Page 2 columnist
When you spend 50 bucks on a boxing pay-per-view, the question always remains: Was it worth it?
Guys hate paying for fights, no matter how appealing the matchup seems on paper. It's a strange phenomenon. We'll spend $50 on a video game or two DVD's, no questions asked ... but when it's time to pony up cash for a fight, most would rather drive 30 minutes just for a cramped spot on somebody else's sofa. The only person who truly enjoys himself is the guy who ordered the fight -- he didn't have to go anywhere, he's the hero, and he can pull the "No, no, I don't want any money, just make it up to me some other time" routine. He's always the coolest guy in the room, at least for one night. If he has an illegal cable box and got the fight for free, even better.
Hey, I'm not saying the "Room full of guys" routine doesn't work; one of my favorite sports nights was Holyfield-Tyson 2, when a bunch of buddies came over to my apartment -- making me the coolest guy in the room -- and ended up seeing Tyson nibble on Holyfield's ear. Remember those 20 seconds after the initial chomp, when the ref was checking Holyfield's ear, and the cameras showed a crazed Tyson hopping around in his corner, waiting for the fight to start back up, looking like he was ready to commit a homicide? I think that was the most exciting 20 seconds of my entire life. We were going bonkers.
But things rarely come together like that -- usually it's a disappointing fight with too many guys in the room, including The Guy Who Got Too Drunk, as well as The Annoying Guy Who Won't Stop Talking and The Guy Who Tries To Act Like He Knows Way Too Much About Boxing, and you just end up getting ticked because you can't hear anything. At least, that's how I feel. That's why I like watching big fights in my own house, especially when Larry Merchant and Harold Lederman are prominently involved.
That brings us to the Roy Jones-Johnny Ruiz fight. I happily forked over 50 bucks for this baby, mostly because I like watching Jones and this was a perfect vehicle for him -- an allegedly "scary" opponent (because of the weight difference), but someone far too clumsy to ever place Jones in any semblance of danger. So Jones could dance around, flick effortless combinations, clown and mug and never take a clean punch. He's been doing this for years. As Jim Lampley pointed out, Roy Jones might be the smartest athlete alive -- not only does he dominate at all times, but he never faces anyone who might actually hurt him. And he makes a ton of money in the process. Who's smarter than Roy?
Some experts believed that Ruiz, because of the 30-pound difference in weight, could actually give Jones a fight. For God's sake, did anyone ever watch Johnny Ruiz? I love when people describe his style as "awkward." Yeah, it's awkward all right ... you feel awkward watching him. Here's a guy who can't box in the middle of the ring, but he's not really good at trading punches, either. So he charges you, forces you against the ropes and does the "Rocky Balboa in 'Rocky 1' " routine -- roughs you up, throws some elbows, mixes in some headbutts, and sets you up for his left uppercut, only he can't get out of his own way to throw it. Like that would ever work against Roy Jones. Please.
No matter. Somehow the excruciating Holyfield-Ruiz trilogy landed Ruiz a heavyweight belt -- reason number 148,896 why belts don't mean anything anymore -- and the general public accepted Ruiz as a viable contender, even though he's absolutely brutal to watch. That third Holyfield-Ruiz fight ranks right up there with Brady Anderson hitting 50 homers to me -- I can't even believe it happened. Was anyone sitting around going, "You know, those might have been the two worst fights ever ... let's get these guys back in the ring for a rubber match!"
Anyway, Jones needed Ruiz's belt so he could make history. And because Holyfield was secretly washed up -- as the Chris Byrd fight eventually proved -- Ruiz looked better on paper than he really was. That meant Don King could promote the fight as "Roy Jones Tries to Make History Against a Much Bigger, Much Scarier Guy," when the fact remained that Ruiz couldn't handle Jones if they were sharing a phone booth together, much less an 18-foot boxing ring. Still, Ruiz outweighed Jones by 30 pounds. Maybe Jones gets lazy, maybe he makes one mistake, maybe Ruiz catches him with the perfect punch. You never know. That's why we purchase these things.
So I spent the 50 bucks. Here on the West Coast, the fight started around 8:15, and my plan worked to perfection: I ordered Thai food at 8, opened a bottle of cabernet for the Sports Gal, waited until she was on her second glass, then casually mentioned, "Oh, I think there's a big fight tonight. You mind if we watch?" She didn't care; she was knee-deep in a plate of pad thai. When she asked how many rounds they were fighting, and I answered, "Only four," she didn't even seem suspicious. I'm telling you, give a woman two glasses of wine and some pad thai, and they'll agree to just about anything.
As for HBO's pay-per-view coverage, they dramatically upgraded things with the addition of Bob Costas as studio host. Just seemed like a bigger fight with him there. And Emanuel Steward wasn't a bad sidekick -- as the Sports Gal said, "He seems sweet." But I think every pay-per-view needs a third guy in the studio -- the "Celebrity who doesn't know anything but acts like he does," just for the Unintentional Comedy value -- but nobody ever listens to me. Like the time Cuba Gooding Jr. crashed the set of the Lewis-Tyson fight and became so excited, he nearly toppled backward and tumbled to his death. Something like that needs to happen every fight. Seriously.
Here's another pet peeve: You know the montage before the fight where they show every celebrity sitting ringside? Why not make it longer? Who doesn't enjoy that sequence? And why not show every celeb -- not just the A-list people, but people like Ben Stein sitting in the nosebleeds and looking angry that they don't have better seats? And why can't they show us who's sitting with the celebs -- I mean, didn't you want to see who accompanied Barkley? Again, we need to see these things.
And my third pet peeve, since I'm on a roll: HBO always subjects us to the Lampley-Merchant-George Foreman team, and house rules on ESPN.com prevent me from fully commenting on this. But ever since Barry Tompkins disappeared, Lampley and Steve Albert have announced every major boxing event. You're telling me nobody else can announce a boxing match? It's not like he's doing a bad job, I just need some new blood. And instead of Foreman, why not add a celebrity or a comedian as the third man in the booth? Wouldn't you rather hear Barkley or Chris Rock? It's not like you need "expert analysis" in a boxing match -- if you're watching the fight, you know what's happening. So why not entertain us?
Speaking of entertaining, we might as well address two of my favorites: Merchant and Lederman, the driving forces behind every HBO production. In fact, let's give them their own paragraphs:
Merchant: I stopped trying to figure him out years ago -- sometimes it seems like he's rambling around, other times he's belting out one of his unique essays and you find yourself saying, "Man, that was really good." He could either win an Emmy or score 100 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale at any time. What an enigma. And the way he feuds with George during every telecast always puts a hop in my step. During the last round of Jones-Ruiz, when Merchant and Lampley belittled the Quiet Man's efforts -- and rightly so -- Foreman jumped to Ruiz's defense, and he and Merchant sniped at each other on air. It was fantastic. They clearly despise each other. And if it's all an act, please don't tell me. I'm thoroughly enjoying the Larry Merchant Era.
Lederman: In case you don't recognize his name, he's the "official judge" for HBO fights, as well as the man who always confuses my stepdad into thinking that he's actually one of the judges. This has been going on for 20 years. Does Lederman even have a real job? And is there anything better than a fake judge who sounds like Gilbert Gottfried?
(Note: HBO should make him available for bachelor parties. Imagine heading to a strip joint, sending Lederman to finagle a group rate for the manager, then Lederman comes back screaming in his nasal accent, "ALL RIGHT, guys, I worked them down to TWENTY PER PERSON for the cover charge ... we have the WHOLE BACK ROOM ... we have THREE WAITRESSES ... I started a TAB for us, and you can't touch the girls BELOW the waist!")
What else can I mention? Oh, I almost forgot: Ruiz entered the ring to a Billy Joel song. I thought it would have been much more fun if Billy drove Ruiz to the ring in his Mercedes, then crashed into the press table, but that's just me. Also, Ashanti sang the national anthem (not quite as bad as her Grammy performance, but close), and Jimmy Lennon Jr. did ringside announcing (although we never saw Jimmy Lennon Sr. sitting with Roy Jones. Sr and Mel Kiper Sr. at ringside, which was disappointing). And South Africa's Stanley Christodoulou was one of the judges, which made me wish I kept a running diary just so I could have written, "I've been sitting down for so long that my Stanley Christodoulou just fell asleep."
As for the actual fight, things started off strong in Round 1, if only because Ruiz kept charging Jones, there were some solid exchanges, and Ruiz even stunned Jones with one overhand right. Between rounds, Jones' trainer reminded Roy to stop going backward, which was playing right into a charging Ruiz's hands. Over the next couple rounds, once Jones started circling around, he found his range and started peppering Ruiz with combos. When he's cooking like that, Jones always looks like a cobra -- just a series of quick strikes and movements, always in complete control, coming from all angles. Eventually, Ruiz backed off and that was that.
So why didn't Ruiz keep pressuring Jones? Nobody knows. Ruiz blamed the ref after the fight for "not letting him fight his fight" -- I'm not even sure what that means. Was it the referee's fault that he couldn't catch Jones? As Merchant listened to Ruiz's excuses, his face slowly contorting into disgust, he was practically sneering by the end of the interview. Wait a second ... what are you saying? Are you sure you don't want to give Roy Jones any credit? One glimpse of Ruiz's nose, spread across his face like a piece of gum, overshadowed any excuse Ruiz could have made.
Watching the fight, you never got the sense that Ruiz was throwing caution to the wind, that he said to himself, "There's no way I'm giving up this belt without a fight." He should have been mauling Jones, throwing elbows, bending the rules and everything else, but it just wasn't in him. The only time we've ever seen Ruiz angry was in the third Holyfield fight, after Holyfield threw his umpteenth low blow, when an enraged Ruiz knocked him down minutes later. That was it. Maybe he's too nice of a guy. He certainly let his title go without a fight.
(If things weren't bad enough for Ruiz, trainer Norman Stone trumped his embarrassing altercation at the weigh-in with a jaw-dropping ringside performance, repeatedly questioning the referee's integrity when he wasn't imploring his fighter, "Come awwwwwn, Jawwwwny!" He was so over-the-top, even Merchant and Lampley took shots at him. And he allowed his fighter to storm out of the ring after the decision. It's impossible to believe that one person could disgrace the entire state of Massachusetts in a single hour, but Stoney did the trick.)
As for Jones, it couldn't have possibly worked out any better. He dominated a much bigger man and made some serious cash. There wasn't a mark on his face. The world found out that he's still the most exciting boxer on the planet, as if we didn't know that already. And even though he's too smart to risk fighting Lennox Lewis, his lopsided victory over Ruiz turned a potential Lewis-Jones fight into the most intriguing matchup out there, possibly in years. Who wouldn't pay 50 bucks for that one?
Maybe the only blemish -- as usual -- was Roy's post-fight interview, when he came off cockier and more unlikable than ever. If you're looking for reasons why the Roy Jones Phenomenon never really caught on with the public, just start here. Dozens of athletes act arrogantly, laugh at their own jokes, give too much credit to God and lack any semblance of humility ... but Jones stands out over any of them, and I'm not even really sure why. There isn't anything about him that you can embrace, other than his considerable talent. So be it.
Regardless, seeing Jones make history was certainly worth the 50 bucks to me. Next time, I'll just leave the room before he starts speaking.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, as well as one of the writers for "Jimmy Kimmel Live.".
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