Photo by Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
On Wednesday afternoon, two days before his 74th professional boxing match, Roy Jones Jr. participated in a short public workout at a CrossFit gym in Wilmington, Delaware. He prepared by shadow boxing for around 20 minutes.
For the most part, it was a chance for Jones to break a sweat, get his heart racing and train in front of media and fans. If this was 15 or 20 years ago, the gym would have been packed with people eager to watch Jones, who back then was arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Nowadays, Jones is 48-years-old and way past his prime. Many in the sport believe Jones should’ve retired more than a decade ago. It was no major surprise, then, that only one local television station and a few other people showed up to catch a glimpse of Jones in action.
Still, as Jones left, Winston Willis approached and asked Jones to sign a pair of old Nike Jordan Brand boxing shoes that Jones once made famous. Willis, 37, a former amateur fighter, rooted for Jones when he dominated opponents in the 1990s and early 2000s. Jones gladly signed the shoes with a black Sharpie and posed for a photograph with Willis.
“That made my day right there,” Willis said. “I’m gonna post it on Facebook and brag about it.”
For Jones, those moments of adoration were once commonplace, but they occur less often now that he’s far from the spotlight. His diminished stature doesn’t seem to have squashed his passion for boxing, though.
Jones has hinted at retirement a few times since the mid-2000s. Still, he keeps coming back, albeit in fights that are considered more sideshows rather than legitimate challenges. On Friday night, Jones returns to the ring when he faces Bobby Gunn in a cruiserweight bout at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware.
“People always say you should quit, quit, quit, quit, quit,” Jones told Fightland. “That’s the opposite of what I know for a living. It’s like when they start telling you to quit, they just make me go harder.”
Promoters are billing the fight as “Skill vs. Will,” a contrast between Jones’s traditional boxing technique and Gunn’s brawling style. Gunn claims to be 72-0 with 72 knockouts as a bare knuckle boxer, but the 43-year-old hasn’t had a regular boxing match since losing a unanimous decision to Glen Johnson in December 2013.
Gunn (21-6-1 with 18 knockouts) and Jones (64-9 with 46 knockouts) nearly fought 10 years ago and three years ago, but the sides could not agree on terms. They finally signed a deal a few months ago.
“I’m fighting one of the greatest fighters that ever lived,” Gunn said. “You see a lot of horseshit on the Internet, people running him down, saying he’s too old, this and that. Why don’t you just get in the ring and fight him then? I’m gonna tell you something right now. I respect him more today than he was 20 years ago because he’s more dangerous, he’s cagey, he’s a veteran. He knows it all.”
Gunn is the latest Jones opponent who comes from a non-traditional background. After Enzo Maccarinelli knocked out Jones in December 2015 in devastating fashion, Jones heard from people who urged him to retire. But he returned three months later and won via TKO over Vyron Phillips, an MMA fighter making his professional boxing debut. Phillips would’ve won $100,000 if he had beaten Jones, but he never stood a chance.
Jones’s last fight came in August when he won a unanimous decision over Rodney Moore, handing Moore his 10th consecutive loss. Jones sustained a biceps injury against Moore and later had surgery, forcing him to rest for a couple of months. During the time off, Jones continued to train young professionals and amateurs at his gym in Pensacola, Florida, where he grew up. When he recovered, the itch to box came back again, just like it always does.
“He says he’s gonna stop,” said McGee Wright, Jones’s longtime friend and manager. “But then when he goes to the gym and he’s around people, he wants to do it himself. I think it’s the younger kids around him that keep him going.”
Jones admits he’s thought about retiring on numerous occasions. After all, he is a long way from his peak when he started his career 49-1, his lone loss coming via a controversial disqualification. Jones won titles in four weight classes and was one of the few boxers to gain a mainstream following. In 1999, Jones signed a deal with Nike to become the first boxer to promote its Jordan Brand line. He also garnered attention for briefly playing in the United States Basketball League.
In November 2004, after Antonio Tarver and Johnson knocked out Jones in consecutive fights, Jones told Sports Illustrated that he wasn’t sure if he would fight again. But he returned in October 2005, losing to Tarver via unanimous decision. He’s had 20 bouts since then, compiling a 15-5 record and looking nothing like he did in his prime.
“I considered [retirement],” Jones said. “But when I thought about it, I’m like, ‘What are you gonna do when you retire? Go smoke and drink? No. So what are you retiring for?”
And so, Jones kept fighting. He said on Wednesday that he’s in the best shape he’s been in for the past five or six years. He swears he’s taking Gunn seriously and knows Gunn has knockout power. He also wants to perform well in front of former heavyweight champions Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Tim Witherspoon and Tyson Fury, all of whom are expected to attend Friday’s fight.
Jones recently reunited with Lemuel Jones, his trainer during his amateur career and his first 20 professional fights. Lemuel Jones said Roy Jones remains as committed as ever.
“This is his passion,” Lemuel Jones said. “Roy would do this for nothing because of the passion and the love that he has for the sport. This is what he does. This is his calling.”
As usual, Jones is noncommittal about his next step after facing Gunn. Will he actually retire?
“I’ll see how it goes,” Jones said. “If it goes good, I enjoy myself and I have fun, I’ll keep fighting. If it don’t go good and I don’t enjoy myself, maybe I’ll stop.”
Still, Jones doesn’t plan on ever being far away from the sport.
“I expect to be fighting until I die, in some form or another,” he said.
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