It was not so much a fight as a ceremony at the Civic Center in Pensacola, Fla., last Saturday night. There was ceremony in the naval honor guard and in the twice-performed national anthem (once by a recorded orchestra, followed by a singer a cappella), and there was a ceremonial victim in Ricky Randall, said to be 30, fighting out of New Orleans, who had been told about the match only 2½ weeks earlier. "I've been waiting for this chance all my life," Randall said gallantly. But everyone in Pensacola knew what this show was really about.
It was about hometown hero Roy Jones Jr., who was making his professional debut. He had had seven long months in which to dull the edge of his frustration following one of the most disgraceful Olympic boxing decisions in history. In the finals in Seoul last fall, Jones had thoroughly outboxed Park SiHun, his Korean opponent in the light middleweight division, but Park was awarded the gold medal. Conceding the judges' folly, the International Amateur Boxing Association named Jones the outstanding competitor in the Games.
While his Olympic teammates embarked on pro careers (page 47), Jones brooded and pondered his future. When it finally began, on Saturday, Randall was the unlucky guy who happened to be in the way. "Naturally, I don't want Roy to meet no world-beater in his first fight," Roy Jones Sr., the Olympian's father, had said. But the way young Jones—he's 20—demolished Randall in less than two rounds showed that he was already equal to tougher opposition.
To be sure, there were ragged edges and signs of overeagerness in the first round. They reflected the hyped-up way Jones had responded to the crowd before the opening bell, jiving to rap music in his elegant, multihued shorts, and praying, a tad ostentatiously, in his corner of the ring. But wild as some of Jones's punches were, enough found their mark to floor Randall twice in the first round. In the second, as Jones became more controlled, he dropped Randall with a straight right and a left hook, and the referee stopped the punishment with 14 seconds left in the round.
May 14, 1989
Jones's timing, hand speed and ability to counterpunch were impressive, but it wasn't simply boxing talent that brought the TV scouts to Pensacola. Apparently, that cruel Olympic injustice lingers in the American psyche. "Even my mother's heard of Roy Jones," said one network man.
Lately, though, it seemed as if Jones might be in danger of missing his moment. As the months dragged on, with Jones undecided about his management, the boxing world seemed to be losing patience. Part of the problem had to do with the Jones family's somewhat graceless rejection of Sugar Ray Leonard and his adviser Mike Trainer. It had seemed a certainty that the Leonard-Trainer combination would manage Jones's career. There had been a special relationship, even before the Olympics, between Leonard and the young fighter. Leonard had even gone down to Pensacola to give his royal blessing by speaking at a charity dinner and visiting with Jones before he left for Seoul. But when Leonard and Trainer traveled to Florida after the Olympics, they ran into a rock named Roy Jones Sr. "The young man is terribly talented," Trainer said last week. "But you have to have some kind of control if you represent a fighter."
It turned out that Jones's father was, for all purposes, managing him; the fighter would make no decision about his career without Jones Sr.'s assent. "We thought we knew both father and son, but it turned out we didn't," said Trainer. "Roy Sr. hung around us, and we were nice to both of them. But he [the father] kind of picked everybody's brains, then figured he could do it himself. The longer we talked, the less interested we became. And on the plane home Ray and I decided we didn't want to become involved in this."
There were other suitors. Offers came from Josephine Abercrombie's Houston Boxing Association, from Emanuel Steward of the Kronk gym in Detroit, from Butch Lewis and from Don King. Of the major figures in the sport, only Bob Arum stood aloof. "After all the things Leonard had done for them, I just assumed they'd go with him," Arum says. "How could they do any better? It shows what ingrates you're dealing with."
Two days before the fight, in the ramshackle Escambia County Boys' Club boxing gym on DeSoto Street in Pensacola, the man who snubbed boxing's most powerful mandarins defended himself loudly. "Hey," said Jones Sr., "who made all these guys authorities on boxing? Mike Trainer, them guys, ventured into it as a speculation, a money thing. Don't people who've been in boxing all their lives have better credentials in the sport?" Jones Sr. boxed professionally in the 1970s.
Jones Jr. was also at the gym for a last workout before his pro debut. Though he was quiet and monosyllabic, the way a lot of boxers are before a fight, this was not the semistunned Roy of last fall. His winter of discontent had passed. "I had to fight my way through it," he said. "Learn to be strong. My strength just came back very slowly to me."
" 'Round about November he started to come out of it," said Jones Sr. "Lot of people were saying, Hey, you're waiting too long. But it's not too long if he ain't ready. I've known him all his life. I raised him. I was the one to know when he was ready."
It was suggested to Jones Sr. that perhaps he's trying to relive his own life through his son, that in boxing's history the father-son relationship can be destructive: Joe and Marvis Frazier come to mind. Jones Sr. came close to anger. "I stood over Roy's life the day he was born," he says. "My only concern is Roy's welfare. And if I'm going to be blackballed for looking after my son, well then go ahead! Call me Tar Baby!"
While Jones Sr.'s rejection of the boxing establishment may appear noble, that image has lately been tarnished, chiefly because of the way he has added to his team one of the more notorious figures in the recent history of the sport. In Pensacola, back on the boxing scene for the first time since he was grabbed by 30 FBI agents (his count) near Dodger Stadium in April 1981, is none other than Ross Fields, a.k.a. Harold Smith, now, legally, Harold Rossfields Smith.
On October 31st, Smith was paroled from Federal Prison Camp in Boron, Calif., after serving more than five years of a 10-year sentence for embezzling $21.3 million from the Wells Fargo Bank. In the months before his arrest, Smith was at the height of his fame as a promoter of boxing extravaganzas, and was preparing a show in New York featuring four world-title fights.
Now, eight years later, he is starting out again. Smith cuts a neat figure. His beard is trim and professorial, his voice low and cultivated, a simple gold chain his only adornment. "I never did no hard time," he says, recalling how his 41st birthday had been celebrated at the federal institution in Danbury, Conn. "My Italian friends woke me up," he says, "and they told me, 'Vinny wants to see you in the back.' I go out. There it is, a bottle of champagne in a cooler. And a glass with a cherry in it."
And he tells with pride how, when the Bureau of Prisons moved him to one of its other hostelries, in Petersburg, Va., he brought in guest speakers and handed out T-shirts. "Harold Smith was a legend in that environment," he says without smiling. Official Harold Smith T-shirts were also on view in Pensacola on Saturday night. They bore a prominent dollar sign.
Smith says that a matchmaker put him in touch with Pappy Gault, Jones's assistant trainer and a former Olympic coach. "Pappy explained what the family was going through," says Smith. "And I saw that here was a father who loved his son. It was nothing to do with money. Mr. Jones set up a ring for the local kids in a cow pasture. I ran the Muhammad Ali amateur boxing team. So I could relate to that."
But, he is asked, is it not unseemly for a young Olympian to involve himself with a man fresh out of the joint? "I had a banking problem, not a boxing problem," says Smith in a mildly reproving tone. "If they give a man like Don King a license, why shouldn't I have one? Mr. Jones told me, 'I asked around in boxing, but I couldn't find anybody with a bad word to say about you.' "
That could be true. Last Friday, to hype the fight, the promoters staged a mock weigh-in on the flight deck of the USS Lexington, docked in Pensacola. At Smith's behest, some ring celebrities were in attendance, including Ken Norton ("I came here because I believe in Harold"), Alexis Arguello ("Harold will do good things for the boxing industry") and Larry Holmes, who, when asked what he was doing in Pensacola, replied, "I'm hanging out with Harold."
"I wanted Ali to be here," Smith lamented, "but he's in the Saudi Arabian desert, drinking grapefruit juice and meditating."
Jones Sr. insisted that he was making no commitments to Smith: "He's only an adviser. If it works out, fine; then it will be a long-term relationship."
Should the Smith & Jones marriage succeed, it will not entirely please another member of the Jones entourage, Fredric Levin, one of the top half-dozen personal injury lawyers in the nation. Levin, who joined the Jones team four months ago, says of himself, "In court, when the judge calls me, I close my eyes. The court becomes a ring. I am Muhammad Ali, fighting some bum. And then I am the greatest." Last year Levin estimates that he earned $7 million in gross fees for his firm. He has lost only two cases, he says, one on appeal. He has his own TV talk show, called Lawline, which is not popular with the Florida Bar Association.
Nevertheless, Levin admits that his own lack of self-confidence allowed Smith to wriggle his way into the Jones camp. "I sit in the front row at casinos, and I keep a high profile," Levin said before the fight, holding court in his dark-red velvet office. "But as the man that Roy Sr. wanted to sell Roy Jr. to the TV companies, I felt inadequate. How was I to know that the product would sell itself? So I said, 'Hey, Roy, you got to get me some help." Who else could Roy call on except Smith? Could he call Arum and say, 'Hey, Bob, I got this lawyer in Pensacola who doesn't know what he's doing?' I realize what people are saying now. I realize that every time we walk into an office, somebody is saying, Why Harold Smith?"
Between Smith and Levin there is a palpable tension. The Sunday before the fight, they came close to blows in Levin's office. But on the fight's eve, at a party at Levin's home, the two embraced as Smith said, "We can work it out. We both want the same thing." Cue violins.
In any case it is not Roy Jones Jr.'s future that is of primary concern to Levin right now, but his own. This week, Levin is due to appear before an Atlanta grand jury that is considering allegations of financial wrongdoing against Pensacola's Gulf Power Company. Last month, Levin was one of the last people to speak to a Gulf vice-president, a key figure in the probe, before a company plane crashed just after takeoff from Pensacola, killing the executive and two pilots. Levin has since been living with the knowledge that three others closely connected to the case have either disappeared or been killed. And the FBI has passed the word to Levin that there is a contract out on his life. As if there were any doubt, Levin keeps finding dead canaries around his house.
There was a rather cruel joke making the rounds in Pensacola: You would know who Fred Levin was on fight night because nobody else would be sitting in his section. Fortunately, Levin was around afterward to announce that Jones Jr.'s next fight would be at the Convention Center in Atlantic City on June 11, against Stefan Johnson of New York, who is 10-2. And that it would be televised by NBC.
"I haven't got around to thinking about Johnson yet," Jones Jr. said later. "I'm still thinking about Roy Jones."
He's entitled to that indulgence for a few days. Levin tells how, recently, he thought it appropriate for young Jones to meet with some bankers, so he arranged an appointment.
"He can't go," said Jones Sr. when told of the meeting. "That afternoon he has to clean up the yard." So what did Jones Jr. say to that? Levin is asked.
Levin sighs: "He said, 'Yes, sir.' "
The story may be apocryphal. All the same, it seems to have its roots in a difficult truth. And that could mean that there are difficult days ahead for the young Olympian.