All Colin Jones had planned was a quick trip to pick up an accessory for his record player, but for this newest prince of Wales there is no longer any such thing as a simple errand. As soon as Jones parked his unpretentious Renault on a side street in the village of Gorseinon in Glamorgan, South Wales, he was inundated by people who just wanted the chance to wish well for something in their lives now that the steel mills and coal mines have closed. As the WBC's No. 6-ranked welterweight walked down the gray main street in thin summer sunshine, the tribute came disguised as banter in the mock-severe Welsh style. "Get out on the road, boyo!" admonished an ex-miner. "You are in training aren't you, Colin fach?"
Colin fach—little Colin is actually 5'8"—quickly countered, "Want to run with me tomorrow morning, then, do you, Will? Up Graig Merthyr? See you six o'clock sharp."
Formalities satisfied, the old man softened. "Wish I were going to America with you," he shouted. "When you off, boy?"
"Four weeks time," Colin said, and suddenly in a clear tenor he started caroling a pop song recorded in the early '60s by Gerry & the Pacemakers, You'll Never Walk Alone. "Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart," he sang, and the villagers grinned at him and whispered, "Good luck, Col."
August 7, 1983
He sang his way to a record shop and dickered with the clerk over the price of a Pavarotti cassette. "Two quid?"—about five dollars—"Pavarotti'll have to sing along with it live for that money," he said.
The clerk rolled with the punch and said slyly, "There's a video system they're bringing out now that costs ¬£13,000, Col, you interested?"
"Got one in stock, have you?" Jones asked. "No? Pity...." And then he was moving along the street again.
All Wales will be walking with him when the 24-year-old Jones steps into the ring in Las Vegas on Aug. 13 for a return bout with Milt McCrory of Detroit—whom he fought to a draw five months ago—for the WBC welterweight title vacated last November by Sugar Ray Leonard. Jones was slow to warm up in that fight, in Reno, appearing to justify the 4-1 odds against him. "I let him get off too quick, those first five rounds," Jones says. "Only then I started to realize how much ahead he was, and my corner was yelling, 'You got to start working!' "
Work he did, taking over in the sixth round and punishing McCrory thereafter in an astonishing turnaround. Jones castigates himself for letting McCrory off the hook in the 12th and last round. "It's maddening when I look back," he says. "I think all the time of that last round. If I'd given a bit more I could have had it all. He stole it. All respect to him, he was bloody clever. He wasn't touching me but he made himself look good with all that fast stuff. I tried to match him for speed when I should have been just banging him."
"Twelve rounds of good experience," said Eddie Thomas, Jones's manager, a Welshman who has handled world champions Howard Winstone and Ken Buchanan. "Just a rehearsal."
Maybe so, but Jones would not be comforted. "I didn't realize the value of a world title before the fight. And now, my God, I keep thinking what a difference it makes in everything."
That was the young fighter in a serious mood, dressed up for a city lunch in Swansea, with Thomas at his side. The only dark cloud over his otherwise bright road this day was the discovery that the secretary of the local lawn bowls club was about to scratch him from the summer tournament on the understandable grounds that he would be otherwise engaged in Nevada. But lawn bowls, like surfcasting, is one of Jones's more unlikely passions. "What'll Dai Phillips say?" he asked, referring to his bowls partner. "I'll only be away for a few weeks. There will be plenty of time!"
Jones was almost pleading, and one could only deduce that, should he beat McCrory and win the championship, there would be no remarkable change in the style of his life, with the possible exception of a bigger house. His roots are very deep in his village. He and his parents and seven siblings live within a mile or two of each other, and he claims he will never move out. Within 36 hours of the first McCrory fight he was back playing snooker in the Workingmen's Club with the boys he grew up with, boys who, in these hard times, find it tough to raise the price of a pint.
This month the last working mine in the district, where Jones worked underground when he left school at 16, will probably close. "Maggie Thatcher's putting the slab on it," Jones says, without the bitterness that has marked the response of many locals to the news. "I hated it there, having to put on those stinking clothes when you're still half asleep at 4:40 in the morning...."
Even the job Jones had digging graves at the local cemetery suited him better. "Salary," he says, "fresh air and ¬£4.50 bonus a grave. And you had to bloody earn it, mind you. Most of the graveyards have little machines now, two scoops and it's done. But they couldn't use 'em where I used to work. It was far too boggy. 'Course, the big bonus was for reopening...."
"That's enough," Thomas intervenes. "You're upsetting the man, can't you see?" What his questioner could see was yet another example of the teasing, testing humor that is the fighter's South Walian heritage, part of the flavor of the country, something one understands when climbing Graig Merthyr—the Hill of the Martyr—where Jones does his early morning running.
Jones's country (and there are almost 11,000 Joneses in the phone book that covers this part of South Wales) is the high-water mark of the Industrial Revolution. Just here the coalfield peters out, so that in strange juxtaposition there are, on the one hand, small white farmhouses and green hills covered in great drifts of wild, purple rhododendron, and, on the other, valleys that bear the scars of recent strip mining. From the crests above you see the stacks of abandoned steel mills, but shut one eye and only lush greenery and grazing sheep are visible. Jones's run starts where the little stone row houses end, and suddenly he is on a country lane. "I've had to jump up the bank a few times when some daft farmer comes tearing round the bend," he says. Then comes the long steep push up to the crest of the Graig where, he says, "the temples in my head start beating."
Jones's route to this plateau in his career has been no easier than the run up Graig Merthyr. As a 147-pound amateur of 17 he was thrust prematurely into the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He got past an Irish boy, Christy McLouglin, but lost a decision to Victor Zilberman of Romania. He feels lucky he went out when he did, and so does Thomas, who was at the Olympics but not then associated with Jones. "At that age he could have been hurt badly," Thomas says.
Later as an amateur, Jones represented Wales, then Great Britain, which he characteristically refers to as "the English people. I wore their singlet with the rose, or whatever it was, on it." (Jones was seriously put out when he was called a Limey in Reno last March. "Excuse me, you got the wrong side of the border," he said.) Jones was 18 when he turned pro. In 1980 he won the British welterweight title, whereupon, as Thomas puts it, "The London boys wanted to be involved,"—the London boys being the Micky Duff-Terry Lawless group, which is to boxing in its birthplace what Don King is to the sport in America.
But Jones stayed loyal to Thomas and early in 1982 he was to fight Henrik Palm, a Dane with a 29-4 record, for the vacant European welterweight championship. But the night before the bout was to be held, Jones came down with appendicitis. It was not until last November that the match was rescheduled, and Jones swiftly made up for lost time, the referee stopping the fight at one minute of the second round.
By the time Jones met McCrory, his record was 24-1-0, the single loss being a disqualification caused by a late punch he threw at Curtis Ramsey of Portland, Oregon in their bout in September of 1981. Twenty-one of his wins have been by knockout. "It's the old left jab and wait for it, isn't it?" Jones says in summing up his style. "I used to be bomb-happy. One-handed—my left. But Eddie turned me round from that."
All the same, Jones's main assets are still his power and his stamina, developed on hills like Graig Merthyr. Lately, in anticipation of hot weather in Las Vegas, he has run at noontime to catch as much sun as can be found in Wales, where 70° is a heat wave.
One recent day it hit a spectacular 75° along the estuary of the River Llwchwr near Jones's home. "Another beautiful day, boyo!" a fan yelled at Jones as he set off. "I'll tell you in a half-hour," responded Jones, loping past a bridge and some archaeological students excavating a Roman fort; this is about as far west as the Romans got in Europe.
Jones paused briefly and then resumed at a cracking pace back toward the village, past row houses and the gaunt chapels that witnessed the great religious revivals of the 19th century. Running by Capel y Bedyddwr, the grass high around the tombstones, Jones said, "One of these days this whole bloody place is going to collapse, they've burrowed under it for coal so much." Toil in the mines and the steelworks was hard, if prideful, but "the money stopped here four or five years ago," the boxer said later. "Do you know who the biggest employer is round here these days? 3M. They make video cassettes."
Dylan Thomas, born about eight miles away in Swansea, once said memorably of that city's museum that it ought to be in a museum. Alongside it, as another exhibit, could well stand the Penyrheol gym where Jones has worked out since he was nine. A single-story, prefabricated shack with a corrugated roof, the gym has walls liberally daubed with the nice old kind of graffiti in which Jane loves Anthony. Inside there are mirrors that would be an insult to a tag sale and curtains so tattered that they would surely disintegrate if the doors were slammed.
Through the windows children peer at Jones, who at the moment is hammering the heavy bag and uttering ferocious karate cries. "A bad habit," comments Thomas. Very much a traditionalist, he abhors the snorting expulsion of breath favored by many contemporary fighters. That's not the way they did it in the '50s, when Thomas was a welterweight ranked fifth in the world when Sugar Ray Robinson was champion.
Though Jones was born with a heavy right cross, it is the powerful left hook that you notice in the gym—the short shots to the chin that put out Palm, and the body blows that got to McCrory.
Thomas takes some credit for developing that left. "I had a hell of a job with him at first," Thomas says. "He was knocking people over and forgetting his boxing." For a time it appeared that Jones's hands were too brittle—he sprained them repeatedly—but the enforced layoff after his appendicitis apparently cleared that up.
"His left hand has come on a ton in the last year," Thomas says. "Isn't he in the Marciano mold, the LaMotta sort? Going forward all the time...that yelling now—I suppose it's a kind of pent-up thing he's trying to get rid of in the gym."
The gym is crowded with shadowboxing teen-agers, crop-headed clones of Colin, like the 17-year-old that Gareth Bevan, who assists Thomas in Jones's training, points out as a prospect. "Name's Floyd," says Bevan. "His father was a big fan of Patterson's." He looks back at Jones. "Never been afraid of any work, Colin," he says. Somehow the eager spirit in the air transcends the surroundings. "The people of the village gave the money to buy this place," Bevan says. Later Jones would say, "I wouldn't have it any different. If they put up new curtains it would spoil it, see?"
He was speaking at his home, a new one, though modest in size, which he purchased at the time of the European title fight that didn't come off. "That wasn't funny," he said. "No purse, expenses to pay and I'd just signed the mortgage." The living room was bright with trophies kept well out of reach of his 15-month-old son, Simon, whom he calls Cochyn, which is Welsh for redhead. "Look out," Jones said to his wife, Debra, as Simon's pacifier fell out of place. "He's losing his gunshield."
One noticed that, among seemingly far more prestigious memorabilia on the walls, a prominent place is kept for a framed citation which Jones values as much as any international award. It's from the Llwchyr Workingmen's Club, a pub that is the hub of local social life.
At the club that evening, things turned out to be far from calm. "Hey, Col, did you hear what's happening?" an anxious voice from the bar asked—and supplied the answer in the next breath. "Those bastards from the Social Security have been calling up the club, wanting to know who's going to America for the fight!"
In Wales, Social Security has a different connotation than in the U.S. It means the state unemployment benefit. Ever since the McCrory rematch had been made, frantic scheming had been going on among the most financially hard-pressed men in the country to raise the money to make it onto a package trip to Vegas. And now, if somehow they got the cash together, they would be investigated by the welfare people.
The luckiest man in town, it was revealed, was the milkman. He had gone to Reno for the first fight, dropped a quarter into a slot machine on his last morning and won $5,000. "Lucky bugger, he's got plenty left over for the Vegas trip," somebody said. "Told his wife it was $1,000 he won," added another.
But the serious talk was of the rematch itself. "Throws more leather than Leonard, that McCrory, and good stuff, too," a pessimist said. But he was in a minority. "Watch Col playing snooker," another member said. "Us, now, if we're playing with mates and it's not a tournament, we ease off. Not Colin. He's hard, hard all the time. He's so hard he voted for Maggie Thatcher."
For himself, Jones was cautious about predictions, though he is an 11-5 underdog. "McCrory's in for a tougher fight this time, obviously," he said, "but I'm saying no more than that. Look at his record—19 knockouts in 21 fights. But I hurt him last time late in the fight.... I saw the look on his face every time he went back to his corner."
It was time to play a little snooker. "...And you'll never walk alone," Jones sang again, picking up his cue, and he was right about that. Should he come home to Gorseinon with the WBC welterweight title, even the sharp-eyed bureaucrats from the welfare department might manage to squeeze out a smile or two.