Roy Jones Jr. was nearly untouchable in his first 50 professional fights, 38 of which ended with his rivals on their backsides, victims of his speed, quickness and reflexes.
Those skills helped him outclass other outstanding fighters such as former world champions Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Vinny Pazienza, Mike McCallum, Montell Griffin, Virgil Hill and heavyweight John Ruiz. The only loss in his first 50 bouts was by disqualification to Griffin.
"In the 1990s, Roy was one of the greatest fighters ever, even though he was never a traditional fighter, in the sense of being sound technically," said boxing historian Thomas Hauser, referring to Jones' absence of a basic jab, among other things.
"Like Muhammad Ali, Roy did everything wrong. But what made him special were his reflexes. Roy's speed always distorted the equation, but he's not as fast as he once was. And for me, from the opening bell to the end, this next fight is going to be very, very hard to watch."
Hauser is among boxing experts who question why the aging Jones (49-3, 38 knockouts) will re-enter the ring tonight in Tampa, Fla., against Antonio Tarver (23-3, 18 KOs) for a 12-round, light heavyweight (175 pounds) rubber match. Jones won the first match by decision in November 2003, Tarver the second in a devastating second-round knockout in May 2004.
At stake is Tarver's International Boxing Organization's title. Perhaps more importantly for Jones, 36, it is an opportunity to restore his legacy against Tarver, 36, and a place among the sport's all-time greats.
"Roy's a gifted athlete who, like Ali, could once finesse the rules of his craft - lead with a left hook, pull back out of an exchange with his chin up - and get away with it. But once the body loses that edge, you can't get away with it," said HBO commentator Jim Lampley, who will watch the fight from ringside.
"But this comes down to wounded pride - pride that won't allow Roy [of Pensacola, Fla.] to live in the same state with Tarver [of Tampa, Fla.] without getting revenge," Lampley said.
In that fight, Jones was stunned by an eye-crossing, head-swiveling left hook to the right side of his chin. In his dressing room after Tarver handed him his first career knockout loss, the man once considered the sport's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter told Hauser, "Nothing like this ever happened to me before."
It would happen again four months later when he was knocked out by Glen Johnson in the ninth round.
Those two losses are a cause for concern. He could be susceptible to brain damage, said Dr. Margaret Goodman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, who examined "a clearly speaking" and "aware" Jones on his stool after the loss to Tarver in Las Vegas.
"When someone's been knocked out once, they're at risk to being knocked out again," said Goodman, who said Jones apparently felt no pain after being knocked out. "The knockout against Glen Johnson was more devastating, and the more severe the concussion, the more it can lead to chronic brain injury."
NSAC director Marc Ratner said his commission barred Jones from sparring for two months and from fighting for three. In facing Johnson four months after Tarver, Jones returned to the ring too soon, Goodman said.
"A knockout is a concussion - a short-circuiting of the brain. The blood blow stops, the nerves stop. It takes time to come back from that," Goodman said. "If a fighter shows an increased inability to avoid being hit, and an increasing inability to recover from a knockout, you have to be concerned. Whether that's something Roy's experiencing, I'm not sure."
Among those who feel Jones can no longer protect himself in the ring is Sugar Ray Leonard, who retired "when the other guy hit me more than I hit him."
Jones "no longer has a radar - that instinctive ability to see and feel punches coming," Leonard said. "I had it. Ali had it. You just know the punch is coming, so you duck."
But Jones has absorbed substantial punishment in his past three fights. In his 12-round, majority decision victory over Tarver on November 2003, Jones' left eye was nearly swollen shut. Against Johnson, loser of 10 bouts, Jones threw just 270 punches to 437.
"Rewind the tape of Roy's last two losses: When was he knocked out?" asked Leonard. "When Roy stopped moving his head fast enough, he got nailed. Once that lens is shaded, the radar's gone and you're in trouble."
Jones meets Tarver on the same day as the funeral of Leavander Johnson , a 35-year-old who died Sept. 22 from blows received in an 11th-round knockout loss to Jesus Chavez five days earlier.
"I remain saddened by Johnson being beaten to death in a sanctioned sporting event," Tim Smith wrote in Wednesday's New York Daily News. "Jones, who has been knocked out in his last two bouts, is willingly putting himself in the same position."
Jones has declined to explain himself, but former champ Bernard Hopkins, 40, understands Jones' decision.
"Roy doesn't want to go down in the history books as a fighter who should have done this or should have done that. For dodging big fights to face inferior guys only to get knocked out by the last two," Hopkins said. "Tarver represents the final chapter in the book, and Roy doesn't want to end it with a question mark."
Who: Antonio Tarver vs. Roy Jones Jr., for Tarver's IBO light heavyweight title
Time, TV: Approximately 11 tonight, pay-per-view