Antonio Tarver’s Greatest Hits: No Excuses
The plight of Antonio Tarver mirrors that of former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.
Holmes followed Muhammad Ali and struggled to get out from under his shadow, while Tarver became largely synonymous with Roy Jones’ legacy despite beating him twice. Holmes will forever carry a sting in his tail, but Tarver’s approach is vastly different. The former four-time light heavyweight champion detests injustice, and has never been afraid to voice that, but he also has a twinkle in his eye, an infectious laugh and an implacable sense of self.
“The Magic Man” knows how good he was – opinions be damned.
Hailing from Orlando, Florida, Tarver was one of the finest amateurs in world boxing during the mid-90s. The rangy and hard-hitting southpaw won World Championship gold in Berlin in 1995, defeating Vassiliy Jirov, and was favored to take Olympic gold in Atlanta the following year. Again, Jirov appeared in the opposite corner, but this time Tarver would have his first – and by no means last – brush with controversy.
“With my semi-final fight against Jirov, the scoring system was so unpredictable,” recalled Tarver in a recent conversation with The Ring. “I thought I controlled the first two rounds handily, but they had me down at the end of the second (9-6). I’m in my corner and my whole Olympic dream is flashing before my eyes, so I got off my game plan in the third round. I should have had a comfortable lead, but I was down three points and that put me in a kind of panic. I became more aggressive in the third, and even though I thought I did well, I didn’t look like the sharpshooter that I was.
“But, look, it was a beautiful time. We fought for nothing and wore the stars and stripes with pride. I’m still amazed at the talent we had on that team. We developed so many world champions and that was the last great U.S. Olympic team. There was Floyd Mayweather (Jr.), Fernando Vargas, Zahir Raheem, Eric Morel and Nate Jones (Jones would go on to be a key member of Mayweather’s training team). We took six bronze medals and David Reid won gold.”
Given his incredible amateur pedigree, Tarver turned professional in relative obscurity. Nothing came easy and his road to the top was paved with stiff learning curves and serious challenges. But the former amateur star worked hard on his craft, making a near-perfect transition into the paid ranks and, when his moment came, shook the boxing world to its very foundations.
“I won’t get my flowers until I’m gone,” said Tarver with an air of expectancy. “There’s a list of the 50 greatest fighters of the (21st) century and they’ve got Roy Jones at No. 3., and the guy who beat him (is unranked). They can talk about how Roy lost weight – whatever – you ain’t seen nobody in your life fight Roy Jones that way. On that day he was still regarded as the most gifted, the most talented fighter since Sugar Ray Leonard, and they were talking about Sugar Ray Robinson.
“Other than (Bernard) Hopkins, you’ve never seen nobody kick my ass, and that’s the worst it ever got for me.”
The last few years of Tarver’s career were marred by inactivity and a brace of failed drug tests. A split decision draw with Lateef Kayode in 2012 was changed to a no-decision when he tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid. Tarver insisted that he’d made “an honest mistake” on that occasion, and vigorously denied any wrongdoing when he tested positive following another split decision draw with Steve Cunningham in 2015. There was no official retirement, but that was to be his final fight.
Outside of the ring, Tarver (31-6-1, 22 knockouts) proved to be an excellent analyst for both Showtime and Spike TV. He has aspirations to get back behind the mic on a fulltime basis and is currently hosting a podcast called Tarver’s Take. The former champion trains his son, Antonio Jr., who is 6-0 (4 KOs) as a professional, and he is also convinced that he could help deposed heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder return to glory.
“What happened is that everyone: his trainer, his handlers, his managers, the fans, they all fell in love with Wilder’s power,” opined Tarver. “However, anyone that knows this game knows that you’ll only get so far being one-dimensional. You must have a solid foundation and you must hone your skills.”
When I suggested that it could be mission impossible to “teach an old dog new tricks (Wilder is 35 years old),” Tarver remained resolute:
“I totally disagree because I know what a good teacher can do. You’re not trying to create anything because he’s already been introduced to it; he’s a former Olympian. He just needs to be given the information from someone that knows the game, someone that he can believe in. Just go back to the basics and perfect them. I’m talking basic shit; it’s not rocket science. The only reason the right hand isn’t working now is because you can see it coming. You’ve got to disguise that punch. He beat everybody with the right hand, beat them handily, but it created a false sense of security. When you face a guy like (Tyson) Fury, who knows the fundamentals, knows the basics, you’re not going catch him that easily. And if you do catch him, he’s tough enough to get back up and continue to fight. You’ve got to be able to control a guy with that type of height and reach – you need a little mobility and you keep it simple.
“I’ve always been a sharp, smart fighter, and I was taught by the best. Twenty years in the game and I came through without a scratch.”
I can endorse Tarver’s closing remarks. The ex-champion sounds like he’s never taken a punch in his life and was on sparkling form as he recalled eight of his greatest hits.
Date/ Venue: January 25, 2002/ Ramada Plaza Hotel, Rosemont
Titles: Non-title bout
I was a young cat coming up in the game and had a great opportunity to fight a two-time world champion. This was a guy I remember revering when I came up. At his best, Reggie Johnson was a beast. He knocked out William Guthrie with a check right hook (to win the IBF light heavyweight title) and that was a beautiful punch. Reggie dropped me in our fight too, the first time I’d ever been dropped, with a right hook. It was like a flash knockdown; I sat and got right back up (laughs). But despite the knockdown that wasn’t a close fight. Out of the 12 rounds, he maybe won two. But Reggie was sharp in the fight, and I had to stay focused. He was slick, and if I hurt him he never let me know about it. He was a good pro and took some big shots – I almost took his head off.
Result: Tarver SD 12
Eric Harding 2
Date/ Venue: July 20, 2002/ Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Titles: Non-title bout
Eric Harding was a helluva fighter and, truth be told, I really underestimated him in the first fight (Tarver lost a unanimous decision). I never thought he was that good; he only had six knockouts, but that motherfucker was for real. I was knocked down and he broke my jaw in the ninth round. I’d been wearing the same mouthpiece I was wearing in the amateurs and I should never have been doing that. I didn’t have to fight Eric Harding again, I was gonna wait for Roy (Jones), but I really didn’t know if we were gonna fight at that time because he was pulling a lot of bullshit in the game, trying to make me fight other fighters. But, in hindsight, Roy just wasn’t ready to fight me because I didn’t have a really big name at the time. I mean they saw me, but they didn’t look at me like that. And I don’t think I had enough resolve in me at that time to beat Roy Jones anyway. I got revenge against Harding but it didn’t come easy. He was kicking my ass in the first three rounds, nothing was working, and he was a lot sharper than me. I just think he shot his load and I was able to stay focused. I was in great shape and I wasn’t gonna be denied. They made the mistake of coming at me and you don’t do that against a dangerous counterpuncher like me because I’m gonna set your ass up.
Result: Tarver TKO 5
Date/ Venue: April 26, 2003/ Foxwoods Resort, Mashantucket
Titles: Vacant WBC and IBF titles
It was a great night. Montell Griffin was a real slick fighter; he caught me with some shots and I learned a lot in that fight. Looking back, I think I had the right progression to the top and I don’t think anyone can argue with that. I beat everyone put in front of me until nobody was left but Roy. I proved that I was the best fighter. It was a helluva ride, to become champion but people just saw me as a beltholder because everybody knew Roy was champ. Griffin had a real awkward style because he was short, but what he didn’t have in stature, he made up for in heart. He was a tough kid and he could fight. He was trained by Eddie Futch and later Thell Torrence. He beat James Toney, fought Roy Jones, so he’d been in the ring with legends. I outboxed him, used my speed, used my range, I just played my cards, but he took it all the way to the end. That was on the undercard of a beautiful fight – James Toney beating Jirov. Either James was gonna kick his ass that night, or I was gonna do it (laughs).
Result: Tarver UD 12
Roy Jones Jr.
Date/ Venue: November 8, 2003/ Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas
Titles: Ring Magazine, WBA and WBC light heavyweight
My opinion is still the same, I think I won the fight handily. I don’t think it was close at all, and I think I won way more rounds. But the fight proved that I was on his level. I outboxed him and beat him at his own game. I backed him up, trapped him in the corners. Roy had some good moments, but when you listen to the commentary, there’s no mention of me having my hands up and blocking shots. They were giving Roy the benefit of the doubt but, again, I never won a close fight in my entire career. If I could win a close fight, then my record would look a whole lot different. I think Roy knew I’d got the best of him, and one thing about Roy, he’s a proud fighter, a real throwback. But I told him before the fight, you’re the heavyweight champion of the world and you ain’t even the best fighter in Florida. I proved that shit, but me and Roy had been going at it since we were 13 years old.
Result: Jones MD 12
Roy Jones Jr. 2
Date/ Venue: May 15, 2004/ Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas
Titles: Ring Magazine, WBA and WBC light heavyweight
I just really believe in myself, and I didn’t let nobody change my mind. Anyone that would listen, I reassured them what was going to happen. And then when I stepped in that ring I had to convince myself because I couldn’t go back, I’m already out here (laughs). Whatever’s gonna be is gonna be – let’s roll the dice. I wasn’t sure how the [knockout] was gonna come, but I knew I had to get it. I wasn’t going to get a decision, and if you look at the interviews I did: Max Kellerman, Jim Rome, Stephen A. Smith, I told them all, ‘I’ve got to knock him out!’ I trained that way, viciously, and that’s all I thought about. I focused on the knockouts, trained my ass off and when I went in there I wasn’t playin’ no games. I can crack, you better ask Buddy McGirt, and I ain’t worried about nobody standin’ in front of me. I was hitting like a heavyweight.
Result: Tarver TKO 2
Glen Johnson 2
Date/ Venue: June 18, 2005/ FedEx Forum, Memphis
Titles: Ring Magazine light heavyweight
Again, I didn’t lose the first fight. There’s no way in hell any competent judge can give Glen Johnson the 11th or the 12th rounds – I won that fight. I took some shots, but I was never hurt, fought back and landed all the big bombs. I tore his ass up. In my career, I always had to do more than what is normally expected from someone. I shouldn’t have to do that – just judge the fight fairly. It was only The Ring Magazine title at stake because it was the two best fighters. I don’t know what the sanctioning bodies were doing, but I wasn’t about to hold my career up for them. I was fighting the best fighters available. I came with more focus in that second fight and I beat him at his own game. I stayed in the center of the ring, I didn’t run, I fought, and I tore his ass up again. And they gave him my [Ring Magazine] Fighter of the Year [for 2004] title – that was my title because I beat his ass in LA too.
Result: Tarver UD 12
Date/ Venue: April 12, 2008/ St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa
Titles: IBF light heavyweight
When I fought at home I’d perform. Clinton Woods was tough as nails; he had a granite chin and he was a top fighter, but they underestimated my talent. When I went to England for the presser, I was confident that I was gonna win. I said to him, ‘Man, you ain’t gonna whip me in my hometown!’ But I had to get in great shape because I knew he was gonna bring it. He was gonna bring a lot of pressure and I would have to be on my game for 12 rounds. I had to be able to move and stay a step ahead of him. But in the buildup to the fight there was talk about him and (Joe) Calzaghe facing each other if Clinton won – this big U.K. showdown. I win and Calzaghe goes and fights Roy Jones after I’d beat him three times. If you do that you’re not trying to prove you’re the best. Calzaghe proved nothing beating Roy at that time.
Result: Tarver: UD 12
Date/ Venue: July 20, 2011/ Entertainment Center, Sydney
Titles: Cruiserweight non-title bout
After Green beat Roy Jones (TKO 1), he wanted the name ‘Legend Killer’ on his resume, and he wanted to do it back-to-back. It was a lofty goal, but the first thing I told him was, ‘Danny, I’m not Roy Jones, brother!’ He ran right into a left hand in Round 2, which dropped him, and I was so focused that night. I must say, though, he caught me with a left hook in the center of the ring and that’s the hardest I’ve ever been hit. Oh my God, I almost buckled, almost went down. I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ I wasn’t received very well when I arrived in Australia, but after the fact it was totally different. We all celebrated, they partied with me and gave me my props. It was nice and it was a beautiful event. I’d love to go back, I still have friends that I met and we still keep in touch on social media.
Result: Tarver RTD 9
Tom Gray is Associate Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing