What has been heralded as a glorious night for boxing has been preceded by one ugly day after another.
What was supposed to stir memories of the sport's giants has stirred only apathy and disgust by a boxing public already seemingly headed for the exits.
Uncertainty, lack of interest by one of the participants, charges and countercharges by both camps and a public brawl involving the two trainers have severely dampened enthusiasm for tonight's main event at the Thomas & Mack Center, light heavyweight champion Roy Jones' attempt to defeat World Boxing Assn. heavyweight titleholder John Ruiz.
It will be the first such attempt of the 21st century, continuing a tradition that stretches back to the 19th century. It began with middleweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons' defeat of heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett in 1897 and continued with a string of memorable matches between light heavyweights and heavyweight champions in the 20th century, from Billy Conn-Joe Louis in the 1940s to Archie Moore-Rocky Marciano in the 1950s to Bob Foster-Joe Frazier and Foster-Muhammad Ali in the 1970s to Michael Spinks-Larry Holmes in the 1980s.
Only Fitzsimmons and Spinks successfully bridged the weight disparity and won.
Now come Jones and Ruiz in what should have been a compelling matchup. In one corner is Jones, praised by his supporters as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. But Jones has many critics, people who say he has achieved his brilliant record (47-1, 38 knockouts) by padding it with stiffs. He doesn't have to make his opponents look bad, say the critics, they already were. So now, to gain respectability -- and pocket $10 million -- Jones is taking on a heavyweight champion.
In the other corner is Ruiz (38-4-1, 27), who has respectability issues of his own. His supporters, and they are few, say he earned the heavyweight crown in three bruising battles with Evander Holyfield. Ruiz' critics, and they are many, say he beat a washed-up Holyfield, and that the true measure of Ruiz is that he lasted only 19 seconds with journeyman David Tua.
Jones weighed in Thursday at 193 pounds, 33 pounds lighter than Ruiz and with a 7 1/2-inch reach disadvantage. Considering that Jones stepped on the scale wearing sneakers and a sweat suit and perhaps a weighted belt around his waist, he figures to enter the ring tonight at a disadvantage of almost 40 pounds, the biggest disparity since light heavyweight Tommy Loughran gave away 86 pounds when he challenged Primo Carnera in 1934. But Jones has dazzling hand speed, gliding feet, a variety of punches thrown from various angles and unquestioned ring mastery.
Speed vs. power. Boxer vs. puncher. What's not to like?
Yet box-office sales remain sluggish and pay-per-view projections have been lowered.
The problems began with Jones, who has been talking about moving up to heavyweight for years.
When he tentatively agreed to this fight, there was skepticism. And that was fueled by his refusal to sign the contract until last week. Then there was his general reluctance to promote the fight. That angered Ruiz, who has received no guarantee for tonight and must depend on a percentage of the pay-per-view revenue.
"It does bother me," Ruiz said. "I just hope he's there Saturday night."
Finally, there was Thursday's fight between Norman Stone, Ruiz' trainer, and Alton Merkerson, Jones' trainer, at the televised weigh-in which left Stone with a broken finger and promoters with yet another bad image to overcome. The ugliness may not be over. Tonight's fight could produce one of two unattractive scenarios:
* Unable to lay on glove on the swiftly moving Jones, Ruiz resorts to the same shameful tactics he utilized against Holyfield, a lot of clutching, grabbing, head butting and low blows.
Referee Jay Nady is the busiest man in the ring and the only fans who are satisfied are those who also love pro wrestling.
* Jones, determined not to let the awkward, lumbering Ruiz hurt him with a lucky punch, dances for 12 rounds, landing just enough blows to win a decision.
Nady spends his time trying to convince the combatants to actually fight and nobody is satisfied. Except Jones.
"I usually can predict fights," said trainer Emanuel Steward, "but I'm totally confused by this one. I just don't know what's going happen. But the one thing Roy brings to this that the other light heavyweights didn't is speed. And speed always neutralizes power."
Foster takes the opposing view. "Roy has got to get him in the early rounds," Foster said. "If not, it's going to take a lot out of him to fight a big, old heavyweight. And Ruiz is a good heavyweight. He's not an Ali, but he's a guy who puts a lot of pressure on you. Roy is going to have to move. He can't stand in there and clown like he does with these light heavyweights. And he can't just stand there and trade punches.
"I am going to have to go with the big man. It's tough to beat a big man. Roy might not get hit if he's slick, but I doubt it."
The view from here is that Jones will indeed be too slick for Ruiz. The boxing adage is that a good, big man always beats a good, smaller man. But Ruiz is not good, not deserving of being called a heavyweight champion.
Jones will dance for 12 rounds, win a decision and exit the ring as he came in, receiving as many boos as cheers.
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Tale of the Tape
How Roy Jones and John Ruiz match up in today's WBA heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas (TV: pay per view, 6 p.m.):
*--* RUIZ JONES RECORD 38-4-1 47-1 KNOCKOUTS 27 38 AGE 31 34 WEIGHT 226 193 HEIGHT 6-2 5-11 REACH 77 1/2 70