When the great Roy Jones Jr. failed to connect with a lightning right lead, he knew instantly to protect himself from the counter left, which had been thrown back by his southpaw opponent. In a percentage game where elite fighters work on split-second survival, Jones had configured his defenses to block that particular shot countless times.
However, on May 15, 2004, at the Mandalay Bay Event Center, in Las Vegas, Jones left a gap.
The man swinging was fellow Floridian Antonio Tarver, who had lost his light heavyweight title to the Pensacola superstar, via controversial decision, six months earlier. With 17 stoppages in 21 wins, Tarver was a proven knockout artist and the lights were sensationally turned out on Jones before his head struck the canvas.
The time was 1:41 of Round 2.
Very few punches are heard around the world, but these scenes were every bit as astonishing as when James “Buster” Douglas reduced “Iron” Mike Tyson to scrap metal in Tokyo, Japan. Tarver was rubber stamped as a world-class operator but Jones, who had collected titles from middleweight all the way up to heavyweight, had walked a higher path and was, as he put it in his own rap song, Mr. Untouchable.
RingTV caught up with Antonio Tarver to discuss the night he shattered the Roy Jones mystique, and the subject matter formed the basis for a fascinating conversation.
RingTV: Talk to me about the early days with Roy Jones Jr. What are your first memories of him?
Antonio Tarver: My earliest memories of Roy Jones would be from either 1982 or 1983. Roy had defeated some of the older guys who were on my amateur team and I’m talking about talented fighters. He beat “Jo Jo” Harris and Jesse Williams, who were guys that I looked up to when I first started out in the sport.
Roy was extremely popular around the time of the Junior Olympics, and when I first started competing locally in Florida. He was a hot property, winning everything there was to win. I could never have dreamed that our paths would cross as pros and we would have the history we have today – it’s been like something out of a movie.
We actually fought each other when we were 13 years old and I can still recall it vividly. I handed it to him in the first round and confused him a little, he beat my butt in the second and his experience pulled him through in the final round. Roy’s father put him through hell in training and he was light years ahead of the rest of us. As Junior Olympic boxers, we just weren’t at that level.
RTV: Your own amateur career stalled and you went off the rails, but returned to claim Olympic bronze in 1996, which was a remarkable achievement. Where did the strength to turn your life around come from?
AT: It was the same drive that made me a champion. I could focus and channel my energy towards achieving a goal, but my life spiraled out of control very quickly. I turned it around because I was a young father and I had my mother and my siblings to think about. I had something to live for, there was a bigger purpose in my life and I had to get off the path that I was on. A lot of us, who were raised in the inner city, went down that route. I chose to experiment (with drugs) as a young adult and it led to abuse and addiction, but it wasn’t for me. I was able to grab hold of something and the passion I had for boxing helped pull me through.
Seeing Roy Jones get robbed of an Olympic gold medal was also a real inspiration to me. I saw someone on live television, who I’d boxed as a kid, competing on the biggest sporting stage of all. And regardless of the fact that he was God gifted I didn’t fair badly against him when we met as teenagers.
RTV: You turned professional in 1997, by which time Jones was a three-weight world champion and the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Was he always your long term target and, if so, how did people react when you told them that?
AT: No, it happened organically and without any planning on my part. That said I can recall Roy Jones scouting me when I was a highly touted amateur. Both Fernando Vargas and I sat down with him and Fred Levin (co-manager of Roy Jones at that time) and discussed going pro with Square Ring.
Roy and I were on the phone with HBO executives and I eventually told them I couldn’t sign with Roy’s promotional company because I was turning pro as a light heavyweight, and he was champion in that weight class. To me that was a conflict of interest, but they probably thought I was full of s__t (laughs).
I hadn’t fought for pay but I could see the future and always thought of myself as a champion.
RTV: As the Jones’ legend grew you formed your own reputation as a talented boxer-puncher. When you lost your first fight to Eric Harding in 2000, how did that affect you mentally? Did you have doubts about what lay ahead?
AT: No, that loss confirmed my ability. If you look back at the fight it was very close, and when my jaw was broken in Round 9 I really wasn’t fit to continue. My focus shifted from winning to avoiding a knockout and the pain I was in was irrelevant. If I’d quit it would have been justified, but as a man, and a future champion, I took a lot of pride in going those last four rounds.
As hurt as I was, I learned so much from that defeat and it groomed me for the future.
RTV: Shortly after Jones won a version of the heavyweight title you claimed your first championship at light heavyweight by defeating Montell Griffin in April 2003. Did you think the Jones fight was lost given his move up?
AT: Roy had made it difficult for me before this. He complained to the IBF about my mandatory status and subsequently I had to fight Eric Harding, in an eliminator. When I lost that fight it was Harding who got the shot at Roy, and that held me back.
That’s why I challenged Roy, at a press conference, after he beat John Ruiz, because I honestly felt that he was ducking me. I had to step out on that and if he was going to stay at heavyweight then that was his business, but I knew I was his biggest challenge.
RTV: You finally matched up against Jones in November 2003 and fought the fight of your life, only to lose a controversial decision. What were your thoughts at that time?
AT: I was devastated. I deserved the victory, although if you listen to some of the commentary you can see where they (the broadcasters) were going (in favor of Jones). Watch the fight without sound and you can see there is no way that Roy won it.
I was the defending champion, even though he was a heavyweight titleholder, and the establishment made every excuse for him. The bottom line is that nobody had seen Roy Jones battletested, so people couldn’t believe their eyes, even though I was the truth.
Roy knew deep down that he didn’t get the better of me and that’s the reason we had the rematch in the first place. This man was a proud fighter, he came back to exact revenge and that’s what champions do. Roy had to sleep at night, and he wanted the monkey off his back. Unfortunately, for him, the rematch was my coming out party and the Floyd Mayweather of my day got knocked out.
When I took the title from the best fighter in the world I did it in dramatic fashion and that was my moment. How many people can say that?
RTV: “Yeah I’ve got a question. You got any excuses tonight, Roy?” Was this premeditated or spur of the moment?
AT: (Laughs) Yeah, I knew it was going to say it. I didn’t know what was going to happen after that, but I knew I was going to say it (laughs hysterically). I just felt like they took something from me (in the first fight) and I said that I would take it out of the judge’s hands second time around.
The officials may have had the best seats in the house, but they wouldn’t be a factor because they robbed me once and I couldn’t allow them to do it again. I had to knock Roy out and that’s what I was focused on doing. I had a great trainer in Buddy McGirt, we didn’t cut any corners and it all came together.
It was beautiful and I couldn’t have written a better script.
RTV: What error did Jones make, if any, which allowed you to find the knock out shot? Can you recall anything?
AT: I don’t think Roy made a mistake and, truth be told I barely missed him with a shot 10 seconds prior that would have taken his head off. I was just aggressive in the rematch, it was destiny and I deserved the victory after they robbed me the first time. I knew Roy was hurt and it was a great shot that I landed.
I’ll never forget it and I was so happy. All my hard work paid off and great things happen when you dedicate yourself.
RTV: How influential was your trainer, Buddy McGirt, in terms of preparing you for Jones?
AT: Very influential. Buddy always kept me focused and knew what to say in a fight. Between rounds one and two he said that I was giving Roy too much respect, and when I told him not to use that word in the corner, he said go and get yours. There are so many memorable moments that came together in the rematch that there must have been a special force at work.
The fight was unique and it will probably never be duplicated, unless someone can knock Floyd Mayweather out with one punch. That would be the equivalent of what I did. I tell my son to this day that you can achieve anything as long as you work hard for it and my beliefs resonate through him.
RTV: The following September you were ringside when Jones was knocked out by Glen Johnson. He was badly hurt that night. What were your thoughts about his career and well-being?
AT: We were all concerned because you never want to see someone get hurt in this sport. Roy suffered two back-to-back knockouts and nobody ever thought they would ever see that, but boxing is full of surprises.
Roy’s career definitely took a turn for the worse and he’s struggled with fighters who normally wouldn’t be in the same ring as him. Still I would never take anything away from Roy, because he earned everything he’s got and I’ve got nothing but respect for him.
RTV: In the third fight Jones looked to have slipped a lot more. You disputed that afterwards, but in hindsight were you in with the same fighter in October 2005?
AT: It was still Roy Jones Jr. and I prepared for the same fighter, because I wasn’t going to take him for granted. In my opinion Roy would have beaten a lot of light heavyweights that night, because when I hurt him he showed resolve and willingness to fight back.
I was just determined because losing that third fight wouldn’t have served me well at all. I wanted to prove that I was the better fighter outright and I think I did that. I gave Roy the chance to redeem himself, because he gave me the opportunity and that’s rare in the sport. I didn’t get that from Bernard Hopkins, when he beat me on points.
RTV: How will your trilogy with Roy Jones be remembered?
AT: Roy has a lot of faithful fans, similar to what Floyd Mayweather has now. When I knocked him out I became the villain and that’s just the way it is. Just because you beat the man, doesn’t mean you gather up all of his fans. These guys are diehard Roy Jones supporters and they love him for all the right reasons.
When you look back at that trilogy you can say I had his number, but you have to acknowledge that I was the first one to have his number. Nobody had come close to beating Roy Jones decisively. If he ended up shot, then it was me who had to shoot him. Roy wasn’t shot when I met him the first time, but everyone made excuses. On the night he just came up against a fighter with a lot of talent.
If Roy was the best light heavyweight of his generation then I was the second best, because you can’t put anyone else’s record against mine at 175 pounds. I would have beaten anyone at light heavyweight. That is my opinion.
RTV: How are relations with Roy Jones now?
AT: I’m glad you asked me that question. Roy and I saw each other about six months ago and we talked, took pictures and it was a great feeling to spend time with him socially. There’s a lot of respect for him and I mean a lot of respect (Tarver sounds emotional). If I didn’t have that then I wouldn’t have worked as hard in training to overcome such a great fighter. The man raised the bar and I had to reach it.
Neither of us holds a grudge but, as competitors, it was all about seeing who was best.
RTV: What is in the future for Antonio Tarver?
I believe there is one more moment for me. I’m still in the game and I’m focused on becoming heavyweight champion of the world. At 45 years old I still dedicate myself to my craft and work hard. I’ll be making a real statement in the next year or two, because I don’t have time to waste.
If given the opportunity to fight the best heavyweight in the world, Wladimir Klitschko, then I can produce an even bigger upset than I did against Roy Jones all those years ago. Klitschko has been one of the most dominant heavyweights in modern history and, although I have some disadvantages in that fight, I also have some real advantages.
I just need to prove to the world that I deserve that fight and I’ll take on any Top 5 contender in order to do that.
Photos by Jed Jacobsohn-Getty Images
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing