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Jones seemingly last to know his competitive fighting days are over

ATLANTA -- The woman at the makeshift press entrance looks haggard as she leafs through a list of names scratched out on sheets of a torn yellow pad and partially ripped-up computer paper.

"I don't have a list for the media," she tells two reporters. "Let me call someone."

Minutes later a member of the promotional team arrives, nodding his head in approval. There are no credentials, just a stamp that is visible only under an ultraviolet light. The reporters are hustled to a table near the ring, where another member of the team shoos away a man who has spread an International Boxing Syndicate title belt across the table. Cheap fog machines are positioned around the ring, an effect that backfires when the poor circulation in the room forces fighters on the undercard to work the first few rounds through a lingering cloud.

That would be fine if this were a club show. Only it's not. This is a show headlined by Roy Jones, the man who has laced up the gloves in front of packed houses anywhere from New York to Biloxi to Las Vegas; who was a three-division champion in the 1990s before moving up to heavyweight and winning a title in 2003; who is regarded as the best fighter of his generation and is on the short list of the best fighters of all time. A decade ago, when Jones was riding high, telling friends he would never stay in boxing too long, this seemed improbable. But now, at 42, Jones continues to soldier on, and there does not appear to be an end in sight.

How did he get here?

For many, it's tough to explain. Jones, former associates say, did everything right in the '90s. He cut a sweetheart deal with HBO -- details of which are in the Scorecard essay in this week's Sports Illustrated -- that made him one of the richest men in boxing. He rarely got involved with big promoters, instead running his own company, Square Ring, which ensured he maximized his profits. He didn't fight often on pay-per-view but when he did, he did well, accumulating 3.7 million buys that generated $178 million in revenue.

And he was a rock star. Jones routinely generated the highest ratings on HBO, which is why the network was willing to pay a premium -- and swallow plenty of mismatches -- to keep him there. Former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham tells a story of how he flew with Jones to an awards show after his win over Eric Harding in 2000 and how "everyone wanted a picture taken with Roy."

So where did it go wrong? The music industry, for starters. Jones invested millions in his label, Body Head Entertainment, only to lose it all when the company struggled. He blames music piracy for that. Jones admits that a former accountant once stole from him, and Florida tax records show Jones has had at least six million in liens against his properties. Former associates tell tales of expensive entourages ("Roy had two or three people doing the same job," says one ex-employee) and a lavish lifestyle that siphoned money away quickly.

So he's fighting for the money ... right? In interviews with SI, Jones swears he's doing fine. He says he is still fighting because he still believes he has something left. Longtime trainer Alton Merkerson and newcomer Tom Yankello have told him as much. He says his new goal is to become the cruiserweight champion, the one weight class he's never won a major title in. He says he feels a duty to use his name to promote younger fighters, to help usher in the next generation of stars in the sport. He says God has a plan for him and he intends to follow it.

But the cold reality is that Jones will likely never be a cruiserweight champion. Consider his recent body of work: He has fought twice at the 200-pound limit, getting brutally knocked out by Danny Green and Dennis Lebedev. Last Saturday, Jones was back in the ring against Max Alexander, a pudgy and limited fighter who had not been in the ring in 26 months and came in riding a six-fight winless streak that dated to 2007.

But even against low-level competition, Jones did not look good. In front of a sparse crowd at the Atlanta Civic Center, he dominated, but it was mostly because Alexander played the role of sparring partner. Jones rarely put together combinations and the few times he had Alexander in trouble he inexplicably refused to move in and try to finish him off.

Indeed, Jones's performance was so average that you wondered if he would decide to quit. Before the fight Jones said that if he didn't feel he had it against Alexander, he would walk away. He would go back to his commentating gig at HBO -- for which he is paid around $250,000 annually and is universally praised for at the network -- and leave boxing behind forever. But inside a crowded locker room, Jones was ebullient. He says he made a few mistakes but overall he felt like his old self.

"You can see I've still got it," Jones said.

He believes it, too. The end isn't coming anytime soon. Because Jones not only wants to be a cruiserweight champion -- after the fight he challenged any of the recognized titleholders -- but also says if the Klitschko brothers are still controlling the heavyweight division when he does, he intends to move up again and fight one of them. He says Yankello, who was in Calvin Brock's corner during Brock's seventh-round knockout loss to Wladimir Klitschko, has a plan that can beat them. Jones is healthy now -- he says he visited the Mayo Clinic in September and received a clean bill of health -- but if he were to walk into a piston-rod right hand from Wladimir, chances are he wouldn't be for long.

No, there seems to be no stopping Jones now. The man that once told everyone he would never wind up like Gerald McClellan is determined to continue putting himself in situations that could lead to the same horrifying result. His name will guarantee him dates, as fighters like Green and Lebedev are happy to import Jones to their backyards and sell tickets to a fan base that has never seen the once-great star live. But his days as a competitive fighter are over. Nearly everyone seems to understands that but him.

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