A fighter set free by genius

Close-up: Proflle of Roy Jones; The best pound-for-pound boxer in the world is one of the few not tied to a promoter. Harry Mullan traces a phenomenon
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The Independent Online
TALENT in the ring is relatively commonplace but genius, authentic step-back-in-amazement genius, is a rarer commodity. We saw it in the 1960s with the grace and originality of Muhammad Ali, and in the 1970s the snarling ferocity of Roberto Duran cast its own awesome spell. In the 1980s we marvelled at the metronomical precision of Marvin Hagler's work and the blurring speed of Ray Leonard's clusters. The megastar of the 1990s combines the best of those extraordinary performers yet remains virtually unknown to the British sporting public. Take a bow, Roy Jones.

The 26-year-old American, the IBF super-middleweight champion, defends his title on Friday at Madison Square Garden, New York. Boxing's spiritual home is the right platform for the game's most gifted exponent, even if the unfortunate individual occupying the other corner, Merqui Sosa of the Dominican Republic, is likely to prove no more than a mobile punchbag for a champion whose talent so far exceeds his peers' that he is now talking about moving on to heavyweight to fight Mike Tyson.

This is the most individual of sports, and in order to succeed a fighter must be convinced that he can, as John L Sullivan memorably phrased it, "lick any son-of-a-bitch in the house". That is why normally cynical boxing people were so impressed when Britain's Nigel Benn, who holds the WBC version of the super-middleweight title, said after a recent victory: "This doesn't make me No1, I'm No2 behind Jones. He's the best." Such compliments are not readily paid, or easily earned.

Nor is Benn the only fellow-pro to admire Jones's ability with unabashed enthusiasm. Richie Woodhall, who holds the European middleweight title and lost to the American in the 1988 Olympic Games semi-final, said: "His biggest asset is his patience. He'll wait and wait until you get so frustrated that you'll come in swinging wildly, wide open - and then he'll dismantle you piece by piece." The endearingly honest Chris Eubank told me once, while he was WBO champion and the subject of Jones arose: "I fight to win, so that's why I won't fight Jones. He can beat me."

The "best pound-for-pound fighter" label first applied to Sugar Ray Robinson nearly 50 years ago sits easily on Jones. He has never doubted he would achieve super-stardom, and told the world after winning his first title, the IBF middleweight championship: "I'm not just going to be a world champion - I'm going to be the best there's ever been."

That ambition was planted and nurtured by his domineering father, Roy Sr, a former professional middleweight who once - briefly - fought Marvin Hagler. "He decided early on to take me in hand, from the age of five," the boxer recalled. By the time he was 10, Roy Jr was working six hours a day in the gym, his every mistake punished with the swish of a plastic pipe that left still-visible scars on his arms and legs. Their dark and intense relationship paid dividends in terms of boxing success, capped by the silver medal he brought back from the Seoul Olympics after being robbed by a truly outrageous decision in his final against a Korean.

That verdict was so manifestly unjust that Jones should have been able to capitalise on the wave of sympathy and support it engendered in America. But when he turned pro in May 1989 it was still under his father's well- meaning but suffocating management. While less talented Olympians moved quickly on to big money and even world titles, the ultra-cautious Jones Sr kept his son boxing in minor venues for small change. Perhaps he feared that appearances on major bills would inevitably mean selling his soul to the big-league promoters such as Don King, Bob Arum or the Duva family, and he kept hammering home the importance of maintaining independence. That lesson, at least, was well learned by his son.

Jones was able to keep clear of such entanglements thanks to a million- dollar investment by two Florida lawyer brothers, Stanley and Fred Levin, who subsidised the promotions on which he boxed and financed his expenses. When the inevitable split came between father and son, the Levins took over Jones's career on the firm understanding that no promoter would ever be given an option on future bouts. That has left Jones, almost uniquely among modern champions, a totally free agent, able to negotiate the best available deal for every fight. He was paid an impressive $5m (pounds 3.3m) for a one-sided win over Vinnie Pazienza in June, such easy money that Jones had asked "in pure boxing terms, can anyone take such a fight seriously?"

The rewards are evident in the two homes the fighter owns on large estates in his home town of Pensacola; in his collection of vintage cars; in the Aston Martin he uses to commute daily to his purpose-built gym; in his profitable sideline, part-hobby and part-business, of breeding fighting cocks for the Mexican arenas where such bizarre spectacles are permitted. He does not believe in false modesty, and is unembarrassed by his wealth.

"It took me 16 years of learning to get where I am, and I still spend six days a week in the gym," he said. Jones has always believed in giving value for money. The more he's paid, the better he boxes. Conversely, in those early days under his father's management, he frequently found it hard to feel inspired by modest pay cheques and began to acquire the reputation of a cautious, even boring, performer. Becoming a champion changed all that. He won the vacant IBF middleweight title by out-scoring the dangerous Bernard Hopkins, retained it once and then moved up to challenge the unbeaten and hugely intimidating James Toney for the super-middleweight crown in November 1994.

That was supposed to be a toss-a-coin fight, too close to call, but it turned into a rout as Jones demoralised and outclassed Toney to the extent that the beaten fighter's frustrations were taken out several days later on his manager, whom he chased with a gun. Since then Jones has defended the title three times to bring his record to 30-0, with 26 knock- outs.

"We have already achieved Roy's financial security," Stanley Levin said. "We set a target figure, and we've reached it. What he's fighting for now is his place in history."

Jones is determined to be remembered, above all, as a winner. "If I got beat up bad one time, I'd think about it hard," he said recently. "If it happened twice, I'm out. I guess I just don't like to lose."

Keeping up with Jones' reputation

Others contenders to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world:

Oscar de la Hoya: WBO lightweight champion from Los Angeles has class, charisma and crowd appeal to take over the role when Jones steps down, but needs a really big win - maybe over Julio Cesar Chavez - to justify it.

Mike Tyson: Could have been, should have been, but blew his chance and on last showing, against Buster Mathis, has too much ground to make up.

Naseem Hamed: The other jewel in the WBO's crown. Probably believes he's already the best around, but is still two years and another couple of titles away from that status yet.

Pernell Whitaker: Only man who could seriously challenge Jones for the job. Whitaker has won world titles at every weight from lightweight to light-middleweight and, at 32, shows no signs of slowing down.

Julio Cesar Chavez: The role belonged to him for most of the 1990s, but time has caught up with the WBC light-welterweight champion and he is unlikely to retain his title through 1996.