Bryan Armen Graham
Monday March 23rd, 2009

When last we saw Roy Jones Jr., a humbling whipping at the hands of Joe Calzaghe had left his 39-year-old face swollen and bloodied, a disturbing and unfamiliar spectacle to those intimate with the fighter's mostly immaculate body of work.

Jones, of course, made his name collecting eight titles at four weight classes in two decades as a pro, never losing a single round during his prime -- much less a whole fight -- and certainly never earning the reputation of a bleeder. When the former pound-for-pound king vanished into the bowels of Madison Square Garden in November after the lopsided unanimous decision and made an escape from the premises without facing reporters, many speculated Jones was history.

But instead of becoming a part of the sport's decorated past, he's shifted his focus to influencing its future. Jones, who turned 40 in January, made his return to the ring Saturday in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., meeting Omar Sheika in the main event of a hybrid boxing and MMA card organized by his own Square Ring Promotions outfit.

There's been plenty written about the complex, quasi-oedipal relationship between mixed martial arts and boxing. Fans of the latter deride MMA as a circus act, a sort of Rock 'N' Jock boxing for Gen Xers with limited attention spans; MMA fanatics praise their sport as the Next Big Thing, writing off boxing as a once-great game drowning in the alphabet soup of its own avarice. The most urgent question is whether the two cult sports can co-exist while competing for the same dollar. With Saturday's card and future events, Jones and his Square Ring partners hope to reshape the adversarial relationship between the sports -- and their supporters -- into a cooperative one.

For Jones, the hype surrounding Saturday's main event was considerably more subdued compared to his most recent fight. Jones promoted his previous bout with Calzaghe by permitting HBO's cameras unlimited access to film "24/7," the four-episode, Emmy-winning reality series airing on the network during the weeks leading up to a high-profile fight. To drum up publicity for Saturday's event, Jones crowned the St. Patrick's Day "Green Bikini" contest winner at Bamboo Willie's before signing autographs and snapping photos with fans at a local Hooters restaurants. My plans to watch the card from a bar in the Lower East Side of Manhattan were torpedoed when I showed up and discovered they weren't even airing it. The bouncer didn't even know there was a fight -- "Are you sure it's this weekend?" -- so I had to hurry back to my apartment to make the first bell.

The preliminary bouts alternated between MMA and boxing. One early MMA fight pitted journeyman Jason Guida against Bobby Lashley, a three-time NAIA wrestling champion turned WWE star, making his second pro appearance. After winning by unanimous decision, Lashley -- with the gentle cadence of an eighth-grade science teacher -- sounded almost apologetic in his appeal to the boxing fans (and MMA skeptics) in the pay-per-view audience. "This is a sport," he appealed. "We're gentlemen, we're fighters. We're not just Neanderthals."

Next up was a boxing match between undefeated cruiserweight contender B.J. Flores and action fighter Jose Luis Herrera, which Flores won by a lopsided decision. As the fights and sports alternated, so did the broadcasters. Veteran commentator Bob "The Colonel" Sheridan was the constant in the booth, while MMA fighter Seth Petruzelli, the man noted most for knocking out Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson in 14 seconds last October, and former WBA/IBF/WBO lightweight champ Nate Campbell took turns depending on the discipline.

The main MMA event came next with three rounds between IFL and EliteXC veteran Roy Nelson and Jeff Monson, a freakish pyramid of muscle best known for spray-painting an anarchist symbol on a government building in Washington to protest the Iraq War ... and letting ESPN the Magazine shoot the whole thing and run the photos. (Malicious mischief charges pending.)

There was little sweet about this science, as Nelson made sure the heavyweights spent most of the match grappling on the canvas in holds that would've made the Marquess of Queensbury blush. Here, the voices from the booth remained conscious of their audience, explaining the nuances with periodic teaching moments. "Boxing fans would probably like to see more striking but this is a real art what they're doing in here," Sanders explained. Monson won by unanimous verdict, an apparently criminal decision judging from Petruzelli's reaction. (See, these sports have plenty in common.)

It was 15 minutes past midnight by the time Jones made his way to the ring, wearing a sleeveless jet black Jordan brand robe with blue trim, bobbing his head confidently to the music with the crowd squarely in his corner. On the line was the regional NABO light heavyweight title, so the hometown favorite was effectively fighting for one last shot at one last shot.

The bell rang and Jones sprang from his corner, the stronger and busier fighter from jump street, dancing, preening, dropping both his hands and whipping the right jab with a fighter pilot's arrogance. CompuBox didn't track the fight but Jones' left hand appeared as powerful and prolific as ever.

Sheika made a brief rally in the third round, backing Jones into a corner and doing some modest but cumulative body work. But Jones, emboldened by the partisan crowd, slipped free and continued to dance and taunt, firing jab after jab into Sheika's granite jaw, demonstrating some of his most impressive hand speed and footwork in years.

In the fifth round, Sheika took a hard left hook followed by three more hard shots to the head. He kept moving forward but it didn't take long before the referee intervened and put a stop to it. The stoppage was premature, but not controversial. Sheika's corner offered no protest.

Jones' Square Ring Promotions may be onto something: hybrid cards may be a sustainable model for the future of the fight game. But not for the novelty alone. They'll always need a marquee name to carry the card -- whether its Manny Pacquiao or Anderson Silva -- because stars sell. And on Saturday, that star was Jones. Yes, he fought in his backyard against a carefully handpicked opponent -- a guy inactive for the past 17 months with a hand injury who was put in there to lose -- but the 6,500 Pensacolans were more than willing to buy into the fantasy. And for one more night, one more fight, the fantasy was reality for Roy Jones Jr.

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