Tonight in Grand Rapids, Michigan two once-great fighters squared off in a fight that showcased the diminished skills of both men....and yet still proved to be an interesting, and occasionally exciting, contest.
In one corner was former featherweight champion Tom "Boom Boom" Johnson of Detroit. Johnson held a portion of the featherweight title for several years before Prince Naseem Hamed humiliated him in a one sided contest. That fight ended with Hamed committing to an uppercut that Johnson took flush on the chin. The punch knocked Johnson out cold, and ended his career as a world class fighter. Since that fight, his balance and reflexes have been absent from his game, and he has lost again during his club-fighting comeback.
His opponent was another contender for 1998's "Shot Fighter of the Year" award, Ivey "Junior" Jones. Only a year ago, Jones was considered the premier junior featherweight in the world. But his two stirring victories over Marco Antonio Barrera were followed by two crushing knockouts (from McKinney and Morales) that left many wondering what Jones had left to prove. What's more, not only did Jones take this fight on short notice (subbing for the injured Jorge Paez), but the contract weight was for 130 pounds, a full two divisions over Jones' last fight.
With both men in the ring, the battle was on to determine who's career would continue and who's might end this very night.
In the first round, Tom Johnson looked like he had no business being in the ring. As he circled Jones' jab, he seemed cronically off balance. His head movement at times threatened to tip him over, and his punches were all arm as he hooked and reached from out of position. Junior Jones won the first, and next two rounds, using only his jab. There was a time when his jab was hailed as the best in the game. Tonight his jab still had enough juice to keep Johnson at bay, but it was nowhere near the piston-like stick that he would have fired only a year ago.
After three rounds Tom Johnson was beginning to be dominated by Junior. Johnson's feints, not to mention his ability to be hit, often left perfect openings for the counter punches he was so obviously looking for. But like so many pugilists past their prime, he couldn't pull the trigger...until the fourth round. The fourth round is no friend of Junior Jones'. In his last two fights the fourth round saw Jones go from winning to losing with perfectly timed right hands. It almost happened again tonight. Jones, despite showing signs of fatigue, was doing his best work in the fourth tonight when Johnson smacked him with a right hand that sent him down. This time, Jones beat the count and finished the round, but Johnson had created an opening to get back into the fight.
With Jones beginning the fifth more tentatively, Johnson began initiating more exchanges, and landing his first clean punches of the night. Jones still managed to use his jab and right hand power to win the round, but the more vigorous pace only tired him more, and after six rounds, Junior had been fighting three of them with his mouth hanging open for air.
Johnson's new bravery invited Jones to throw more punches, and in the seventh, Junior fired off a textbook one-two that stunned Johnson and left him wobbling in place while Jones looked on. A tap on the shoulder would have sent Boom Boom to the canvas, but Junior Jones opted for the more persuasive left hook/chopping right to send Johnson down. Johnson beat the count and continued eating punches from Jones. Twice before the round was over, Johnson was staggered again....each time merely from Junior's jab.
Johnson survived the round and came out firing in the eighth. When a hard right caught Jones clean, Junior verbally taunted Johnson to bring it on. Johnson declined the request, and for some reason Jones let him off the hook. With his trainer, Tommy Brooks, screaming at him to "just throw the right hand so we can go home", Jones instead fired only his jab. It was almost enough as twice more Johnson was wobbled after walking into Junior's stick.
Jones could have, and should have, ended things when he had the chance. By letting the fight go into the ninth, he grew overconfident with what seemed like a near shutout on the scorecards and began to coast. Jones again yelled at Johnson, and this time Johnson made him pay. Johnson cracked a hard right hand on Jones' kisser and busted open his mouth. As Jones clinched, Johnson was showered in a steady stream of blood that poured from Junior's lip. Each man sensed an opportunity and dug deep into their reserves, standing toe to toe at the end of the round. When the bell rang, Both men were covered in blood, both from Junior's face and a new cut over Johnson's left eye.
The adrenaline of the exchange awoke some of Johnson's old skills, as in the tenth Johnson finally began to set down on his punches and throw them with good technique. A tired Junior Jones was noticeably distracted by his bleeding mouth, and a nose that seemed to be broken. Prior to the eleventh round, Jones' corner had done an excellent job of stemming the bleeding and patching up the cut, but another thudding right hand from Johnson only 15 seconds into the round reopened the cut worse than ever. Clean punches were landing for both men, and the spirited warfare carried over into the final round.
Although Jones seemed comfortably ahead on the cards, last weekend showed us that you can never assume anything about the decision. Fighting in Johnson's home state, Jones fought hard in the twelfth, taking some big risks, and some big counterpunches, by committing to his right hand in exchanges. As the fight neared completion, both men gave us a glimpse of each in their prime as they eventually stood toe to toe. The final twenty seconds of the bout brought the crowd to it's feet as each men let their hands go. Neither was knocked down, and we went to the cards. 115-111, 116-110, and 118-110 all in favor of Junior Jones (with my scorecard at 115-112 Jones), who improves to 45-2/26.
But where does this victory take Jones? Despite not having to dry out to make weight, he still tired early. His once vaunted jab is still potent, but nowhere near where it once was. At 130 or 126, he seems like an easy opponent for the more finely conditioned competition at those weight classes. His victory tonight might earn him another big payday as an opponent; a fight which Jones will view as another opportunity to silence his critics. Before beating Barrera, he'd been written off as shot before. No doubt, he'll be seeking to dispel that label again.
As for Tom Johnson (47-6-2/26), he seems determined to fight on regardless of his record. He has recently been in business as a boxing promoter, putting on cards in the Michigan area that often feature himself in the main event. After this fight, his third loss in five outings, he boldly declared "I will be champion of the world within 6 months!"
I'm not sure who Johnson plans on defeating, but it certainly isn't "Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather. The WBC 130 lb. champion is the money fight at 130, and for good reason. Fighting in his hometown after clearing his division of Genaro Hernandez and Angel Manfredy, Mayweather took what he thought would be an easy contest against rugged Argentinean brawler Carlos Rios. But Rios, a staple in the featherweight top ten, proved to be a durable opponent.
Over 12 laborious rounds, Mayweather threw everything but the kitchen sink at Rios, landing over 50% of his punches over 12 rounds. Lead rights, blinding hooks, and a committed body attack were among the many talents Mayweather displayed tonight. Rios made him work for it, though, getting on his bike for much of the fight, and leading with his head enough to give Mayweather caution when he pursued. Mayweather cut off the ring nicely, often catching Rios in a corner long enough to pummel him with a half dozen punches before Rios would escape and be trapped in another corner. While Mayweather occasionally got tagged with one of Rios' winging punches, he did some excellent work blocking punches with his gloves and making Rios miss by tucking his chin behind his shoulder in classic Mayweather fashion. Even when he switched southpaw for fun, he let loose some deadly right hooks and a few well thrown straight lefts. The unanimous decision was as wide as expected, and Mayweather's undefeated record improves to 20-0/15. After the fight Mayweather, noting that Rios represented his second title defense, announced that he sought to break Joe Louis' title defense record. "2 down, 24 to go!" Exclaimed Floyd. Good luck, young man.