Shortly before his death in 2011, Christopher Hitchens said of his impending mortality, “It will happen to all of us, that at some point you get tapped on the shoulder and told, not just that the party’s over, but slightly worse: the party’s going on — but you have to leave. And it’s going on without you.”
This can be said not only about the end of our lives but the end of anything, really. Someone will take your job after you’ve been fired. The ska scene will still be around after your band The Paris Hil-Tones breaks up. Your ironic adult kickball league will continue to thrive while you’re in jail. Someone will date your girlfriend after she finds your secret collection of erotic medical anomaly videos. It will all go on without you, in spite of – and in some cases, because of – your lack of involvement. And this is what makes it so hard to walk away.
There’s practically no such thing as the perfect time to get out of boxing. Some would argue that there’s no perfect time to get into it either but that’s another article for another day. You either start losing to bums, or you stick around long enough to become one. The window to retire with your record, bank account, mental faculties, and self-respect in good standing is nearly microscopic. Throwing in the towel on something you’re still capable of doing successfully is counterintuitive to human intellect. Trying to recoup lost glory after it’s far too late is not. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot and most of us couldn’t locate it with a map.
The ascending arc of a relevant career in boxing usually goes something like prospect > contender > champion > star. The descending arc is generally b-side > gatekeeper > bum > corpse. They say there are no happy endings in boxing and this is one instance where “they” are mostly right. The back half of a professional boxing career is oftentimes the physical manifestation of the sunk cost fallacy. A fighter invests so much of his life in boxing that he feels one last jackpot will eventually come his way. In reality, the exact opposite is true. The hole gets deeper the longer you stay at the table and the chances of climbing out of it get slimmer by the hand. Cashing in your chips at the top of that bell curve is like a junkie getting clean before he starts putting in hours on the wrong side of a glory hole: practically unheard of.
Both Wladimir Klitschko and Andre Ward did it recently –tenuous it may be– but in our lifetime it’s what, Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, Kostya Tszyu, Marcos Maidana, and maybe Oscar De La Hoya? Everyone else hung on too long while we sat idly by, feigning sympathy as though we weren’t complicit in their inevitable downfall. Which brings us to the curious case of Roy Jones Jr.
It seems crazy to have to say this but there’s currently an entire generation of boxing fans that know Roy Jones (65-9, 47 KO) either solely as a broadcaster or as a part-time, washed-up fighter. For those who were around in the mid 1990’s and beyond, the idea of having to re-litigate his standing among the all-time greats still feels strange. For a roughly fifteen year stretch from his debut against Ricky Randall on May 6, 1989 to his stunning one punch knockout loss to Antonio Tarver on May 15, 2004, Jones sat atop the boxing world. With a combination of skill, creativity, and pure athleticism to rival any name in Canastota, the only question with Jones was how high would he go? Now however, the question seems to be how long will he go?
It’s been just under fourteen years since that loss to Tarver and a few months less since a September 25, 2004 knockout loss to Glen Johnson that should’ve scared Jones, and anyone involved with him, into blissful retirement. To not walk away after the Tarver loss is understandable. To fight on after the Johnson loss is borderline psychotic. Missing the window to retire on time by a few years or a couple fights is understandable. Missing it by fourteen years and twenty plus fights is misguided at best. However, something has happened lately that seems to be specific to Roy Jones.
Since the beginning of his descent into irrelevance, Jones’ career has turned into Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes. Each successive fight against has-beens, unknowns, and guys whose names you need three tongues to pronounce properly, just got more absurd to the point that it looped back around to being even more intriguing than when it began. Over the span of nearly three decades our reaction to his fights being announced has gone from “Hell yeah, Roy Jones is fighting!” to “Roy Jones really shouldn’t be fighting…” then to “Oh no, is Roy Jones still fighting?” and now to “Haha, what? Roy Jones is still fighting? Awesome!” He may have discovered a second –albeit much weirder– window in which to retire. Stick around long enough and lose so many times that the shock and dread wears off. Condition people to the idea that you’re there simply to enjoy yourself and maybe they’ll do the same.
Who are we to decide that someone can’t pursue their hobbies long after they’ve lost the ability to do so successfully? Of course there are health concerns with taking punches in your late 40’s but if we were all as concerned with fighters’ safety as we claim to be, we’d be paying their tuitions so they didn’t have to fight in the first place. The social contract that exists between fighter and fan is that they’ll trade their well-being for our money as long as we get to trade our empathy for their absolution. Their acceptance of volenti non fit injuria gets us off the hook, and our dollars and attention keep them on it.
Jones is scheduled to fight Scott Sigmon (30-11-1, 16 KO) on Thursday, February 8 in his hometown of Pensacola in a fight he says will be his last. If it is, he surely won’t be going out with the fanfare he would’ve had he retired during either of George W. Bush’s presidential terms. The money will be less, the crowd smaller, and the media coverage scarce. The man who once went by “Superman” will be even-money against a fighter with double digit losses. It will be his night to be sure, but it’s a Thursday night and by the weekend our eyes will turn to more pressing issues and more important fights. The party will most assuredly go on without him. But you know what? Maybe that’s ok.
The passing of time allows for a reshuffling of our ideals. Things that seemed dire in our youth barely register with us today. Priorities shift, motives realign, and god damn bones break. In our minds we can all draw a straight line from where we are to where want to be but you still have to live the years in between. Perhaps boxing is the same. Perhaps in a thirty year career a man changes a bit and the glory he once craved gives way to a desire to enjoy the ride. As much as anything that happens in a boxing ring, this is something to be celebrated.
At his peak, the thought of Roy Jones having one loss on his record, let alone nine, would be unfathomable. The five by knockout would be confounding enough, but Jones losing a decision in a boxing match to another mortal soul would be incomprehensible, such was his talent level. As a fighter, he’s been washed up for longer than he was wasn’t. He’s no longer Superman. He’s not even super, man. He’s just a man.
Roy Jones Jr won’t get to retire with the pageantry of an all-time great. He will, however, get to retire as Roy Jones Jr and that’s a pretty damn good way to exit the party.
- Brandon Rios and Victor Ortiz fighting on the same weekend and not against each other is ludicrous. If you polled a hundred boxing fans, 99 of them would tell you that’s the fight they want most. The other one would tell you to go fuck yourself. Boxing folk are an interesting lot.
- The Carl Frampton vs Nonito Donaire fight seems to be flying way under the radar but count me as one of the few excited for it. Frampton is rightly favored and Donaire is mostly shot but if he’s got anything left his reach and speed could be a problem.
- Chop Chop Corley and Hank Lundy are going to put on the fight of the year. Log it.
- If you’re a weirdo and you haven’t gotten into the band PUP yet you should probably do that now before us cool kids with amazing taste give up on you completely.
(MOSCOW RUSSIA DECEMBER 15, 2015: American-Russian professional boxer Roy Jones Jr gives a speech during a press conference at the Russian News Agency Tass Press Center; Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)