What if Jones had remained a heavy?

Could Roy Jones Jr. have preserved his now-faded legacy by simply remaining a heavyweight in 2003? Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The past eight years have been particularly difficult for fans of Roy Jones Jr. -- a spiraling journey that began with a stunning knockout loss to Antonio Tarver in 2004 and continues today as a 40-something Jones collects defeats against anonymous names in faraway lands.

The truth about Jones is that there isn't another win or loss remaining that can change how we remember him. What's been done is, well, already done -- something all the more difficult to swallow for the staunch protectors of his legacy.

One thing we all can agree on is that Jones' stock was never higher than after his March 2003 win over John Ruiz, when Jones became the first former middleweight champion since 1897 to win a piece of the heavyweight title. He was also never the same after hastily dropping back down in weight eight months later to defend his light heavyweight championship.

Let's look past wondering how large Jones' legend would have grown had he retired after beating Ruiz -- a flawed theory that assumes Jones, then 34 and virtually undefeated (having avenged his lone disqualification loss by first-round KO), would have walked away at the peak of his earning power after the crowning moment of his career.

Instead, consider this: What if Jones had remained a heavyweight after the Ruiz win? With a string of handpicked opponents, could Jones have made a run as a heavyweight attraction, where advantages in hand speed and movement might have allowed for longevity as his physical tools deteriorated?

By defending his title against fading, smaller heavyweights such as Evander Holyfield, James Toney, Michael Moorer and Mike Tyson -- while raking in truckloads of cash -- could Jones have sustained enough success to carry the division in the ensuing years, when the retirements of Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko (mixed with two shocking KO losses for Wladimir Klitschko) led it to rock-bottom status?

More important, could a fighter known for not taking chances in the ring commit to placing himself in harm's way every fight?

"Implied in the question is whether Jones had the physical talent do this, but it takes more than physical talent," said recently retired HBO analyst Larry Merchant. "To me, it's a moot question. His was a one-off and a way to demonstrate that he had rare ability. It was a way of answering a question in his head, demonstrating how big his talent was. But he didn't have the desire to fight the big guys. He felt he could get ruined by them."

Flashbacks of Jones on the business end of concussing power shots can reinforce just how crazy an idea this seems in hindsight. But the reality is that Jones as a heavyweight was a healthy topic in 2003.

Negotiations to fight a 40-year-old Holyfield at Madison Square Garden in October 2003 fell apart at the last minute. There was also legitimate talk about Jones facing Corrie Sanders -- fresh off his upset of Wladimir Klitschko -- along with rumors of a superfight against Tyson or Lewis in Nairobi, Kenya. Knowing what we know now, though, many are skeptical.

"Evander, at that point, was a much tougher fight for him -- and forget about Tyson," Showtime analyst Al Bernstein said. "Remember, Roy didn't rush to fight guys who were super-difficult. Once he is in against bigger men, if they have a skill level that is adequate, then he could have a problem. He didn't win with skill; he won with athleticism. And if that's your trump card, then it's tricky if some of that eludes you when you get a half-step slower. Now you are in trouble."

To some, the idea of Jones as a heavyweight was fool's gold, more a case of perfect matchmaking against the hard-charging and limited Ruiz.

"Beating John Ruiz was kind of a perfect storm for him and exactly the right person as a heavyweight who was not a big puncher," Bernstein said.

Jones responded well to Ruiz's size and power but proved unable to handle flush shots upon his return to light heavyweight.

The prevailing theory, supported by Jones, was that his shedding nearly 20 pounds of muscle over the eight months after the Ruiz fight left him too weak for ensuing bouts against Tarver.

"John was my roommate in the amateurs as a light heavyweight, so he was a blown-up heavyweight and always had a problem with fighters that have a high skill set," said two-time heavyweight champion Chris Byrd. "Roy is very talented, but at heavyweight, it didn't make any sense for him. Boxing is a style matchup, so when you get a taller, lengthier heavyweight who stands on his back and boxes, I don't see Roy doing too much."

Byrd, who, at 6 feet and 215 pounds, was closer in size to the 5-foot-11, 193-pound heavyweight version of Jones than most of his own opponents, unsuccessfully made a similar drop down two weight classes in 2008, ending in a knockout loss to Shaun George. But that doesn't mean Byrd believes losing muscle is what cursed Jones.

"I did that for five weeks and lost 40 pounds; Roy weighed 193 and had to get down to 175," Byrd said. "Every light heavyweight in boxing now has to lose the same amount of weight, so that's an excuse.

"Everybody cuts weight; it's part of boxing. It's an excuse for him to say, 'Well, I lost too much weight too fast.' No you didn't. That's disrespectful to every fighter that loses the weight and doesn't say the same thing."

Whether it was weight loss or Father Time catching up to him, Jones clearly wasn't the same upon his return to 175 pounds. That, along with memories of a bulked-up Jones toying with Ruiz, fuel the fantasies of what could have been at heavyweight.

But even those daydreams would have been dependent on which Jones came to fight. Would it have been the showman who avoided danger because his talent allowed it or his far more menacing alter ego, the dark character he referred to as RJ? The latter is the version of Jones that demolished Montell Griffin by first-round knockout -- a side that, Jones told Merchant after the Griffin KO, he avoided tapping into because "I don't like trying to hurt people."

We saw glimpses of that fighter against Ruiz and in the way Jones gutted out a victory against Tarver in their first fight, when it was clear he was far from top form. Was there anything that could have prompted Jones to channel that side of himself on a nightly basis as a heavyweight, a choice he didn't seem willing to make?

"If there had been somebody out there that would have meant a mega-money fight, might he have taken another shot?" Merchant said of Jones. "In the real world, he was getting the top network money at that point. It was going to take somebody significant to tantalize the public enough for him to make an eight-figure payday, which he never in his life made. Fighting a guy like Lamon Brewster was pointless to him. The risk/reward equation didn't make sense. And by risk, we are talking not just about money but about potential for him to get hurt."

Had Jones defended his heavyweight title even once before walking away, there's no telling where his legacy would stand today.

"I don't know if he could have rewritten history, but we would have never really seen his flaws," Bernstein said. "To the average fan, they would have said he was one of the greatest of all time. The things that would ultimately bedevil him, we would have never seen."

Who among us doesn't wish that the heroes of our youth could ride off into the sunset unblemished at the first sign of decline, just as Joe DiMaggio, Jim Brown and Rocky Marciano had before them? Maybe seeing Jones succumb to the Kryptonite of hanging on too long reminds us too much of our own mortality.

"I do think, in the minds of a lot of younger fans, they wanted to have somebody who marked their time, who they could think was as good or better than anybody in history," Merchant said. "It's kind of an inclination to want to set it in historical contexts.

"Because Roy was so sensational at his best, he had garnered a lot of applause as one of the best ever. He was a rare fighter for whom a defeat in his sunset years seemed to resonate more deeply with people, seemed to put him in context more."

Although it's never easy watching a superhuman fighter such as Jones reduced to his mortal self, time has a way of healing how we remember.

"A fighter in history is judged by what he did in his prime, like most athletes and most successful anythings," Merchant said. "Was his last novel or album not so good? So what. What did he do 10 or 20 years ago? No one believes, in the big picture of things, that Rocky Marciano is better than Joe Louis because Marciano knocked him out. Roy was one of the best of his time, and that, to me, is the best you can be."