Joe Calzaghe wasn’t the only Welshman to win a world title in the 1990s. Before him came the likes of Robbie Regan and Steve Robinson, and in 1997, the year Calzaghe floored Chris Eubank to take the WBO super-middleweight crown, another red dragon claimed glory on the biggest stage.
Barry Jones, a Cardiff child just like Robinson, was only 23-years-old with just 16 bouts to his credit when he fought for the WBO super-featherweight title. He comfortably outpointed Wilson Palacio to hold glory in his hands and join the likes of Freddie Welsh, Jimmy Wilde, Howard Winstone, Regan, Robinson and Calzaghe in becoming a Welsh world champion.
As is life, however, the lows are never far away from the highs. But first, the peak of his career.
“It was the best moment of my life,” Jones tells me. “It was like, Bloody hell, I can’t believe it! I couldn’t take it in.”
“Winning the title,” he continues, “I mean, someone like Calzaghe expected it and it’s a big achievement, but it’s even bigger when you don’t expect it. It’s got to be a better feeling, the euphoria you get when you don’t expect to win it out of the blue. Like Andy Lee. He never thought he was going to win a world title, did he? Especially after being beat by Chavez.”
With the euphoria taking a bit of time to sink in, the affable Jones would endure a worst nightmare scenario when just a few months later a brain scan turned up an anomaly that saw him eventually stripped of his WBO title.
“The brain scan was like winning the lottery, walking in with the ticket and as you open the door the wind blows it out your hand and no-one believes you had it.” Unique words that could only come from a man who has endured such an experience. “I just wanted to dig a hole around me. I was bitter.”
The British Boxing Board of Control was taking no chances. They suspended Jones from boxing until they were certain no undue risk was at involved if Jones fought. But it took seven months and numerous tests before the board was convinced such was the case. By that time, the WBO had stripped Jones of his title belt.
“I’m a jovial person but that gave me a mean streak, toughened me up,” recalls Jones. “But I never had a chance to show it because up until then my life was lovely. Boxing was a sport to me, never a business, and then it was taken away from me. I didn’t go back just to get my licence but to show my health was okay. Of course I didn’t want to be brain damaged, or die, or be in a wheelchair, but I knew there was nothing wrong with me.”
Jones finally returned to action in June of 1999, winning a six round contest before trying to regain his WBO title against Acelino Freitas the following January. Freitas, nicknamed ‘Popo’, had fought 23 times as a professional by the time he came to the not-so-Brazilian climates of Doncaster that winter. The WBO 130lb champion was a South American smasher, a Sao Paulo slayer, a Brazilian butcher who had knocked out every one of his 23 opponents, not one of them getting past round eight. His second title defense against Jones was supposed to be over early, a brief British stop-over before moving on to bigger paydays against the likes of Naseem Hamed, Diego Corrales or Floyd Mayweather Jr.
And Freitas’ fearsome reputation hit home hard when Jones finally sat down to watch the champion in action.
“I was looking at six fights of his which were in total about three minutes of tape! That was all I had, him knocking people out,” says Jones. “The worst one was when he fought Alexandrov for the world title. The fight went on for two minutes and Alexandrov was out cold for five. It was a bit of a worry to be honest.”
The Welshman’s confidence grew, however, when he found out the champion was struggling to make the 130 lb limit. To this day he and many others claim Freitas never actually made the weight.
“He never!” declares Jones. “It’s not an excuse. I don’t want to sound like one of those boxers full of excuses, but he never made the weight, no chance. I saw him, he was like a dead man walking. Remember he was boxing at lightweight in Sao Paulo then came over to Doncaster in January when it was freezing bloody cold. He struggled to make the weight back home. He wasn’t far off the weight but he was fluctuating back and forth. He had about 30 Brazilians around, TV crews following him everywhere. They were all shouting, the official at the weigh-in was sat on a chair not really on the ball and he just jumped on the scales. He looked drawn, you could see all the bones in his body.”
And seeing that, Jones’ confidence grew. If he could take Freitas past the first third of the fight then the champion would be running on empty and the smaller challenger might be able to defy the odds and become world champion once again.
That night, Freitas walked to the ring wearing the Brazilian football shirt while Jones wore the shirt of his beloved Cardiff City. “That’s what it was like – club versus country,” says Jones. And to everyone’s surprise the club dropped the country in round one with a short left hook on Freitas’ jaw that wasn’t exactly loaded with ammunition. Was the shock on?
“I had him down, not with a heavy shot, but a clean shot because he tried too hard to stop me. He come out like a steam train, wanting to finish me off and was just ferocious. But come fight night when he got in the ring and took off his Brazil football shirt, he didn’t look like the same kid I saw 30 hours earlier. He was massive. It was like somebody had inflated him with a bicycle pump. Me and my dad actually laughed in the corner. It was nervous energy.”
After that surprising first round knockdown, things turned the other way. Jones hit the canvas six times, though he was not without some moments of success via flurried combinations and lunging hooks that brought roars from the crowd and hope from Jones, whose spirit had already been tested to the limit. Freitas always had the equalizer, however. His front-footed assaults simply proved too much and eventually overwhelmed Jones. His corner threw in the towel in round eight.
“It was the proudest moment of my life,” says Jones. “Even though I got put down six times, I got up six times. I did the best I could. I knew I wasn’t going to win the fight after the first round. You know you’re in trouble when you put someone down and you still lose that round by two points.
“After the first round, he didn’t break my rib with the left hook knockdown, he popped it out of its cartilage. My ribs came out of their cage and were hanging. The adrenaline kept me going for the rest of the fight but I felt frustrated. I was going down with pain. I’d never been battered like that in my life.”
With the fight over, a valiant Jones and a triumphant Freitas embraced, the battle a tougher one than the champion had anticipated. For Jones it would be his last fight, but what might’ve been? A question posed when it was revealed the challenger had not sparred at all for his second world title fight. No sparring? Why?
“Ignorance, that’s why,” he replies. “To be honest, I’d had so many brain scans and I was worried they might come in and say ‘Can we scan you?’ I wasn’t worried about taking punches in the head. But I pretty much trained myself for the Freitas fight anyway. My dad was there but he had a job and my trainer Ronnie (Rush), who was a lovely guy and a brilliant trainer was getting on, and that time off with the brain scare affected everybody around me.”
This wasn’t the only time Jones couldn’t train properly. A boxing gym was new to him when he turned professional. Years previous had been spent training in squash courts or in the back of leisure centres. “How can you have a career like that?” asks Jones.
He refuses to feel sorry for himself though, and admits he may have been a better fighter with more suitable surroundings but probably wouldn’t have been any more successful. “There would’ve been a bit more glamour, maybe,” he laughs.
Jones’ life has changed once again, and for the better. With 2015 underway, the now 40-year-old finds himself as one of Boxnation’s chief pundits and one of the most respected in the U.K. As he says: ‘I’m having it right off!’
“Boxing is a love-hate thing,” says Jones. “It’s hard for everyone involved, even you guys. I’m not a bullshitter; I’m honest. I’m earning a good wage, not training my butt off or doing a 12-hour shift, which I’ve done in the past. I’m involved in something I love. Boxing consumes my life and I’ve never been in a better place.” — Shaun Brown