The future of Roy Jones jr. was to have begun on the last Sunday of the Seoul Olympics. That was more than a month ago, but since his return home to Pensacola, Fla., the boxer has hardly set foot inside a gym. Too busy, he says at first. Later Jones admits, "There's so many decisions I want to make, and I can't. That's why I'm staying away from the gym. If I start to train, I have to make decisions. And I can't train and not fight."
One morning recently, the 19-year-old fighter went to talk to the kids at Spencer Bibbs Elementary School in Pensacola about his Olympic experiences. Afterward, he sat on the couch in his family's home, surrounded by posters that the schoolchildren had made for him. The posters were lovingly hand-lettered by Tracy and Angie and Teena and Cheryl, and all of them were variations on one theme—HEY ROY, YOU"RE GOLD TO US!
The posters had given him a lift for a while, Jones said. But his voice, a low monotone, clearly revealed his depressed state. "I'm not sure if I'll go pro," he said. "It's heavy on my mind, having to go back to work, do all those hard things again, after what happened in Seoul. Though I believe that I could."
Jones has not yet exorcised the trauma he suffered on that final day of the Olympics. It's history now, that 156-pound gold medal bout in which Jones thoroughly outclassed South Korea's Park Si Hun, only to have three judges, from Uganda, Uruguay and Morocco, score the fight against him. It was but small consolation that Jones was awarded the Val Barker Cup by the International Amateur Boxing Association as the outstanding boxer of the Olympics.
November 14, 1988
Twice before in international competition, Jones had been the victim of similarly questionable decisions. In the 139-pound semifinal in Ted Turner's Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986, he dominated Igor Ruzhnikov, his Soviet opponent, before losing 4-1. That was also the score by which Jones lost to an East German in the first round of the 1987 Junior World Championships in Cuba. That loss was strange, says his father, Roy Sr., "because the German was beat up so bad I didn't think he would be able to continue with the tournament."
Of course, there may be a smidgen of paternal bias in that last remark. Roy Sr., 41, a civilian Navy aircraft electrician, is fiercely proud of his close-knit family, not only of his namesake but also of his wife, Carol, his second son, Corey, 14, and his daughters, Tiffany, 13, Lakesha, 10, and Catandrea, 5. But for Roy Jr. he feels a special pride; after all, Roy Sr. trained him.
"My job with him is just about over now," says Roy Sr. "I guided him all his life. He started actual bouts when he was 10, but he was boxing long before that. I had a little hog farm at the north end of Escambia County [Florida]. On cold winter nights, when we were done with the feeding, we'd put on the gloves and I'd get down on my knees. He was seven. I could see what a competitor he was then. He'd cry, but he'd come back.
"And that's where it all started. I built a ring. Built my own frames for the heavy bags. Built speed-bag racks. Other kids from the neighborhood started to show up there."
"There" is 25 miles up Route 29 from Pensacola, in a hamlet called Barth, where most of the houses are now empty and decaying. Down a washed-out creek bed, into snake-filled piney woods, past the remains of a collard garden and a long-dead Buick Special with magnolias growing in the engine compartment, is a solitary ring post, all that remains from the days when Junior stood up to Senior. "Gone for firewood, I guess," says Roy Sr. "People up there are all broke."
He is careful to point out that his own family has always had enough for the basics. "Boxing was never an avenue of escape and survival for Roy," he says. "He didn't have to fight his way out of a ghetto. He didn't get tough through having to fight in the streets. He had good grades in high school. He was exposed to things that some kids are lucky enough to escape, but he just kept on learning and progressing."
After the appalling decision in Seoul, Roy Sr. wondered how it would affect his son. "I wished," he said, "I could feel all the pain for him. I know how big a disappointment it was, how it brought the tears. But I know he will come out of it, even though his heart is not back into fighting yet. When you're young it's easy to get trapped by a trauma. But I've watched Roy Jr. deal with fears. Like when he first rode a horse. And he will deal with this situation. I am sure he'll pursue a boxing career."
So are a lot of other people. That "defeat" in Seoul has actually increased Jones's marketability, which was formidable. He was already dubbed Sugar, the sobriquet for all light-footed, smooth-talking, telegenic boxers, FUTURE APPEARS SWEET FOR LITTLE SUGAR a Pensacola News Journal headline had forecast in 1984 after Jones had won a gold medal at the U.S. Junior Olympics in Saginaw, Mich. The headline seemed even more fitting when he won national Golden Gloves titles two years in a row.
Since the Seoul Games, the telephone at the little home on Cornelius Lane in north Pensacola has rarely been silent. "I've heard from them all," Roy Sr. says. "[Bob] Arum, [Don] King, [Butch] Lewis, as well as all sorts of lawyers who have nothing to do with boxing and, yes, I've had direct contact with Sugar Ray Leonard and his people. But as of this time he hasn't decided to engage in a contract with anybody."
Leonard and his adviser Mike Trainer clearly have the upper hand in the race to sign Jones to a contract. "It would be very hard to come up with anybody who hasn't approached him," says Trainer. "Anybody in the fight game would love to represent him. Roy is a future world champion, no question. It's just a matter of figuring out what weight division he'll be in. We're giving him time, and letting him listen to everybody; then we'll go back to him."
"I know about the millions of dollars I could make," Jones says stubbornly. "But it's not just the money, it's the style, the whole thing about my life changing if I turn professional. I don't know if I could stand the pressures of that life—guessing who to trust, who to get along with. Look at Tyson. I don't want to get bored with life, like Tyson. Didn't I see somewhere that he didn't have fun unless he was in the ring, fighting? I don't want to be like that. I want to go fishing and ride horses.
"You can't do what you want," he says. "I love to play basketball, and they'd say, 'Hey, you can't play basketball no more, you're taking a risk.' I'd do anything to play basketball. I know I'm not tall [5'10½"] and I only got a little talent, but I want to play."
Suddenly, for the first time Jones grins broadly. And from the boxing trophies that fill the living room he takes a small plaque that honors him as a member of the Pensacola Junior College team that won last year's intramural basketball championship.
"So this is why I am not in a happy stage now. If I turn pro maybe I won't be able to do all these things anymore, the way I did last year."
It doesn't seem, though, that the world is going to allow Jones to go on catching speckled trout off Pensacola Bay Bridge, or riding horses, or even staying on at Pensacola J.C., where he hopes to study business management. Late last month, at a banquet in Los Angeles, Jones was handed yet another plaque, the World Boxing Hall of Fame President's Award. It read ROY JONES, JR., 1988 OLYMPIC BOXING SILVER MEDALIST. A GOLD MEDALIST TO ALL THE BOXING WORLD. He received a standing ovation.
Waiting for Jones when he returned home from L.A. was a message from WALA-TV in Mobile, Ala., just across the state line from Pensacola. The station asked to borrow his silver medal to make a mold for a gold one, which would then be presented to the young fighter. That sort of pressure, having to rise to others' expectations, is difficult to shrug off.
Still, Jones was not moved to don gloves and return to the gym. Instead, he went in search of a horse to ride at the Circle G Ranch, which is owned by a friend, Wilfred Grant. Peacocks strutted by, and a red fox darted away as Jones swung a leg over a taffy-colored mare called Mandy. For a while, he was happy again, clowning and cantering in the paddock. Grant called Jones to come into the barn to inspect a three-month-old colt. The fighter crooned over it with unaffected delight.
"You know," said Grant, "after I watched that fight I was hollerin' at him through the TV all the way to Korea, 'Don't take that [silver] medal! Don't take it, son.' But he did the right thing."
As he left the ranch, Jones said he would be back the next morning to ride again. "You know," he said longingly, "they've got a kind of family-sized pond back there with some huge black catfish in it." All the way home he sang along with the rap music from the car radio. If—when—he goes pro, there may not be time for trips to the Circle G.
That evening, after some prodding by his father, Jones finally headed downtown to the boxing gym at the Escambia County Boys' Club, where Sugar Ray Leonard paid a call last year to help raise funds for the facility. A visitor couldn't help but notice the SRL Inc. posters displayed on the walls or the SRL Inc. badge on the breast pocket of Jones's shirt.
Two summers ago Jones sparred with Leonard at Leonard's camp in Maryland and had the temerity on one occasion to nail the great man with a hard left. "Don't you know who I am?" Leonard asked, feigning indignation. "Sure I do," said Jones. "But you're an old man now."
The wise money is saying that, for all his misgivings, Roy Jones Jr. may have his first pro fight sometime early next year, under the auspices of Leonard and Trainer.
On his return home from the gym, Jones learns that WALA wants to send a limo to collect his silver medal. But where is it? "It was sitting over there somewhere," the boxer says vaguely, pointing at a cabinet in the living room, "unless somebody moved it. No? Try the bottom shelf." Finally, the medal is found, without its case. It is not an object, the visitor gathers, to which its owner attaches much importance.