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Roy Jones Jr.: How the boxing legend became a Russian propagandist

Karim Zidan delves into Roy Jones Jr.’s decision to become a Russian citizen and a mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin’s government. 

Last week, Mike Tyson announced his return to boxing against fellow legend Roy jones. Jr.

The two boxers will return to the ring on September 12 for an eight-round exhibition bout on Pay-per-view. Tyson teased the fight on social media with a training video alongside the caption, “I. AM. BACK.”

Jones Jr. also shared a post advertising the fight. “I am happy that this fight between me and Mike Tyson will happen!” he wrote. “I was always ready and will be ready this time as well. I want all my fans to support me and tune in. It’s gonna be epic.”

The bout will take place in Los Angeles and will be regulated by the California State Athletic Commission. Yet despite the regulatory oversight, the announcement took boxing fans by surprise, as the two former heavyweight champions are in their 50s and have not fought competitively in several years. Tyson, 54, last fought in 2005, retiring shortly after refusing to come out for the seventh round of a fight with Kevin McBride. Jones Jr., 51, last fought in 2018 when he defeated Scott Sigmon to claim the vacant WBU cruiserweight title.

While it has been over 15 years since Jones Jr. defeated John Ruiz to become heavyweight champion in 2003 — a feat he achieved after winning titles at middleweight, super middleweight, and light heavyweight — he remains a popular figure within the sport. However, few American fans are aware of Jones Jr.’s decision to become a Russian citizen, or how he has spent the last few years becoming a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

This article will attempt to analyze RJJ’s trajectory since 2015, when he was first awarded Russian citizenship, with the intention of understanding how Jones Jr. went from boxing legend to political puppet.

All of Putin’s Men

On August 20, 2015, Roy Jones Jr. visited Crimea, where he had the opportunity to drink tea with Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation. The retired boxer also had another interest in mind: he wanted to become a Russian citizen.

During their meeting, Jones Jr. explained to the Russian president why he believed he was a valuable asset to the Russian economy and unveiled plans to start a business there, including a boxing gym. A Russian passport would have made it easier for him to do business within the country’s borders.

The explanation must have been satisfactory, as the it was announced a few weeks later on the official Kremlin website that Putin had signed a decree granting Roy Jones Jr. Russian citizenship so long as “the athlete intends to spend a significant part of his life working in Russia.”

In an interview with gazeta.ru, Jones Jr. suggested that his decision was at least partly motivated by a feeling that he would be more widely accepted in Russia. He explained that, “After my arrival in Russia, I saw that there is a large community of boxers. I also felt appreciated in Russia. Maybe even a lot more than I was valued and appreciated in my own country.”

By accepting Russian citizenship, Jones’s joined the ranks of aging celebrities and retired athletes who have defected to Russia at Putin’s behest. The list includes French actor Gerard Depardieu, a Russian citizen since 2013 following a tax dispute with the French government, MMA fighter Jeff Monson, and actor Steven Seagal, who has boasted his longstanding friendship with Putin for years.

Actor Steven Seagal Visits Russia On The Invite Of Vladimir Putin Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Seagal’s relationship with Putin is particularly fascinating, as it appeared that Putin planned to use the aging actor as a tool for diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States. The Russian president proposed to the Obama administration in 2013 that Seagal be appointed as Russia’s “honorary consul” in several U.S. states. The proposal would have positioned Seagal as an official envoy and mediator between Washington and the Kremlin. Obama was “flabbergasted” by the proposal and promptly rejected it.

Then in August 2018, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Steven Seagal had been appointed as a special representative in charge of “Russian-US humanitarian ties.” According to the Ministry, Seagal was be tasked with facilitating “relations between Russia and the United States in the humanitarian field.” This will include “cooperation in culture, arts, public and youth exchanges” as well as “building a more positive atmosphere in bilateral affairs.”

Beyond Putin’s diplomatic interests, his decision to hand Russian passports to notable American figures helps propagate his political agenda through American mouthpieces who are happy to praise Russia while criticizing the United States. This soft power strategy is little more than glorified publicity for the Russian president and his controversial government.

To this effect, Roy Jones Jr. is no different to his fellow Russian converts.

Boxer Roy Jones Jr at Tula Suvorov Military School Photo by Alexander Ryumin\TASS via Getty Images

Speaking on the UFC Unfiltered podcast, Jones Jr. revealed that Putin was “misunderstood.”

“To me, he is a man’s man. He does things that men are really highly engaged in. He’ll fish, he hunts, he boxes. He does taekwondo, Aikido — things that men love. That is just who he is. And he is a man of his word.

“The problem people have with him is that if he says he is going to do something, there ain’t no question that he’s going to do it,” Roy Jones Jr. explained. “I have nothing but love and respect for a person like that because that is the way life should be. That is what I like about Mr. Putin. If he says he is going to do something, he is going to do it. ‘Look, you want to be a Russian citizen? Bam. I can make that happen.’ It is just that simple.”

The 51-year-old boxer claims to spend six months out of the year in Russia. Over the past couple of years, he has visited the likes of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov to watch an MMA tournament with the controversial ruler of the Chechen Republic. He also attended the Russian Boxing Championships in Chechnya between September 30 and October 8.

Most recently, Jones Jr. was pictured at the 75th anniversary Victory Day parade at the Red Square in Moscow last month. The boxer shared his experience on social media, posting selfies of himself wearing a blue suit and military headgear. He later shared an image alongside Steven Seagal, a fellow mouthpiece for the Russian state.

While it remains unclear why Jones Jr. accepted Russian citizenship, it is evident that he is a valuable propaganda tool for Putin and the Kremlin. Over the past few years, RJJ has praised Putin repeatedly, defended his political decision-making, and visited dictators such as Kadyrov to discuss potential cooperation. Now that Jones Jr. will once again be placed in the spotlight in his upcoming exhibition bout against Mike Tyson, Putin’s investment in the American boxer will likely continue to pay dividends.

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