This Saturday, two living legends who have been — at their best — two of the most exciting performers in the boxing ring of the past decade-plus will have a long-lusted after throwdown.
The only hitch, and it’s a big one, is that Roy Jones and Felix Trinidad simply cannot, and will not, be at their best. Jones is past his prime, 39, loser of three of his last five, two by brutal knockout. Trinidad, 35, is more than two years removed from his last retirement, coming off a lopsided defeat rendered by one punch, and one punch only, that being the ruthlessly repetitive jab of Winky Wright. And yet, this fight is not without its own drama, drama that draws only slightly on what Jones and Trinidad once were.
Even casual observers of boxing know these two men, so they need little introduction, but here are introductions anyhow:
Jones is the fighter who reigned supreme as the pound-for-pound best over much of his career, the fighter that even grizzled, grouchy scribes have rhapsodized as one of the most purely gifted to ever lace up the gloves. With the reflexes of an angler fish, the speed of a flyweight and the raw power of Iggy, Jones effortlessly dominated every division from 160 to 175 pounds, then even toyed with a heavyweight champion, John Ruiz, in becoming the only boxer of the modern era to win belts from middleweight to heavyweight. In one-on-one combat, he defeated two rivals for pre-eminence in his generation, Bernard Hopkins and James Toney, plus a laundry list of top contenders. When he felt like it, he would knock out his opponent with his hands behind his back, or do something else that no one even imagined possible. Frequently said to be rattled by the brain damage suffered by his boxing friend, Gerald McClellan, he became less entertaining and less risky in his choice of opponents, but taking on Antonio Tarver in 2003 was the brave move that may have been his ultimate undoing. He defeated Tarver the first time around, despite struggling in his preparation to shrink back down from heavyweight to light heavyweight, but got knocked out flat in the 2004 rematch. Glen Johnson knocked him out even more brutally in his rebound fight, and it was into a well-conceived retirement for Jones, whose once-great reflexes had clearly begun abandoning him. Then, needlessly, it was back out of retirement again for a rubber match with Tarver in 2005 where he barely survived — and lost yet more credibility by implying he didn’t try to win because of some psycho-drama with his trainer-father — and into two straight unimpressive decision victories over little-known Prince Badi Ajamu in 2006 and moderately dangerous Anthony Hanshaw in 2007.
Trinidad’s own resume is only slightly less sterling, and has its own plummet toward the end. As a welterweight (147 lbs.), and even somewhat as a junior middleweight (154 lbs.) and middleweight (160 lbs.), Trinidad was one of boxing history’s hardest punchers — #30, in fact, if Ring Magazine’s all-time rankings in 2003 count for anything. His left hook threatened to send heads popping off into the audience; his straight right was nearly as debilitating. His chin was never as reliable, and more often than not he went down to the mat early in every big fight. But he got back up, and for most of his career, he did just fine after that. He nearly ruined Fernando Vargas, knocking him out in the 12th. He edged out a prime Oscar De La Hoya in a decision disputed to this day. He also beat a faded Pernell Whitaker and Hector Camacho and an undefeated Yory Boy Campas. His downfall came in 2001: He ran into the old Jones nemesis Hopkins, who was too much of a real middleweight and too clever for anything the straight-ahead Trinidad had to offer. Hopkins was to be the last stop on the train to a mega-fight between Jones and Trinidad, who retired shortly after his KO loss only to reemerge with a stirring knockout over a crude, smaller brawler in Ricardo Mayorga in 2004 and a humiliating loss to the crafty Wright in 2005.
That brings us to today. It is impossible to know, truly, what kind of quantity Trinidad is now. He’s been absent for years. That worked out OK for him when he was younger, as he bounced back from inactivity for a rousing win over Mayorga, but he’s 35 now. That is a foreboding fact. Similarly foreboding facts reside in how awful Trinidad looked against Wright and that he will be fighting at 170 lbs., 10 higher than his previous high, where his punching power wasn’t as awe-inspiring. One can argue that Wright makes a lot of people look awful; that Trinidad wasn’t inspired that night; that he has kept himself in shape; that power is power, and it may not take much to hurt the modern day, knockout-prone version of Jones. But if it’s impossible to know what kind of quantity Trinidad is now, it’s reasonable to assume he’s a diminished one.
We have a rough idea of what kind of quantity Jones is. His defeat of Ajamu proved little; his defeat of Hanshaw, at least, proved that he had something left. He still can punch fast and hard, and he still has some of his reflexes. He only fights in spurts these days — it’s unclear if he can do anything else, because he had Hanshaw in deep trouble but took his foot of the gas and didn’t knock him out — and spends a lot of time with his back against the ropes, still dodging plenty of punches there, but far more vulnerable than he was back in the day when he was fleet of foot. There’s no evidence that his chin would hold up against a world-class puncher, or even a good, hard puncher, because he hasn’t faced one for a while.
The drama in this fight can be located in its mysteries. If Jones gets hit by an overblown Trinidad, will he feel it and go down hard? Does Jones have enough guile to embarrass Trinidad in a boxing lesson? Will he hang around on the ropes like he has been lately, inviting danger? Is Trinidad rusty, or revived? Is Jones just too big for him no matter what, and Trinidad’s destined to go crashing to the ground early on? Is a faded Jones faster than a faded, blown-up but naturally smaller Trinidad? Will Jones, who has fought above 200 pounds and hasn’t fought as low as 170 since 1996, going to be woozy come fight night? The list goes on.
It’s an open question whether Trinidad is truly motivated, or if he was merely dragged back into fighting again by Don King. It’s an open question what is still motivating Jones. I’m inclined to think both men want to win Saturday night, and that they both feel they have unfinished business. If so, that could help make it an interesting contest. If both do not have their heads in the right place, or Jones blows out Trinidad, as many expect, this fight could end up being the fraud many think it is. But the old boxing axiom goes: “That’s why they fight the fights.”
MY PREDICTION: Jones by a decisive but not overwhelming margin on the scorecards. I’m not alone in seeing this as the precise way it plays out: Trinidad tests Jones’ chin early; Jones doesn’t like the grade it gets; Jones goes into “win by decision easy” mode; a cat and mouse game ensues, with Trinidad not having enough skill to catch the mouse.
CONFIDENCE: 80%. I can fairly easily see either man get knocked out, given Jones’ shaky chin of late and the chance that he’ll be woozy from the weight loss, plus Trinidad’s preexisting shaky chin combined with the weight differential.
MY ALLEGIANCE: Trinidad, if any. He’s one of my all-time favorites. Yes, he has a tendency toward fouling when in trouble, one of my least beloved fighter characteristics. But he was a true destroyer in the ring, and the kind that had enough skill to set up that power and win even against faster, purer boxers. Jones’ increasingly tired antics in and out of the ring, from his endless bravado about all the people he’ll fight that he actually won’t to his boorish, empty posturing in the third Tarver fight, have left me soured on him somewhat. Love watching his old fights on YouTube, though.
Additional note: Our man Vivek Wallace will be on the Madison Square Garden scene Friday and Saturday, and he expects to file his account of the Jones-Trinidad action here. Look for it…