The Dragon Slayers, Part II: Antonio Tarver
Sometimes the boxing stories write themselves like literature, with colorful, complex characters authoring the combat…
“If there’s magic in boxing…It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”—Eddie Dupris, “Million Dollar Baby”
The explanations for David-Goliath upsets in boxing usually involve a theme: a perfect storm of circumstances, affecting both competitors, creating a chain of events leading to the fall of a giant.
Some boxing upsets, however, cannot be reduced to simple explanations.
Sometimes the boxing stories write themselves like literature, with colorful, complex characters authoring the combat.
These stories have protagonists, antagonists and foils.
The story arcs are full of drama, irony and poetic justice.
There is no boxing upset in recent memory that fits this description better than Antonio “Magic Man” Tarver’s stunning 2004 knockout victory over Roy Jones Jr.
“When deprivation meets with opportunity, great things happen.”
Through 2003, Roy Jones Jr. was considered a legitimate candidate to finish his career among the ten best fighters to ever live, pound-for-pound.
He had a combination of speed and power that no one, at any division, could boast.
Unlike many flash-in-the-pan pure athlete-turned-boxers, Jones had stood up to the test of time: he was approaching his mid-30s and had fought successfully for over a decade, winning championship belts in four divisions.
So fast and athletic was Jones that he had mastered a paradoxical boxing skillset:he managed to be BOTH a defensive and offensive fighter at the same time: he could hit his opponent with pinpoint accuracy but had the reflexes to avoid retaliation.
His leaping left hook, for example, was a physical marvel, the stuff of Hollywood special effects. In the time it took an opponent to blink an eye, Jones would explode to his left, unleashing a wicked left hook that smashed the right half of his opponents’ face with devastating power, the momentum of the punch carrying Jones out of the way of a potential counter punch. It was almost unfair.
He had pure boxing skills; he had destructive knockout power; he was one of the best-conditioned athletes in the world.
There seemed like nothing he couldn’t do.
“It takes a great fighter to beat a great fighter. And I am a great fighter.”
Like a true Shakespearean foil, Tarver’s differences from Jones were born out of their similarities: both are African-Americans from northern Florida. They are less than a year apart in age.
And yet Jones’ career trajectory, leading up to their first fight in 2003, was so different from Tarver’s that it’s difficult to believe they ended up in the same discussion.
The rivalry began at the tender age of thirteen, the two pre-adolescent amateurs competing at the Sunshine State Games in Florida. Jones, far more experienced and advanced in his boxing knowledge, defeated the green and raw Tarver.
Jones would become a boxing prodigy and teenage phenom. Soon after his bogus decision loss in the gold medal match in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea (one of the great robberies in US Olympic history), Jones turned pro. Starting at the junior middleweight division (154 lbs.), Jones would climb the rankings, eventually seizing the vacant IBF middleweight title in his 1993 victory over rugged Philadelphia ex-con Bernard Hopkins.
After his mother moved young Tarver away from the proximity of his boxing gym in South Conway, Florida, Tarver’s attention would turn to football and basketball for several years.
Ironically, Roy Jones Jr. is partly the reason Tarver took up boxing again at all. Tarver has suggested that watching Jones succeed during the 1988 Olympic Games provided the spark: “I have to thank Roy Jones for that. Seeing him in the Olympics, that touched me.”
After an outstanding amateur career, Tarver would have his chance at Olympic glory in 1996 (Atlanta), a senior member of a highly regarded US Olympic boxing team featuring David Reid, Fernando Vargas, and a relatively unheralded 19-year-old featherweight tactician named Floyd Mayweather Jr. Tarver would win a bronze medal and set his sights on the pros.
To put the difference in career trajectory in proper perspective, despite being six months younger than Tarver, Jones was already the consensus #1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, a world champion and a multi-millionaire when Tarver was wrapping up his amateur career. Jones won his first legitimate world championship belt as a professional in the same year that Tarver won his first national amateur championship (1993).
Tarver teaches us that, like many things in life, boxing careers are more like marathons than they are sprints.
“I’ve been invisible since 1996, and it’s time for me to come out of my shadow.”
Antonio Tarver’s professional career began with a run of impressive victories, quickly building a solid resume that placed him among the elites of the light heavyweight division. A decision loss to Eric Harding in a June 2000 IBF title eliminator put momentary breaks on his rise. After avenging the loss two years later by fifth round TKO (July 2002) Tarver was ready for primetime, prepared to seize the vacant IBF and WBC light heavyweight titles in his championship fight against Montell Griffin.
He claimed the WBA heavyweight title in a spectacular unanimous decision victory over Ruiz (March 2003), making him the first heavyweight champion to begin his career at junior middleweight.
One month later, Tarver defeated Griffin by unanimous decision (April 2003), becoming the consensus top-ranked light heavyweight in the world.
After weighing his options at the heavyweight division, Jones decided to move back down to the light heavyweight division. His plan: clean it out in relatively easy fashion (as he had done previously) and ride into the boxing sunset.
But the light heavyweight division was much different than the one he left: there was a new, very outspoken sheriff in town.
Even stranger, this Antonio Tarver character was a familiar face from northern Florida who boasted that Jones had been ducking him for years.
And Tarver, highly articulate, gregarious and charismatic, was able to self-promote and denigrate Roy Jones Jr. like no fighter ever had.
Jones eventually had enough of the chirping and was visibly upset at Tarver.
The fight was signed: Nov. 8, 2003, Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, Las Vegas.
And Antonio Tarver didn’t simply think he could defeat Roy Jones Jr. Many fighters believed in their heart that they could (erroneously).
Antonio Tarver was different—he KNEW that he was the only man that could.
“I want my shot at history, Roy. Stop running from me.”
Hindsight isn’t always 20/20, but it can certainly add clarity. Knowing what we know now drastically changes how we view and score Jones/Tarver 1.
Back in 2003, the boxing public saw Tarver jump out to a good lead over an “obviously” weight-drained and rusty Roy Jones Jr.
Jones could not establish a rhythm early, was bullied and stalked by the taller Tarver.
While watching, we were shocked at what might occur—the unthinkable—Roy Jones Jr. losing to Antonio Tarver?
We watched on and saw Jones pick up steam in the middle rounds, occasionally finding his mark, effectively evading, potshotting and selectively scoring.
We saw him especially successful at the center of the ring where he had the space to use his athleticism and hand speed.
We saw Tarver landing consistently but fading a bit in the later rounds.
While we saw Jones in trouble (even slightly hurt) like we’ve never seen, we still lauded his courage and unwillingness to back down.
We gave Jones the benefit of the doubt.
We gave Antonio Tarver none.
We, and the judges, scored the close rounds for Jones and ignored the fact that in many rounds Tarver was the more effective aggressor, landed the more meaningful punches, was better defensively and often demonstrated better ring generalship.
Most of us gave Jones a close victory and created a litany of excuses as to why he looked so mediocre: 14 months since he last fought as a light heavyweight; the weight loss and ring rust; a disorganized camp; the effects of age.
In hindsight, this was unfair—Jones’ fighting weight against John Ruiz (193) is barely higher (if at all) than Tarver’s walking-around-weight, as Tarver likely had to lose just as much weight as Jones.
The age excuse runs into a simple mathematical problem: Tarver is older.
The “boxing age” excuse suggests the Jones had fought professionally against better competition for longer (despite being younger in absolute years). This one doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either: Tarver toiled in the amateur circuit with a more rugged schedule in less-than-comforting gyms and training environments for many years.
Also, unlike Jones, Tarver didn’t have access to the best conditioners, nutritionists and physical therapists in the world for most of this time. There’s a strong argument that Tarver’s body had suffered more wear and tear through the years.
But in the end, these are all excuses, and we (the boxing public) made plenty of them on behalf of Roy Jones Jr.
And Antonio Tarver grew tired of them.
The rematch, to take place in May 2004, would surely vindicate Roy Jones Jr. and prove that the first fight was an aberration.
Or would it?
“I got a question. You got any excuses tonight, Roy?”
When Tarver asked it before touching gloves at the beginning of Tarver/Jones II, it didn’t sound like trash talk. This was not pre-fight posturing to sell tickets. The tickets were already sold, the lights were already on, everyone was already watching.
When he asked it, Tarver was smug and relaxed in his demeanor, almost chillingly so, just seconds before the opening bell.
Tarver asked Jones the rhetorical question as if he already knew what was going to happen.
We can describe Tarver/Jones II stylistically: Roy Jones, appearing bouncier and more aggressive than in their first fight, stalking and scoring at times.
Tarver firing his jab, patiently picking his spots before partially blocking a right-left combination from Jones and countering with a thunderous left hand to the face that sent Jones to the canvas at 1:32 in round two.
“Right on the kisser. It was beautiful.”
Watching Roy Jones Jr. lifelessly crumble to the canvas is one of the more surreal images of modern boxing history.
More than Roy Jones Jr. lost that night. A generation of young boxing fans lost their collective innocence, as the idea that any one man is infallible was forever dispelled.
And what strikes the boxing purist about the trilogy (Tarver would defeat Jones in the rubber match, Oct. 2005)) isn’t only that Tarver solved Jones, but how he did it: it’s clear that Tarver was simply better than Roy Jones Jr. His dominance is not about any one punch or gimmick: Tarver boxed better. Tarver defended better. Tarver punched better. Tarver was simply superior.
For this achievement, Antonio Tarver has become a legend.
Not only because he wrote the left hand that solved Roy Jones Jr., but for what he represents: patience, commitment to a single purpose and keeping one’s eye on the prize.
Most importantly, however, Tarver teaches us how belief in oneself and one’s abilities can create magic and slay the mightiest of dragons.
The Dragon Slayers, Part I: Hasim Rahman
The Dragon Slayers, Part II: Antonio Tarver
The Dragon Slayers, Part III: Frankie Randall
The Dragon Slayers, Part IV: Marco Antonio Barrera
The Dragon Slayers, Part V: Vernon Forrest
Follow Cheekay Brandon on Twitter at @biosophist