Tarver a live dog vs. Roy Jones Jr.

May 11, 2004 5:22 AM

Antonio Tarver is the bet. No, I’m not sure he’ll win. Hey, he’s fighting Roy Jones Jr. and you don’t get rich betting against the best, even if you have an overlay.

But my mother always told me that, in the long run, overlays were the way to go.

I thought Tarver was a big overlay when he fought Jones last Nov. 8. I almost cashed a ticket, but he simply stopped fighting in the last two rounds and Jones, no surprise, reached down and showed that beneath that showy surface of brilliance, there was also a champion’s heart.

The odds are a little lower this time, yet Tarver is still the bet. The conventional wisdom assumes Jones, this time around, will go through Tarver as if he were Montell Griffith.

First time, Jones was weakened by having to take off 25 pounds of muscle in order to make the 175-pound light-heavyweight limit. First time, it was recently revealed, Jones had an abscessed tooth and had trouble sleeping.

"Yeah, and he had a hangnail," said Tarver.

Tarver doesn’t buy the excuses and neither do I. I don’t care what shape Jones is in - and he looks to be in his finest condition in years - he will always have trouble with Antonio Tarver.

Muhammad Ali always would have trouble not only with Joe Frazier, but also with Ken Norton.

You don’t have to bet on Tarver. But I highly recommend that you watch him May 15 at the Mandalay Bay or on pay-per-view. Never mind the rest of another Don King show of drek. Last month he dug up Andrew Golota, now he has unearthed Bruce Seldon. But Tarver alone should be worth the price of admission.

And he’s not alone. He’s with Roy Jones Jr. and there may not be too many chances to see boxing’s longtime No. 1 before he goes off to play with his chickens. He’s talking about maybe fighting a heavyweight - Vitali Klitschko or the ghost of Mike Tyson - but those will not be easy bouts to make. He’s talking about perhaps one more fight in his home town of Pensacola, Fla.

He’s 35 and he’s been boxing for 25 years, "and 25 years can’t be good for your health," he observed. He said he’s been thinking about retirement since 1997-98. You know he’s serious now, though, when he talks about perhaps bringing his father, the man who taught him the game, back into his corner - to go out the way he came in, with Roy Jones Sr., obviously one of the game’s great trainers, by his side for a fight with Vitali Klitschko.

"He’d better bring his father back for Antonio," said John Hornewer, Tarver’s attorney and former Jones advisor.

That’s because it would take a 6-foot-7 Ukrainian with a right like thunder to give Jones a tougher matchup than the tall, slender left-hander from his home state of Florida. They fought when they were 13 and again at 34. No one knocks out anyone, though there were moments last Nov. 8 when I was beginning to wonder, as Jones lay on the ropes and absorbed Tarver’s attacks.

Jones insists that he did not get hit all that often, that he blocked most of Tarver’s punches. Probably. But Tarver got hit even less. His long arms were able to pick off Jones’s body shots. This will not change on May 15. Jones, of course, is the deserving favorite. He said he had less energy than usual Nov. 8. I’ll grant him that. I’ll grant him that he’ll be in finer shape. I’ll grant him that he can improve tons off that fight.

But he’d better accept the fact that so can Tarver. I’m not sure Tarver - who is also 35, of course - was fully confident back then, that in the back of his mind there was a nagging thought that he might have trouble going 12 rounds.

I think this time around, he will be more confident because now he KNOWS he can hang in with Roy Jones Jr., he KNOWS that he belongs in the same ring with boxing’s best - not simply because Jones was having an off-night, but because he, Antonio Tarver, also happens to be one of the game’s brightest talents.

"The first time around wasn’t good enough? This time I’m applying the finishing touches," he said. "I told you he will not look like Superman against me. He looked mortal. This time, I’ll finish the job. The icing’s not on the cake. I’m one step away. They gave the wrong man a second chance. This is the guy who never lost a round? Until he met me. I’m nothing to play with."

He are the two best fighters in the world, neck and neck."

He said he’d take care of Jones’s neck. "He’s sending his ass to the guillotine."

This is a fight, I’m telling you. If you have to play, Tarver’s the bet.