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Retirement, Oblivion and Rebirth
Holyfield-Toney In Perspective
Oct 16, 2003 By Alex Pierpaoli


Getting old isn’t easy. The arms and legs get heavier, leaded down after years of work. Dulled neurons still fire but electrical impulses seem to lose their way along the path to the muscles. For a prizefighter, slowed reflexes usually force a change in fighting style; herald the coming of retirement, and too often lead to the absorption of serious punishment. So it was for the aged Evander Holyfield, who on October fourth faced a blown-up cruiserweight in James Toney, and was beaten into submission and quite possibly into retirement.

As lamentable as it was watching the four-time heavyweight great trudge to his corner after eight rounds of punishment, seeing him slumped on his stool, corner men speaking in murmurs while trying to staunch the blood from his nostrils and mouth; across the ring there was the proud confidence of seeing a strategy play out exactly as expected. As is so often the case in boxing, where there is cold and brutal defeat there is also glorious triumph.

A good big man beats a good little man is how the old boxing adage goes and for Holyfield-Toney it may have needed to be adapted slightly. Size was often an issue for both of these combatants. For much of Holyfield’s career he was thought to be too spindly-legged and narrow-waisted to stand up to the punishment of the big men in the heavyweight division. He proved everyone wrong time and time again.

Toney’s size issues tipped the scales in the opposite direction from Holyfield’s. It was his lack of dedication and focus that was questioned when his between fight weights bordered on obese and Toney would starve or dehydrate himself to make the super-middleweight limit of 168. Many suspected before the fight with Holyfield, that Toney’s decision to seek victory in the unlimited weight class was more representative of his surrender and defeat at the scale. With no weight limit to make, what would stop James from indulging his appetite to the point where all the gym work in the world couldn’t undo the work done in front of the refrigerator?

At the weigh-in, Toney scaled a pudgy but muscular 217, just 2 pounds under Evander Holyfield and his body beautiful. Could Toney be quick enough at that weight or would something in the neighborhood of 205 have been more beneficial? Even Toney’s trainer Freddie Roach had hoped James would come in a bit lighter but he seemed confident of his charge’s preparation and hard work done in camp. All that was left was to put Toney in against the old man and see just what Holyfield had left.

It was easy to envision one last appearance from the Resurrection Man. Holyfield had come back from the dead so often, though this would not be the Holyfield of the 90s who battled with Riddick Bowe, vanquished Michael Moorer, and crushed Mike Tyson. In the almost 41 year-old Holyfield, Toney was facing a once great, legendary fighter in the twilight of his many campaigns into the prize ring. But Holyfield had summoned skills thought long gone as recently as June of 2002 when he faced Hasim Rahman and beat him over 7 rounds when their fight had to be stopped due to a hellish tumor-like swelling in Rahman’s forehead. That Evander Holyfield looked very dangerous and arguably still one of the best heavies in the world. Even after dropping a one-sided decision to another small heavyweight, IBF Champ Chris Byrd, in November of last year, there was reason enough to make the match with Toney look competitive on paper at least. In reality, it wasn’t.

In round one, Holyfield was fast and explosive, blasting away with clean left hooks against the head of Toney. His left shoulder, now fully healed after surgery, seemed at one hundred percent as he was able to score with double left hooks to Toney’s head. Toney was cool under fire and absorbed the barrage of hooks from Holyfield. Some of the blasts from the four-time champ landed on the gloves of Toney but many were flush as if Toney was testing his jaw against a real heavyweight’s power. Just before the bell a left from Holyfield stung the cruiserweight champ and Toney fired right back with his own as if putting Holyfield on notice; he was in for a fight.

Round two was when Toney started to put his strategy to work. Though his stocky muscular frame did not suggest it, Toney’s elusiveness and speed were by far his greatest strengths. In the second, Evander got a sample of what was to come when he found it increasingly difficult to land cleanly on the dipping and dodging Toney. When Holyfield jabbed, Toney blocked, caught, ducked under or slipped past his punches, and came back with stinging hooks of his own. When the round came to a close and Holyfield heard the ten-second warning, he wailed away with bombs but Toney slipped and rolled under all of them.

By round three, Toney had gotten Holyfield to hesitate on the outside just long enough to beat him to the punch with jabs of his own. So often the aggressor in the past, Holyfield waited just too long again and again when they came together, hoping Toney would leave himself open when he threw punches. He didn’t. And Holyfield, the consummate counter puncher, was finding precious few opportunities to score with any clean, damaging blows.

James Toney proclaimed numerous times during the promotion that unlike men who are taught to fight, he was born to fight. When Referee Jay Nady warned Holyfield for a head butt, Toney grinned and stepped forward behind a quick jab to Holyfield’s face; it was plain to see that James Toney was a man who had found his calling in life. Toney is all fighter.

When he scored with a right uppercut-left hook to Holyfield’s head he leaned towards ringside and commented to one of the judges. As the round wound down Holyfield fired a hard left hook which Toney smiled about and brushed at his shoulder as if to say: that didn’t land. He cracked Holyfield with his own left hook in return and showed him just how it should be done. Just before the bell Toney stung Evander with a double left hook—to the head first and then the belly—and for one of the few times in his career it is clearly the body punch that hurt Holyfield as he headed to his corner with his legs filled with lead.

As the rounds progressed a bouncy joy could be seen in the workmanlike way Toney was going about his brutal business. In the fifth, when Holyfield fired a huge overhand right, James Toney turned with it and it slid harmlessly off his shoulder. From the half-turned position Toney, the Detroit bad-boy, looked into Holyfield’s face and stuck his tongue out at him and came back with punches that landed on Holyfield.

While Chris Byrd rendered Holyfield ineffective, James “Lights-Out” Toney was beating him up. When Toney let himself get backed into the ropes it was he who did the damage with short chopping rights and right uppercuts. The double left hook of Toney—to the head first and then Holyfield’s belly—landed again and again. Ironically, it was the same weapon—but in reverse order—that Holyfield used so often in his career with much success.

There was a moment in the sixth, after several digging shots to the gut by Toney, when Nady separated them and Holyfield stepped back on wobbly legs. The left hooks by Toney were doing damage and although Holyfield absorbed numerous clean blows to the head, they seemed ineffective unless they sunk into his carved waist. When Holyfield sat on the stool between rounds six and seven, trainer Don Turner pleaded with him.

“You gotta get busy on the inside,” he said. Holyfield, all but unresponsive, had spoken more and more softly as the fight wore on. After round seven Holyfield was greeted by very grim faces in his corner while James Toney met an increasingly pleased Freddie Roach. “Beautiful round, JT” had become Roach’s mantra since round 2, as it became easier for Toney to do whatever he wanted in each frame. In the seventh, he side-stepped Holyfield’s barrage, landed his own and walked a few steps away, only to come right back with another combination in the awkward style of old-time greats like Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles.

Though Toney landed bombs with either hand it was difficult to tell if the punches were not hard or if Holyfield had steeled himself against them and had vowed to remain upright. What had become clear was that Holyfield could not hurt Toney on the fewer and fewer occasions when he hit him cleanly. Holyfield was facing a nightmare opponent: one he could not hurt, and worse, couldn’t hit cleanly. Toney wasn’t running from him like Byrd or Lewis, wasn’t out brawling him like Bowe, or out-muscling him like Ruiz. “Lights-Out” Toney was standing directly in front of Evander, but through clever shoulder rolls and turns of the hip, Evander could not hit him cleanly with anything substantial.

After the eighth, Don Turner made certain he had Holyfield’s attention. “Let me tell you something,” Turner began as he crouched in front of his fighter. “Listen good to me, if you keep takin’ these right hands I’m gonna stop this. You understand me?” There was little response from Holyfield while his other grave-looking cornermen repeated Turner’s sentiment. They were all in agreement; Holyfield had taken too many clean punches.

“You want one more round?” Turner asked him. “I’m good,” Holyfield struggled, as if having said the words aloud could make them true. “Ok, well fight then! You gotta put him out, man!” Turner tried to motivate Holyfield, to bring out whatever fight he had left in him before he sent his man out for the ninth.

Great fighters often need to be convinced it’s time to retire. Sugar Ray Leonard didn’t learn it was over when he barely lasted the distance against Terry Norris. It took the knockout loss to Hector Camacho for Leonard to admit his career was finished. As Holyfield came out for round nine the feeling it was a last ditch effort was palpable.

When Holyfield landed a hard left hook, Toney waved him on, unwilling to give up the role of Detroit bully against the 4-time champ and southern gentleman. Letting Holyfield drive him to the ropes, Toney took a moment to flex and strike a right biceps pose for the ringside judge before fighting his way back to ring center behind sharp smacking punches.

Holyfield’s legs had no spring, no life in them when Nady separated the two men. Yet Evander continued to come forward to meet Toney behind combinations that missed. When Toney landed a double left hook to the head followed by a vicious hook to Holyfield’s belly, the old man lurched forward trying to grab. Another series of hooks that ended with a brushing chop at the same spot in Holyfield’s gut sent Holyfield face first into the canvas.

Though Holyfield made it to his feet and was ready to continue by nine, Referee Nady recognized the Holyfield corner’s intent to stop the fight as Mandalay Bay Ring Security entered the ring waving a white towel of surrender. Holyfield turned to his cornermen, now climbing through the ropes, and he did not protest their decision.

As the ring filled with supporters for both men, Don Turner embraced Holyfield. “I did what I thought was best,” said Turner, his voice breaking.

Moments later, when Toney embraced Holyfield, the fight having ended and the animosity already long gone, there was nothing but respect. “I love you, man…” Toney said. “I love you, dog, for real. Much respect to you.”

Holyfield said later that he had no excuses, no injuries or ailments. He had simply been beaten, stopped for only the second time in his long career. “The guy did beat me up today,” Holyfield said. “He had tremendous defense. There were times when I got him in position and his agility…he was a little too quick…too quick for me.” Holyfield went on, honestly describing how he had been beaten. “He out hustled me. He got to position before me. He out maneuvered me, from the start. He got off before me…it was just overwhelming punches…”

Holyfield went on, almost thinking aloud, going over the defeat in his mind as it sunk in. Despite telling reporters he would not retire, he made it clear that he would return home to Atlanta to think and pray about his future in the sport.

In sharp contrast, James Toney was animated and excited when interviewed by Showtime’s Jim Gray. His rough-hewn toughness a reality and not some medically controlled form of mania or instability like fans have been exposed to from other high profile heavyweights. “Who’s next?!” Toney exclaimed. “I got milk, baby…Evander Holyfield is a great fighter…I love the guy, but I had to do what I had to do. It’s what I get paid to do, bottom line. Detroit in the house.” And when he was finished with Jim Gray, Toney tossed the microphone to the canvas and stormed off, reminding fans if it’s gentility you wanted from this man you won’t be getting it.

Holyfield had always been the Christian combatant, his strength drawn from the scriptures and gospel music; while Toney’s church is the street and the alley, his mass the trash-talking, in-your-face exchange of imminent confrontation. Both men are warriors, and had they met as younger cruiserweights in some timeless dreamscape, what a war they would have fought. Instead, Holyfield, with his legendary mystique as a ring-great, served as the perfect opponent to offer Toney, in victory, a sort of baptismal as a true heavyweight force. And Toney’s fearless proclamations of who’s next, make it seem unlikely he will squander the momentum he’s gained.

The win over Holyfield launches Toney into the hunt for a heavyweight to replace the all but retired Champion, Lennox Lewis. For now James Toney is the bad boy who does things his own way among the three best heavies in the world who, like Byrd and Jones, were all former middleweights. With his deceiving blend of hand speed and power in addition to one of boxing’s most durable chins, it is likely that Toney is the best of all three and needs only the chance to prove it.

As to Evander Holyfield, if he decides to fight on he falls into what may end up being professional oblivion. Seeing him against a Dominic Guinn or Joe Mesi would be like watching a faded Joe Louis against a young pug on the rise named Rocky Marciano, and no good would come of such a match-up. Holyfield, who has given so much of himself to the sport and has elevated it with each trip between the ropes, will watch the tape of his fight with Toney. When he does, hopefully he will see it with clear vision, unobscured by his quest for a fifth heavyweight championship and the need to retire as undisputed warrior-king of the division.

A great warrior usually meets his end in one of two ways: he can be carried from the battlefield, broken and savaged in one battle more than his body could endure; or he can grow old and content in the halls of his followers, telling tales of past campaigns and victories across great banquet tables. There is no doubt Holyfield would be afforded the open-armed greeting into boxing’s Hall of Fame and into the hearts of a public that already considers him a legend.

For the brazen bully from Detroit, the current state of the division is his to plunder. James “Lights-Out” Toney began his career as a one hundred fifty-nine pound professional in 1988, just as Holyfield was preparing for his second bout as a full-fledged heavyweight. Fifteen years later it is the former middleweight who may have several great, career-defining fights ahead of him.

James Toney seems already a likely candidate for the Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY and perhaps there he will meet Evander Holyfield again, this time across a table instead of twenty feet of canvas. With nothing but a banquet table piled with food and drink between them it is likely Toney will have the advantage over Holyfield all over again, but this time they will both be able to smile about it.


Alex Pierpaoli has followed the Sweet Science for the past 17 years and is an avid boxing fan/writer. He has a degree in English from the University of Maine. Comments or questions: mmhagler@comcast.net




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