Roy Jones Jr vs Enzo Maccarinelli: Jones gains Russian citizenship but he's an enemy of the state in Ukraine

Once the world’s greatest boxer, ageing American has taken up Russian citizenship and attracted unwelcome comparisons with terrorists – but he is unrepentant as he  prepares for his Moscow show against Maccarinelli

Steve Bunce
Tuesday 08 December 2015 20:53
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Roy Jones shakes hands with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in August
Roy Jones shakes hands with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in August

There was a worn religious sign near a boxing gym in Pensacola on Florida’s Gulf coast back in the Nineties that simply said: “Prepare to meet thy God.” Inside the gym the finest fighter of his generation, Roy Jones, conducted his business.

“You see that sign?” Jones asked one day. “You see the church?” There was no church, it was the fighter’s little joke and he has not lost his sense of humour during a truly remarkable career, which includes world titles from middleweight to heavyweight and a decade or more as the world’s best boxer. His original deal with HBO in America was boxing’s most lucrative at that time.

On Saturday, in Moscow, Jones fights for the 71st time, but for the first time since President Putin granted him Russian citizenship and then took a personal pledge from the American that he would spend a significant part of his life in Russia. Jones is a Russian now.

“I told the president that I was all about building bridges between the East and the West,” said Jones during a recent trip to London. “I’m appreciated in Russia, the people are crazy about their boxing. I have never experienced anything like it.”

 The American provides a masterclass for police officers in Moscow 

Putin and Jones first met in August in Crimea, when the fighter was there to add a bit of sparkle to a professional show and Putin was there on special business in the disputed territory. The show itself was odd, promoted by the motorcycle club Night Wolves, known as Putin’s Hells Angels, and featured the elite members of the notorious gang, including “The Surgeon”, at ringside.

The Kremlin-funded club, known in Russian as Nochnye Volki, had been given a large plot of land near Sevastopol in Crimea. As well as the professional boxing show they put on a reconstruction of World War Two, which included a loaned tank from Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad.

“I came to Russia in peace and I attended the boxing in peace,” said Jones. “I went there to rap and meet people and look at business opportunities and I saw how much the people love Roy Jones.” He seemed genuine when he told me this in early September, oblivious to a growing outrage.

When Jones and Putin came together – by chance, according to sources – they drank tea and swapped stories. The pair embraced, exchanged double handshakes, talked about Kung Fu movies and two months later the invite from the Kremlin arrived; Jones, draped in a Russian flag, could barely hold back the tears as Putin personally handed him his new passport.

Putin confirmed the deal: “Roy Jones intends to spend a significant part of his life working in Russia.” So far, we have been spared breathless, drunken pledges to fight for the survival of Mother Russia, which seems to happen on nights when the one-time French actor and now Russian citizen Gérard Depardieu attacks his wine vault.

However, the meeting in the disputed, bloody and annexed part of Crimea has not gone down too well with the Ukraine authorities and Jones is in a spot of serious bother. He has been branded a “violator of the state border” and will be arrested if he enters Ukraine and charged under Article 332-1, which carries a sentence of eight years if he is captured and found guilty.

The top advisor to the Ukraine Internal Ministry, Anton Gerashchenko, has branded the boxer – who won a silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a fight which was so controversial that it eventually led to many leading Eastern Bloc amateur officials being exiled – a “terrorist” for crossing the Ukraine border illegally and attending the fights in August.

Jones has dismissed the threat and challenged the Mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, to a competitive sparring session. “I have been avoided by the Klitschko brothers for over a decade,” said Jones. “I’m on a peace mission to the East, but I would spar with both of them and this blacklisting by Ukraine is a transparent attempt to politicise my legitimate positive endeavours.”

“The Surgeon”, the Night Wolves’ leader, is also wanted by Ukraine authorities, charged with allegedly financing pro-Russian rebels in the conflict. He has laughed off the charges.

So this Saturday Jones, who is now 46, will fight Swansea’s Enzo Maccarinelli at cruiserweight inside one of Moscow’s several ice palaces. Jones is convinced that a win will lead to another legitimate world title fight; his last was in 2004 at light-heavyweight and he lost. I have chosen to ignore the titles outside of the regular, recognised and barely tolerable four main sanctioning bodies.

Jones once had six different belts; several were gifts from the heads of the governing bodies, offered in obsequious gestures to get the great fighter’s patronage. His first was the IBF middleweight title in 1993 and from then, until he beat John Ruiz to win the world heavyweight title one crazy night in Las Vegas in 2003, he was untouchable, brilliant, the master of the ring. “I know that I can stop time and still win another world title,” said Jones.

Jones last lost in 2011 in Moscow when Denis Lebedev, now the WBA cruiserweight world champion, stopped him with just two seconds left on the clock. Jones has won eight times since then, including two in Russia, but Maccarinelli, 35, is by far the best man he has met since the Lebedev setback. Jones, however, seems unconcerned by the dark reality of losing his debut as a Russian in Moscow. “This is my show, the fans will be there for me.”

Maccarinelli is also treating the fight like the last stop before another world title opportunity. “I know he’s a Russian now and that suits me – I knocked out a Russian in Russia to win the European title in 2010.” He did, and it was in the first round.

Maccarinelli is fresher, and the favourite once the bell sounds. Jones, the proud Russian from Florida, will rap on his way to the ring and no doubt enjoy a rapturous welcome once he climbs through the ropes. Men from the Kremlin will be there, Putin has not yet confirmed, the Night Owls will be out in force and other patriotic souls will roar at the American they call their own. I have no idea if that sign is still hanging in Pensacola but I hope it is. Jones is no longer a fighting god, but he is still a good story.

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