It’s been 20 years since Roy Jones Jr. put the cherry on top of his Hall of Fame career cake by wrenching the WBA heavyweight championship of the world from John Ruiz at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The date was March 1, 2003.
Two decades! Can you believe it?
At the peak of his powers, Jones was the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. With his breathtaking blend of fistic magic, he turned a 1988 Olympic silver medal – which should have been gold – into multiple world title belts from 160 to 175 pounds. Having campaigned as low as 154 during the early stages of his pro career, Jones would often give away several pounds, even as a light heavyweight.
That didn’t matter – at his best, this man was extraordinary.
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“Roy Jones is probably the best fighter of the last 30 years and only [Floyd] Mayweather and [Pernell] Whitaker can argue,” said acclaimed trainer and fight historian Stephen “Breadman” Edwards in a recent interview with The Sporting News. “Between 1993 and 1998, with his peak being the win over James Toney (in November 1994), he was phenomenal.
“First of all, Jones doesn’t get credit for his IQ. He would set guys up for punches in an unconventional way. You have to be smart to get away with those setups. Jones could knock out guys with one shot in so many different ways. Thomas Tate was a left hook, [Sugar Boy] Malinga was a left hook, but Virgil Hill was a right to the body. So you have that terrific IQ mixed with the reflexes of a video game. He’s super calm and relaxed; a genuine one-punch knockout artist; he’s got blinding speed, cat-like reflexes; tremendous pedigree. He was very strong, very explosive, he was a vicious body puncher, and he had a two-fisted attack. My God, Jones was 100 percent the complete package.”
👀 2⃣0⃣ YEARS AGO TODAY, @RealRoyJonesJr matched his speed, skill, and matchless athleticism against the superior size, power, and strength of then-WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz. There was only going to be one winner! #boxing 🇺🇸🥊🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/YJs6zXNlU3
— Sporting News Fights (@sn_fights) March 1, 2023
Still, some felt the colossal jump to heavyweight in 2003 would be a bridge too far.
Ruiz (38-4-1, 27 KOs) had put a brutal and humiliating 19-second defeat at the hands of power-puncher David Tua behind him to regain his position as a leading heavyweight contender. The Massachusetts-based brawler won 11 straight fights, 10 of them by knockout, before facing the legendary Evander Holyfield for the vacant WBA heavyweight crown.
The pair met in Las Vegas in April 2000 and Holyfield was awarded a highly controversial 12-round unanimous decision to emerge as boxing’s first-ever four-time heavyweight champ. But despite this history-making achievement, the stink surrounding the result wouldn’t go away. The WBA ordered a direct rematch, and Ruiz took the title, dropping “The Real Deal” in the 11th round en route to his own unanimous decision triumph. A rubber match ended in an uninspiring draw.
“Johnny Ruiz was a real overachiever,” said legendary boxing commentator Colonel Bob Sheridan, who called the Holyfield trilogy. “He didn’t have much in the way of natural talent, but he worked harder than anybody and had sneaky power in his right hand. He was as tough as they come as he proved it with Holyfield. In fact, he actually out-dirtied Evander in those fights, which is really saying something.”
Shortly after defeating Kirk Johnson via DQ, Ruiz accepted the Jones challenge. The champion trained hard and came in at an impressive 226 pounds, whereas Jones, who enlisted the services of acclaimed fitness guru Mackie Shilstone, weighed 193. Team Jones insisted that the scales were off and that the challenger was closer to 200, but he was still giving away the best part of 30 pounds to his opponent.
“One thing I know from being in gyms is that if the smaller man can take the bigger man’s punches, the smaller man often has an advantage,” offered Edwards. “Let’s say you have a very good light heavyweight against a great junior middleweight. The junior middleweight will usually get the better of that if he can take the punches. The reason for that is the light heavyweight’s reflexes are slow and they’re a big target.
“Now, Roy is between 5-10 and 5-11, but he has extremely long arms, and he’s very muscular and dense. If he wasn’t a boxer, he could probably have been a running back in the NFL. John Ruiz was just too slow for Roy. With the exception of the one big right hand (in Round 1), he couldn’t hit him. Heavyweights are the hardest to train because they don’t have the speed or the coordination. I thought it was a brilliant performance, but Roy picked Ruiz for a reason. He didn’t pick Lennox Lewis.”
Despite Ruiz wobbling Jones slightly in the opening round, that’s where his success ended. The challenger put on a clinic, breaking Ruiz’s nose in the fourth and pot-shotting his way to a wide unanimous decision win. The official scores were 118-110, 117-111, and 116-112.
📅 20 YEARS AGO TODAY, @RealRoyJonesJr
became the first reigning light heavyweight champion to win a heavyweight title since Michael Spinks defeated Larry Holmes in 1985. Jones outboxed then-WBA champion John Ruiz and claimed a 12-round unanimous decision #boxing 🇺🇸🥊🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/K7ooigaUmw
— Sporting News Fights (@sn_fights) March 1, 2023
And the NEW!!!
“Jones, as a natural middleweight, did a marvelous job in shutting down Ruiz, and he cemented his greatness,” recalled Sheridan. “With that being said, Lennox would have been too big for Roy. Calling the fight next to me, the lineal champ was impressed by Jones’ performance but unconcerned. The much smaller Jones wasn’t a legitimate threat. Sure, [Lewis] was interested in the fight for the money he would make, but not as a fight that would have meaningfully enhanced his legacy. As much as I loved Roy, I had to agree. But it was still a great performance against the underrated Ruiz.”
Lewis was the king of the glamour division in early 2003. As Sheridan rightly stated, Jones was not built to face a modern-day heavyweight of Lewis’ quality. The hard-hitting Londoner was 6-5 and 250 pounds during his heyday. Lewis dwarfed Ruiz, never mind Jones.
With all that said, how many fighters have campaigned at junior middleweight and gone on to win a heavyweight title? Englishman Bob Fitzsimmons (who turned professional around the welterweight limit) scored a 14th-round knockout over James J. Corbett in 1897 to become heavyweight champion, but the weight difference was only 17 pounds (167 to 184).
If what Jones accomplished against a far bigger man was easy, then more fighters would have pulled it off since. When he won this fight, the 34-year-old Jones was the crown jewel of the boxing world and the best fighter alive. He was 48-1 (38 KOs) and his only setback – a ninth-round DQ to Montell Griffin – had been avenged by a savage first-round knockout.
With virtual career perfection attained, the Pensacola star should have been preserved in ice like Hemingway’s leopard. He should never have fought again. The glory years were over and only the marauding avalanche of decline remained.
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Incredibly, Jones, 54, will take part in a pro boxing match against a debutant in Milwaukee on April 1 – a very fitting date. The great ex-champ has fought 26 times since claiming the heavyweight title and has gone 18-8. Five of those eight defeats have come by knockout.
“If [Jones] leaves after Ruiz, he has a very strong case for being in the top-5 best fighters ever, and he’s really challenging [Sugar Ray] Robinson as the best ever,” lamented Edwards. “But because [of his decline], he comes up short to Robinson because the critic will say, Robinson wasn’t knocked out past his prime and he kept winning titles. And Robinson has three times more fights and he wasn’t getting stopped, whereas Jones was. That’s a fair criticism.”
As tragic as Jones latter career became, there was a time when he was as good as it gets.
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