Three weeks ago, on a crisp October morning, Ed (Too Tall) Jones sat in a restaurant near Times Square alternately forking down a plate of tuna fish and draining a pitcher of iced tea, palming the pitcher like a basketball in his right hand. The 28-year-old former Dallas Cowboy defensive end had just finished another training session in the Times Square Boxing Club, a defiantly grimfaced gymnasium just around the corner on New York's 42nd Street. At 6'9", 250 pounds he dwarfed the booth in which he sat and seemed, at that moment, to be the largest man on earth, almost as imposing as the air of calm and confidence that he evinced.
Here was a man who had succeeded in every athletic endeavor he had ever undertaken. A fine high school first baseman in Jackson, Tenn.—he had offers to sign a professional contract—he was also a tremendous basketball player, a high school All-America with scholarship offers from most every major college. "I had a real good outside shot and could crash the boards real good," Jones said. Choosing football over basketball at Tennessee State, he learned the game from scratch—he had played it only briefly in high school—and by his junior year the pro scouts were aware of him. Dallas took him in the first round in 1974. Then he became an All-Pro. And now, in the fall of 1979, boxing was to be the fourth and final measure of the man. "This is my last go-round in professional sports," he said. It would begin soon, in a ring in the Pan-American Center in Las Cruces, N. Mex., where he would meet one Jesus (Yaqui) Meneses, the 20-year-old son of a corn and cotton farmer in Obregón, Mexico. Jones placed his fork down and stared impassively across the table as a question about fear was posed.
"Of what?" he said.
"Of being knocked out."
"No. My only problem will be going in there overconfident. I'm the type who doesn't believe you can hurt me. This cat's got some knockouts. But I will walk into that ring saying, 'If he hits me with his best shot, he won't hurt me.' Sure, football prepared me. Guys will say, 'Ah, he had a helmet on.' But that's a bunch of bull. I know a lot of guys who get knocked out with helmets on. Man, you get some hard shots in football. But I've never been knocked out. Never been close. I could get overconfident and get tagged. But still, again, he won't hurt me. I guarantee he can't hurt me. If I had to go against Earnie Shavers tomorrow, I wouldn't be scared, and he's the hardest puncher in the business."
If character is an accumulation of painful experiences, as someone once suggested, then Jones was a better man last Saturday night than he was last Saturday morning. He beat Meneses on a majority decision that afternoon, winning the bout on points scored in the first four rounds, but not before Meneses hit him with two stinging left hooks in the sixth and last round, one a flagrantly illegal blow while Jones was down. Those punches left Too Tall walking like a giraffe with arthritis and plunged the fight into a swirl of controversy and confusion before a crowd of 9,100 and a nationwide television audience.
It all began when Meneses hooked Jones on the side of his head. The blow staggered Jones, leaving him off balance, startled and apparently hurt. Meneses then plowed into Jones, shoving him back with both hands. No offensive lineman ever had it so easy with Too Tall. He toppled backward, falling in his corner on the seat of his gorgeous burgundy-colored velvet trunks. Meneses loomed over him and, while Jones sat there, bent down and crashed a second hook to his cheek, snapping his head hard to the side. "Estaba bien excitado," the contrite Meneses would say. "No pense." (I was totally excited; I didn't think.)
At once Referee Buddy Basilico leaped in and ordered Meneses to a neutral corner. Basilico had seen the illegal chop, but at the time had thought it was "too light to affect the outcome of the fight." It was only later, after he had gone to the CBS truck to watch the replay, that he realized the strength of the blow. "In the ring I didn't think the second blow was devastating," he said, "but later I saw it was."
After ushering Meneses to a neutral corner, Basilico returned to Jones, who was still on the canvas. Basilico heard Bobby Serrano, the timekeeper for knockdowns, calling out "six...seven." As Serrano reached eight, Jones precariously gained his legs. "I'm not a physician, or anything like that, but Jones was in a semiconscious state," Basilico said. "You could just see it in his eyes."
As Basilico stood in front of Jones, Too Tail's trainer, Murphy Griffith, suddenly leaped upon the apron of the ring, outside the ropes—where it's illegal for a cornerman to go—and twice tried to flash what appeared to Basilico to be a capsule of ammonia under Jones' nose. Basilico twice pushed Griffith's hand away. Griffith would contend later that he was merely trying to wipe Jones' eyes with a piece of gauze. But Basilico, a former New York referee now working out of Las Vegas, scoffed at that explanation. "It looked to me like he had the capsule under his nose," Basilico said.
To make things even more chaotic, while this was happening Meneses charged from his neutral corner and went after Jones, who was still standing in dream city. "Meneses came out prematurely," Basilico said. "He's not supposed to come out until I wave him back and say, 'Box.' So I took him back to his corner. Actually I pushed him back. With the time he lost there, I think he could have taken Jones out. He lost precious seconds."
Basilico then wiped Jones' gloves—a standard procedure after a knockdown, because the gloves pick up resin that can burn an opponent's eyes—and waved Meneses back into the fight. TV reruns of the knockdown showed that the whole episode—from the initial knockdown to the resumption of fighting—consumed from 24 to 27 seconds, more than enough time, as it turned out, for Jones' cobwebs to vanish. He survived the rest of the round.
Basilico said he didn't disqualify either fighter because both sides circumvented the rules—Meneses by hitting Jones when he was down, Griffith by hopping up on the apron and trying to treat his fighter in the course of the bout. Basilico could not very well punish one side without punishing the other. And it all happened so fast. "They nullified each other," Basilico said.
The crowd, which had cheered roundly every time Meneses landed a blow, was enraged when the decision was announced—two officials narrowly favored Jones, the referee had it a draw—sailing balled-up programs into the ring and sending up choruses of boos.
Thus was Jones, formerly a member of perhaps the most organized football team in the most organized of national sports, initiated into the disorder that so often visits boxing. The last round, for all its confusion, actually provided a fitting climax to the events and circumstances leading up to the fight.
Three days before, on Wednesday, Too Tall was sparring at a Las Cruces recreation center when the plywood floor of the ring began crunching and buckling under his feet. "Stop the sparring," cried Griffith. "We're getting the hell out of here." Jones' manager, David Wolf, shifted the training site to a gym on the White Sands missile range, about 25 miles away and less than 100 miles from where the United States exploded the first atomic bomb. Too Tall posed for photographers among the display rockets, folding his arms and looking like one of them himself.
On Friday, the Jones-Meneses fight appeared to be in jeopardy when Wolf and Jimmy Montoya, Meneses' manager, almost engaged in an unscheduled bout in a motel lobby. Montoya had been aware that Jones was getting $45,000 from the local promoter, Frank Mirabal, a Christmas tree salesman in real life, but claimed he hadn't known about the $27,500 CBS was kicking in to Jones' kitty—making his purse $72,500—and he wanted a piece of the TV money. Meneses was getting $3,000 from Mirabal period. Montoya told reporters he would pull out if Wolf didn't share his share. Wolf was incensed, thinking that Montoya was trying to shake him down, and furious that Montoya had protested to reporters, making a public issue of it. "Had he come to me, I think we could have worked out an accommodation," Wolf said. "But I'm not going to be shaken down in public." The two met in the lobby, belly to belly, while about 50 people gathered in a semicircle listening to their fruitless exchange.
Montoya didn't get the extra dough but, for Mirabal's sake, said the fight could go on. Even so, it was nip and tuck. On Saturday morning, hours before the bout, they were still setting up the ring. Within an hour of the start of the main event, after a kick-boxer fell out of the ring on his head, workmen hastily labored to tie the loose ropes together with lengths of clothesline. Unexplained was what a blindfolded swordsman, imitating a samurai, was doing in the ring before the fight, cutting in half a watermelon placed on the stomach of a supine man. The workmen then had to spend several minutes on their hands and knees swabbing up the juice and seeds from the mat. The man survived.
Jones, meanwhile, waited out the last couple of hours in his dressing room, more anxious than he had ever been before a football game. He had planned and trained methodically and carefully for this day, ever since he had decided two years ago to leave the Cowboys for the ring. It was something he had always wanted to do. As a kid, he had hung around gyms and followed the fight game. "I couldn't have done it out of college," he said. "Too many things I wanted to do. I wanted to travel a lot. You can't do that with boxing. It requires too much work. You don't have time for nothing else if you want to be any good. If you make it as far as I did in football—three Super Bowls in five years—you've got to love it. I loved it. I enjoyed playing while I played. But football was not number one. Boxing was. In the back of my mind, I knew one day I'd be boxing. And I decided two years ago I was ready to pay the price, make the sacrifice. I'm like a child again, finally doing something I always wanted to do."
Jones played out the last year of his contract and then in June formally quit football. He hired Wolf, who had handled Duane Bobick, and Griffith, the uncle of former welterweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith. Wolf is a semiretired sports journalist who got into managing because he thought, like many journalists, that he could do better than the people he was writing about. Murphy Griffith served in the Navy for 31 years and spent much of his service time as a boxing instructor. "He's a beautifully patient man," Wolf said.
He had to be with Jones, who knew almost nothing about boxing. The first day in the gym, July 5, Griffith looked over the goods. He had Jones show him his stance, his jab, his right. "From now on forget everything you thought you knew about boxing," Griffith announced. "You don't know anything. We're gonna start from scratch. From kindergarten. Do you have any vices?"
"I drink a whole lot of beer," said Jones, celebrated among the Cowboys for supposedly having consumed 48 cans of the stuff on a team flight home from Philadelphia to Dallas.
"No more of that," Griffith said.
What Griffith discovered he had was a 6'9", 276-pound man with an 88-inch reach, exceptional power and agility, and extraordinary athletic ability and determination. "The intensity of his interest, the totality of his commitment was startling," Wolf said. Jones gave up beer, ran six miles a day, worked on strength-building equipment twice a week and slowly learned the rudiments of the game—the jab, the right, later the hook, then combinations. He hit the bags and jumped rope. And his weight dropped from 276 to less than 250 (he weighed 255½ Saturday). While Wolf and Griffith figured Jones wouldn't be able to fight until early 1980, his progress was so encouraging that they decided to take the Meneses fight. Wolf had the fighter scouted in Mexico and found out that his record was 10-5—at least in those fights that were on record. Meneses is an aggressive young man of 6'2", 204 pounds with a 78-inch reach and a nice hook at the end of it.
It was, financially, the most important athletic event that Jones had ever trained for. "For us, this has all the dimensions of a championship," Wolf said before the bout. "It may be only a debut, but it's a fight in which his market value will be defined for the future. We're very close to basics. A lot of work has gone into the jab, into teaching him to use his reach to his best advantage and into making him an effective offensive fighter. To be marketable, he not only has to be a winner but a destroyer."
"I can't wait to get this one behind me," said Jones.
He almost ended up one behind. And he was embarrassed at having got tagged. Jones looked bewildered, as would anyone in his first fight. Meneses ran when Wolf thought he would attack, and Jones was lost, following Meneses around the ring instead of cutting it off. He moved like a robot, chugging mechanically after his man. He telegraphed his right. He forgot to jab, even with Griffith yelling from the corner, "Jab.... Get off first.... Jab!" And then he dropped his right when he did jab, opening himself up for the hook. Thus he took one in the ear. Jones says he wasn't hurt, but Basilico says you should have seen his eyes. But this was, of course, Jones' first time out, and he should benefit from it. He has everything to learn and nothing to forget. The sixth round was the harshest lesson of all. In the sweet science, fear of another man's hands is the beginning of wisdom.