did for so long. Conversely, the absence of that sad finish for Calzaghe leaves us reticent to fully appreciate his dominance. In each case, fans revert to a familiar mean that recognizes the greatness of each fighter while acknowledging the foibles that make them human. In Roy Jones, we are witnessing the mortality and we inevitably cling to the super human feats of yesterday. In the case of Calzaghe, we didn’t see the inevitable slide, so we just assume it would have occurred and factor it in by downplaying what he did accomplish. In so doing, we avoid the discomfort of considering that either man was beyond the scope of what we can understand or have ever seen before. The dynamic has played out before.

Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano – Diverging final chapters

Rocky Marciano’s savage right hand that, perhaps mercifully, finally sent Joe Louis through the ropes is an archetypal image in the history of boxing. That indelible moment has come to symbolize the sadness that comes with watching a great fighter who simply held on for too long. Ironically, it was Louis who begged Marciano to fight him so that he might get out from under a crushing debt courtesy of the IRS. Still, none of that must have mattered in the least to those who had grown to so love and revere Louis as something greater than just a mere man. Perhaps predictably, the latter stages of the career of Joe Louis are often largely discarded when assessing just how great he was in the ring. The fallibility of Joe Louis was not limited to that one fateful night in the ring with Marciano. Louis himself felt that he should have lost in his first fight with Joe Walcott. He always maintained that it was a bad decision and that he was embarrassed to have been awarded the victory that night. In addition, Louis suffered a loss to Ezzard Charles, a tremendous light heavyweight and a fine heavy, but many, perhaps unfairly, still might chalk that up as a loss that signified an aging and diminished Joe Louis.

Louis had already come to occupy his place in history, so the losses are largely disregarded so as not to undermine his legacy. The losses have to be explained for him to keep his rightful place as a transcendent fighter with a deserving place at or near the very top of any all time list of the greatest heavyweights. Walcott, Charles, and Marciano were all outstanding fighters, so only a little spin is necessary to keep Louis’ career epitaph in line. Louis suffered one true loss; to Max Schmeling. And, suffice it to say, that loss was avenged with a savage ferocity that is the stuff of legend.

Conversely, there is Marciano. In the case of “The Rock”, there is no clear image of him as a shell of his former self enduring a beating from a lesser opponent. Marciano walked away near the very height of his powers. So, why isn’t Marciano hailed as the greatest of all time? The answer is homeostatic thinking. Just like Calzaghe, Marciano is regarded as an exceptional fighter, but the accolades are limited by the analytical homeostasis that prevents us from regarding him as greater than other special fighters. Marciano’s undefeated record is appreciated but explained away. Detractors of Marciano point to a lack of outstanding opponents and a tendency to catch opponents at the right time. Much like the Jones-Calzaghe fight, Marciano’s win over Louis is completely disregarded. Nobody regards Marciano as a great because he beat Louis and nobody feels Louis is overrated because he lost to Marciano. Once again, that is absolutely as it should be. Louis was shot at that point in his career and Marciano simply did what he was supposed to do. Yet, Rocky Marciano doesn’t have losses that showed his fallibility, thus all that remains is to establish that fallibility through his wins. If there are no losses, the wins must be suspect somehow. Yet, if the losses pile up, they can never diminish the wins. Great fighters must be appreciated, but still explained. One can be great, just not too great. Human beings seek finite answers and explanations; boxing is not exempt.

Muhammad Ali: The one man show

Muhammad Ali is a fascinating example of this kind of fill in the blanks analysis. Fittingly, the greatness of Ali is a pointed question that can lead to the kind of prickly, trash talking debate that he himself might enjoy. A look at Ali’s career shows that he was undoubtedly a great fighter. However, the debate on whether he should rest on top of the list has ample ammunition on both sides. Ali showed himself to be the best during a very deep era in heavyweight boxing. He has wins over the likes of: Liston, Patterson, Frazier, Norton, Foreman, Quarry, Shavers, and countless others. The list of his fallen opponents reads like a roll call for the Hall of Fame. However, Ali endured three tough fights with Joe Frazier who is often listed well below him on all time lists. There are many who feel that Ali lost twice to Norton. On top of that, many feel that Ali legitimately lost a fight to largely unheralded contender Doug Jones in 1963. And, in that same year, Ali was clearly dazed and in huge trouble after being floored by a left hook from Henry Cooper at the end of the fourth round of their fight in England. Ali was clearly badly hurt, but Angelo Dundee bought him precious time by literally ripping his glove so that it would have to be replaced between rounds. Ali came back and stopped Cooper on cuts in the next round. The point of this essay is not to discuss the merits of greatness, so the Ali argument is not offered to show what is there, but rather what is not there.

Part of what makes people regard Ali as the greatest heavyweight is the three and a half year layoff brought on by the revocation of his boxing license due to his conscientious objection to the war in Viet Nam. It is usually, and likely correctly, assumed that Ali would have dominated more notable names during these prime years and that his status as a legendary fighter would have been elevated further. As time has passed, one gets the feeling that these “victories” have been so readily assumed that they are generally regarded as having actually happened. “Ali lost three years because of Viet Nam” means “Ali would have 7 to 10 more wins against tough opponents were it not for a boxing establishment that kept him out of the ring.” Ali is elevated by something that probably would have happened, not something that actually happened. Part of the strength of this dynamic is that the greater one’s belief in his greatness to begin with, the more dominant one supposes he would have been during his exile. The homeostasis elevates him exactly as much as is required for him to fulfill our vision of his dominance.

On the other hand, even the most virulent Ali detractor does not point to the losses to: Spinks, Holmes, and Berbick as proof of his overrated skills in the ring. Once again, just as with Louis, these losses are sad evidence of a once great fighter who attempted to hold on to something that had escaped his grasp long before. The image of Ali as a great fighter would be so thoroughly shattered by the thoroughness of those beatings that they simply cannot be assimilated into our view except by dismissing them as misleading aberrations. This form of denial while accurate, also allows Ali’s legacy to remain justifiably intact; which brings us back to Roy Jones.

The Show that Never ends

Roy Jones is merely the latest in a long line of tremendous fighters to write this sad final chapter in their career. But, the sad finish to his career raises an ironic symmetry. Jones dominated boxing for better than a decade winning titles from the middleweight division to the heavyweight division in a career that saw him seldom even lose so much as a single round in many of his fights. Yet, throughout that domination, the questions persisted as to his level of competition. Fans often wondered how his chin might stand up if he were ever tested by a truly great opponent. However, now that he has fallen off, fans dismiss the losses. Ironically, now that his chin has been dented, it isn’t really his chin anymore. In terms of legacy, Roy Jones and many other great fighters exist in a vacuum. They can be analyzed, but that analysis will always keep them exactly where they should be; great, but human. Roy Jones could never have been allowed to surpass the legends. Questions about Jones kept us from having to consider that he was an entire level beyond Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano, beyond Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Robinson. Conversely, Jones’ sad end can’t be allowed to invalidate what we know we witnessed. Roy Jones was a special fighter; one can be great and be human. After all, all of the others were.

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