Oli Goldstein takes a look at James Toney and Roy Jones Jr, who once sat near the top of the sport's rankings, and today have been reduced to traveling opponents for Russian Denis Lebedev. Lebedev and Toney meet on Friday in Moscow.
There's an old joke in the UK that the Queen will hang on for so long, Prince Charles shall never get to see the throne. As Her Majesty's diamond jubilee approaches on 6 February 2012, the jokes will doubtless increase.
Monarchy and boxing have always been curiously paralleled. Ever since the heavyweight championship became imbued with some quasi-mystical force amidst the racially charged fever of the early 20th century, boxers have been paraded as kings. James J Jeffries spoke of feeling ‘obligated to the sporting public to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race... to demonstrate that a white man is King of them all.' Muhammad Ali, not simply ‘The Greatest', was also the self-pronounced ‘King of the World'.
The 1980s, meanwhile, had its own Four Kings, celebrated so enthusiastically by George Kimball and marking the first time the lower weight classes received some semblance of the attention afforded to the bigger men.
Today, we have Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, the sport's undisputed superstar fighters, boxing royalty in their own right, while one of the enduring images from Sergio Martinez' victory over Paul Williams was the middleweight champion celebrating amidst his team, a tacky crown atop his head.
The crown conjures up notions of glory and greatness, its timeless associations with valour and achievement still resonating in today's boxing world. Yet boxing's Kings are constantly reminded of their own mortality and the fact that royalty only transcends the ring while you're winning. $40,000,000 paydays one year; peanuts the next.
Another generation of royalty will proceed to step out into the ring in the coming weeks. Bernard Hopkins, 46, fought just two and a half weeks ago, his curtailed bout against Chad Dawson failing to produce compelling evidence either way that the Light Heavyweight Champion should shortly be joining boxing's scrapheap. Antonio Tarver, 42, looked his best in years when defeating Danny Green in July in Australia.
For James Toney and Roy Jones Jr, however, immortality slipped from their grasps long ago. Toney returns this Friday in Russia, taking on Jones' most recent opponent, Denis Lebedev; Roy, meanwhile, is scheduled to fight little-known Max Alexander next month. Both fighters have endured pronounced declines since the heady days of the 1990s. Toney's weight ballooned, the once-fearsome looking middleweight champion becoming, in the words of Jim Lampley before his fight with Hasim Rahman, ‘a fat tub of goo'. Unceremonious? Yes. Fitting? Undoubtedly.
Jones' decline has been oft-commented on by boxing pundits and fans alike. The days in which Jones could dazzle fighters with his unique combination of power, speed and athleticism are long gone. All that's left is a ghost, still throwing the old combinations and wearing the Nike gear and Grant gloves, just ten steps slower, ten years older and far less durable.
There's a thin line between the very sad and the tragic. Seeing these once-great fighters step out into the ring, years after their best, evokes a terrible pity. Dislocated from idols we could once connect with, we pity Roy when he urges Paul Williams to retire and instructs us of the pitfalls of carrying on for too long. Yet how close are we to witnessing the truly tragic? When Lebedev knocked Jones out with 15 seconds to go in their May fight, writers and fans expressed similar fears over Roy's physical condition. In Bad Left Hook's coverage of the aftermath of the fight, Scott had this to say:
"He was up and talking after the fight, but he still didn't look great, and really he looked half-asleep for a good chunk of the fight. This really has to be it for Jones. It's getting downright scary."
Roy's recent slate bears scary viewing and, while Toney's lacks the sheer fear factor of three heavy knockouts in the last seven years (four depending on how you see the Danny Green fight), analysis of his recent fights is duly negative. The skills on which Toney could rely so heavily have deteriorated dramatically: struggling past the likes of Danny Batchelder, robbing Fres Oquendo and getting badly hurt by little-known Matthew Greer, Toney is an oversized shadow of his former self.
For boxing royalty, history tells us there are no happy endings. Kings don't cease control of their thrones with dignity; instead, whether a result of pride, money problems or both, they cling to some notion of past glory, desperately trying to recapture those heady days of yesteryear. James Toney will try this Friday against Denis Lebedev. Roy Jones Jr will try in December. They'll probably try again in the future, too. As the boxing world waits with bated breath for the third fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, share a thought for the likes of Toney and Jones. The Kings of yesterday; the dinosaurs of today.