TAMPA, Fla. -- The hordes in the St. Pete Times Forum came to see if Roy Jones Jr. could turn back the hands of time against Antonio Tarver on Saturday.
Could he regain the form that made him a four-division champion and the pound-for-pound king for a decade? Could he be the Roy Jones he was before a brutal second-round knockout loss to Tarver in May 2004 and an even more crushing ninth-round destruction at the hands of Glen Johnson last September?
Although he fared better than in his two previous fights, Jones looked like a tired, old fighter in losing his third consecutive bout. Tarver scored his second victory in their trilogy, pounding his way to a unanimous decision in defense of the world light heavyweight championship.
While Jones, 36, bounced around the ring reluctant to engage, Tarver, 36, stalked and landed enough heavy shots to pile up points. The judges had it 117-111, 116-112 and 116-112 for Tarver. ESPN.com at ringside had it 118-111 for Tarver (24-3).
"It was hard to go out like I did after getting knocked out two times, but I am satisfied with my performance. I realize that I lost the fight," said Jones, who welcomed his father Roy Jones Sr. back to his corner as a co-trainer after a decade in exile.
"You'll definitely see me at ringside but I am not sure if you will see me back in the ring or not. Being the champion that I am, I may be back. I was good tonight but not good enough. Tarver will give me a hard time in my best days as a light heavyweight."
In a postfight interview with ESPN's Brian Kenny, Jones (49-4) said that he would like to fight again. He would welcome a fourth bout with Tarver or another duel with Johnson.
For Jones, the collapse of his career has been steep. On March 1, 2003, he was the king of the world, having become the first former middleweight champion in a century to win a piece of the heavyweight title when he outpointed John Ruiz.
But then he went downhill quickly.
Jones eked out a majority decision against Tarver in their first meeting in November 2003, but he took more punishment in that fight than any other of his career.
The rematch ended in shocking fashion with Jones knocked out with one punch in the second round. A comeback fight against Johnson ended even more violently.
Still, Tarver said he was not underestimating Jones, his rival since their amateur meeting that Jones won in 1982 when they were 13-year-old kids growing up in Florida.
"Roy had a lot of resistance," he said.
"Roy was sharp tonight. You're playing chess all around. It's a chess game and one mistake and I am check mated. If I made a mistake he would have punished me."
With an announced sellout crowd of 20,895 cheering, Jones showed flashes of his old self with fast feints and some slick moves. But Tarver was landing the heavier blows throughout the fight.
He was also busier. According to CompuBox statistics, Tarver landed 158 of 620 blows (25 percent) while Jones landed 85 of 320 punches (27 percent).
"Give a man credit where credit is due," Tarver said.
"He was beat by a better fighter. Period. I am one of the best fighters in the world. Give me my credit. You all thought I would be one-punch happy but I passed my test. I did my homework. I took nothing for granted. I wasn't assured of victory until they raised my hand."
HBO will replay the bout next Saturday at 9:45 p.m. ET/PT.
After a feeling out first round, Tarver -- who like Jones earned a minimum of $3.5 million -- turned up the intensity in the second, smacking Jones with a flurry along the ropes. Jones, whose legs looked shaky, tried to hold and then spin away but Tarver cracked him with a right hand.
Although he was losing, Jones' confidence appeared to soar in the fifth as he landed several shots that left Tarver covering up in the opening seconds. Jones started to dance and wiggle around, drawing roars from the crowd.
But Tarver didn't let it bother him and cracked Jones with a hard right hand. Near the end of the round, though, Jones finally landed some clean shots to Tarver's belly, forcing the champion to take a breather against the ropes.
After the round, Tarver trainer Buddy McGirt screamed at Tarver, "Where is your hook! We worked too hard for this!"
Tarver took McGirt's words to heart and turned up his activity level in the sixth. While Jones spent more time sticking his tongue out and trying to taunt Tarver than doing any serious fighting, Tarver was throwing punches.
If there was any uncertainty as to who was winning in the 11th, Tarver erased it in the fight's most exciting round.
He rocked Jones with a right and a left. A staggered Jones fell into the ropes and tried to duck away as Tarver swung again so hard and missed that he nearly fell over the top rope.
Jones mounted a comeback and seemed to shake Tarver but he finished the round strong. Jones spent the final moments of the round blinking his eyes and looking out on his feet.
"He caught me with a good shot (in the 11th)," Jones said. "Can't nobody else beat me in the light heavyweight division except for Tarver. If I got hurt bad I would quit."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com