If, sometime down the road and maybe not until the age of 85 or so, Antonio Tarver decides to hang up the gloves or step away from the broadcast booth, the man will have no shortage of employment opportunities as a motivational speaker.
The way he talks about his limitless self-belief, you can’t help but find yourself nodding along in agreement at what seems like a plainly evident fact, as if he’s unlocked some propulsive truth that escaped you till this point. It’s right there in front of you: Whatever you do, if you can believe in yourself like Tarver does, you can go do the hell out of it. Even if what you do is kick back on the couch and watch a ballgame, ain’t nobody going to kick back harder, or watch that game like a bigger boss than you.
When Antonio Tarver climbs back into the ring, at the ripe old age of 46, against Steve Cunningham on Friday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (Spike TV, 9 p.m. ET/PT), that unbounded confidence will be there. Just like it is in his Greatest Hits.
3 vs Johnathon Banks, December 11, 2014, at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California
Unlike most guys who’ve had high-level success in the game on the wrong side of 40, Tarver never had that big gap in his career. No retirement period self-imposed or otherwise. Yes, the pace of the fights may have slowed to about one a year, but he still got the work in.
In camp preparing for Banks, Tarver broke a thumb. He pulled a hamstring. He took a cut to the wrist and battled through ankle issues. The injuries seem to pile on more and linger longer the more birthdays you accumulate. On top of that, Tarver had to take on a fighter 14 years his junior, one who had knocked out unbeaten prospect Seth Mitchell in 2012.
“As many injuries as I had to overcome to get to that fight—and I can’t even describe how tough and how hard that training camp was—I never stopped. I never quit,” Tarver said. "I never let anything prevent me from getting where I want to go. But you could never tell once the lights were on. You could never tell that I had gone through so much to get there. When I got to the ring, I knew I was at home and it would all come together.”
Come together it did. Tarver didn’t waste any time with the relative youngster out of Detroit’s Kronk Gym, putting him on the mat in the second round. Banks got up, but he didn’t get back into the fight. Tarver finished the job in the seventh round for the 22nd knockout of his career.
“The thing that stands out in that fight is I didn’t get touched,” Tarver said. "That’s what surprised a lot of people. It wasn’t the fact that I won, but they didn’t think I would do it—it wasn’t easy, but it looked so easy. I was two or three steps ahead of him. Everything he tried to do, he couldn’t do. He missed me with every punch. I saw it coming. It was in slow motion practically. It took only one shot to hurt him, and I’m one of the best finishers in the game.”
2 vs Eric Harding, July 20, 2002, at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Harding had handed Tarver his first professional loss, a unanimous decision in June 2000. It was just the third bout in Tarver's 17-fight career that had gone to the judges. He was beating everyone else into submission for the three years prior to that.
After the loss, Tarver bounced back with three wins that left him as the mandatory challenger for Roy Jones Jr.’s 175-pound world title. But when he was offered the rematch with Harding, he didn’t hesitate.
“The offer came for me to redeem myself and this is what makes me a throwback fighter. Fighters don’t take those types of risks today,” Tarver said. "Nobody would have taken that type of chance unless they knew in their heart what they were made of. I knew I had everything in the world to beat Eric Harding.”
Just like in their first fight, Harding jumped out to the lead again. Then in the fifth round, Harding seemingly got overconfident and walked into a straight left.
“I finished him that night,” Tarver said. “Nobody would have been sitting at the mandatory spot and would have risked it all to fight the guy who handed him his first loss. They don’t make fighters like that today. That’s why I know I have everything it takes inside of me. I’ve been proven. I’m never counted out in a fight, ever.”
1 vs Roy Jones Jr., May 15, 2004, at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas
Tarver’s three-fight rumble with Jones will likely go down as the defining chapter of his career. It got off to a rough start for Tarver, though. Jones took first blood with a majority decision that was wildly all over the place on the judges’ scorecards. Jerry Roth had it a 114-114 draw, while Glen Hamada saw it 117-111 for Tarver and David Harris had it 116-112 for Jones.
Needless to say, when the fighters met up again six months later, Tarver was fired up.
‘In the prefight instructions, when [referee] Jay Nady asked us if we had any questions, I asked Roy Jones right there in front of the world, ‘What’s going to be your excuse tonight?’” Tarver said. “That phrase will forever live on in boxing history.”
If the words will live forever, what would you call the result, when Tarver dropped Jones midway through the second round in an absolute stunner?
In retrospect, Tarver said, the first fight took it out of Jones. The pounding Tarver gave him over 12 rounds was vicious and relentless. If he had to delay his gratification for the rematch, it was worth the wait. Tarver took the second fight, and nearly 1½ years later he’d take the rubber match in their home state of Florida.
“He was the greatest fighter I ever fought,” Tarver said. “I’m never going to take that from him. But being as great as he was, that allowed him to raise the bar and allowed me to surpass that bar. I tell everybody it could have been Sugar Ray Leonard, it could have been Thomas Hearns, it could have been Marvin Hagler, I was going to approach it the same way. In my heart I know I was a born champion, a born winner, and nobody was going to prevent me from being who I am.”
In an important way, those fights against Jones informed the rest of Tarver’s career. He knows he wants one last turn in the sun, this time as the heavyweight champ. There are big names out there he’d have to beat to get there, but whether it comes at 46 or 56, you get the impression that Tarver is going to keep coming forward regardless.
“It hasn’t been a cakewalk even in this camp,” he said. “I can count on one hand how many great days I’ve had where I didn’t feel pain, but I’m a champion. You’ve got to go through something to get something, and I’m not going to quit until I get my day and I get that opportunity to break history and become the oldest man to win the heavyweight title.
“People say I’m crazy when I say I’m not looking past Steve Cunningham, but I’m looking through him. I’ve got to walk straight through this man to get where I want to go.”
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