There is a saying in boxing that applies only to a few fighters whose reflexes are so quick, so intuitive, that they are deluded into thinking they needn't adhere to the accepted rules of the ring.
"He does everything wrong, but it turns out right" is what everyone gushed about the young, lithe Muhammad Ali, the one who fought with his hands at his sides, leaned straight back to avoid punches and generally did everything more conventional fighters are instructed NOT to do. That Ali was at his best the night of Nov. 14, 1966, in the Astrodome, when his breathtaking speed completely flummoxed veteran slugger Cleveland Williams, who looked as if he were vainly trying to capture moonbeams in a bottle. Ali was virtually untouchable, and he finished off Williams with a machine-gun combination in the third round that left observers as stunned as the unfortunate Williams.
But that Ali vanished over the 31/2 years of his enforced absence from boxing for refusing to be inducted into the Army and serve in Vietnam. The one who did return, although still marvelous, was older, a bit thicker around the middle and a tad slower. He continued to excel for years, but as much for his courage and ability to withstand punishment as for the superior physical gifts that previously had been his trademark.
The Ali who was pummeled by Larry Holmes and, in his final bout, by a pedestrian Trevor Berbick, to the end attempted to execute many of the slick moves that had served him so well in his earlier incarnation. But the things he did wrong no longer were turning out right, and the legendary but damaged man we see today is the product of the accumulated punishment he absorbed while trying to remain something he no longer was.
Like Ali, Roy Jones Jr. (49-3, 38 KOs) -- who suffered his second straight knockout loss Saturday night, when a journeyman of an IBF light-heavyweight champion named Glencoffe Johnson (41-9-2, 28 KOs) took him out with a ripping right hand in the ninth round at FedExForum in Memphis -- has made a career of flouting convention. He seldom felt the need to throw a jab, and who could blame him? Anyone capable of squeezing off six on-target left hooks in the blink of an eye, as Jones once could, was exempt from using standard-issue weaponry and tactics. Jones' opponents couldn't hit him anyway, so what was the harm in going right-left-right when everyone else was marching to a cadence of left-right-left?
But the parallels between Ali and Jones begin and end with their exemplary quickness and the unique riffs to which they danced and only they could hear. Throughout his career, Ali sought out and fought the toughest opponents -- Archie Moore, Sonny Liston, Jimmy Ellis, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry, Bob Foster, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers -- and we celebrate him in no small part because of that willingness to constantly test himself against the best. Jones? Well, his signature victories, against Bernard Hopkins and James Toney, came in 1993 and '94, respectively. Neither man was able to secure a rematch. During much of the interim, "Reluctant Roy" has pounded on a procession of handpicked patsies or over-the-hill former standouts while avoiding opponents with even a negligible pulse. All the while, Jones has advised fans that they should appreciate seeing him fight anyone, because, well, how often do the common folk get the opportunity to worship at the altar of someone as magnificent as he?
True, Jones, a four-division world champion who turned pro as a middleweight, deserves credit for stepping all the way up to heavyweight to dethrone WBA title-holder John Ruiz. But upon further review, it now is clear that Jones took that fight primarily because he regarded Ruiz as a paper champion of limited talent. All his bold talk of wanting to mix it up with Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis never got beyond the posturing stage.
And when Jones moved back down to light heavyweight to wrest the WBC championship from fellow Floridian Antonio Tarver last Nov. 8, he claimed his less-than-dominant performance owed to the fact that he couldn't get "up" anymore for mere 175-pounders after having dined at the sumptuous heavyweight table.
Jones said more or less the same thing on May 15, when Tarver starched him in two rounds with a crushing overhand left that Jones contemptuously dismissed as a "lucky punch." He then avoided a rubber match with Tarver that everyone was eager to see, instead opting for a presumably safer foe in Johnson.
The magnitude of Jones' miscalculation came when Johnson, who was ahead on all three official scorecards at the time of the knockout, went at Jones as aggressively as Holmes and Berbick went at the used-up Ali. The intimidation factor Jones once wielded like a scimitar was as diminished as his reflexes.
"He's getting hit with punches he never used to get hit with," fretted Jones' longtime trainer, Alton Merkerson.
It long has been suspected that Jones has feared ending up like his friend, Gerald McClellan, who was rendered blind and brain-damaged following a brutal fight with Nigel Benn in 1995. That is an entirely reasonable concern; most people would not willingly expose themselves to the dangers boxers accept as an occupational risk. But then most people don't bill themselves as the greatest fighter of all time, and aren't paid millions of dollars for trying to substantiate that claim with smoke and mirrors.
For the 35-year-old Jones, the pendulum has swung back to where mere mortals reside. He still is doing everything wrong, but, as was the case with Ali, the results no longer override any errors in technique. I would be very surprised if he elects to continue boxing after taking a beating that resulted in his first concussion and overnight hospital stay.
Thankfully, we are apt to be spared the sight of Roy Jones Jr. trembling, his voice almost indecipherable, from the effects of boxing. Not so thankfully, we will look back on what he was and regret why he never became all that he might have been.