It’s Time to Put the Lights Out for Good
By Steve Kim, MaxBoxing (Nov 5, 2011) Doghouse Boxing
Photo: James Toney
Like many other hardcore fans of the sport, I spent Friday morning watching a hazy stream of a fight from Moscow, Russia, where James Toney was decisively battered and defeated by Denis Lebedev. Lebedev, now the WBA’s “interim” cruiserweight titlist, has turned it into a rite of passage for great pugilists of the past decades to collect a payday and a beating in his backyard. Like a Roy Jones before him (and perhaps Michael Spinks and Antonio Tarver in the near future), Toney came with a Hall of Fame résumé and the hubris of a champion but in the end was nothing but a shell of himself.
General Douglas MacArthur once famously said that, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” The same could be said of prizefighters- and it's time for James Toney to fade away as gracefully as he can. “Lights Out” should now have a completely new connotation. However, this is no condemnation of the hardnosed man from Ann Arbor but a tribute to him.
Sure, the first things you’ll likely remember about Toney's career are the great battles against the likes of Michael Nunn, Michael McCallum and later a career renaissance against Vassiliy Jirov. But Toney, who was a personal favorite of mine in the ‘90s, will always be remembered by me as a guy who was- at least early on- a true throwback boxer.
It says here that Toney at his best, between 1991 and 1994, was the last, real, bona fide, full-time world-class prizefighter. In an era when most fighters only perform twice a year as they reached the lofty perch of HBO, Showtime or pay-per-view, Toney was that guy who had no problems coming back to face a Govoner Charles in a small non-title tilt at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan after thrashing Iran Barkley on HBO just five weeks earlier. In fact, other than a few Mexican fighters around today, non-title fights (which were once a regular part of the boxing circuit) are now non-existent as fighters wait for slots on the premium cable network slots and their robust license fees. Back then, Toney was a true fighter and before a decadent lifestyle and gluttony began to win the battle for his soul, he was as pure a fighter as there was. 
He was that guy willing to play at Carnegie Hall one night and then at the local Friars Club the next.
That's what the old-timers did. Back in the fabled “good ol’ days” for every big championship fight that a Sugar Ray Robinson or the like had, they participated in several handpicked fights that weren't so much designed to really test them but allow them to barnstorm the country, showcase/sharpen their skills and broaden their fan base. That's lost now and it's why nights like the one Nonito Donaire had recently against Omar Narvaez are so heavily scrutinized. Back then, it would be just another victory. Nowadays, outings like this come with a certain pressure to deliver more than just a “W.” After all, you don't have that many opportunities to shine. In baseball, over a 162-game season, even the best hitters will have nights when they go 0-for-4. In boxing, there is an expectation to deliver at least a few base knocks and an RBI or two.
Just look at his record, 73-7-3 with 44 knockouts. That just reeks of old-school ( It'll be a looong time- if ever- when we'll see an American-born boxer who will have engaged in that many professional contests.
Fighters nowadays are considered experienced at around 25 fights and are rushed and/or ordained as future stars by the powers-that-be. In fact, Toney was 25-0-1 as he defeated Nunn back in 1991 to capture the IBF middleweight title. But as already mentioned, he continued to learn on the job by fighting early and often at that stage of his career. The year before Toney won the title, he had 10 fights in 1990. Today, as fighters like Andre Berto and Jermain Taylor use their connections to parlay early championships, what is gained monetarily is sacrificed in terms of learning the craft and the art of boxing.
See, Toney wasn't considered a blue-chip prospect. He didn't come with an Olympic pedigree and if you think about it, with his often angry, broody and cocksure manner, he isn't what you'd call “promotable” in the traditional sense of the term. Ray Charles Leonard he wasn't. On the other hand, through sheer force of will, repetition and determination, Toney not only made himself a great fighter but a marquee attraction. By 1994, it was he and Pernell Whitaker who were on top of most pound-for-pound lists. He was a guy that could be equally appreciated by the purists (for his craftiness and subtleties) and by the general fan (who just wanted to see some fisticuffs).
Toney was never quite the same after Roy Jones ran circles around him in November of 1994 (one of the most depressing days for me ever, as a boxing fan) but he still had a colorful and eventful career, one filled with highs (like his victory over Jirov, the best fight of 2003, when he captured the IBF cruiserweight title) and controversy (a victory over John Ruiz two years later for the WBA title, ultimately deemed a no-contest by the New York State Athletic Commission due to Toney testing positive for stanozolol). Much like a Randy Moss in football, while Toney will be going into the Hall of Fame and his achievements are vast, you still get the sense that there could have been more. In a way, he actually underachieved for all his accomplishments. Yeah, “Lights Out” was great but he should've been one of the all-timers.
The last decade of his career was wasted by a less-than-Spartan work ethic, supported by enablers who simply wouldn't tell him the truth. With this came the inability to realize that one day, even the great ones will eventually erode into mediocrity. Seeing him shook up against Lebedev early on and stumbling around on shaky pins was another example of the harshness and brutality of this business. It should be a lesson to all young boxers: your tools are God-given, your prime and fame fleeting. It'll be gone before you know it. Squander all this and you'll find yourself in Russia without love, serving as a sacrificial lamb to guys who, in your best days, couldn't be your sparring partners. There is a sad irony that the two men who squared off 17 years ago to decide who was the best in the sport were shipped off to a faraway land to serve as back-to-back notches in the belt of Lebedev. 
(And we won’t even mention Toney’s forgettable foray into the MMA, where he was summarily choked out by Randy Couture.)
Let's remember Toney at his apex. The angry young man who didn't give a sh*t about what he said, who he offended or pissed off. He wasn't afraid to raise a ruckus (anyone remember him charging the ring to confront Tyrone Trice on “Tuesday Night Fights”?) but could also uncannily go from bully to teddy bear in about five seconds. There was something both scary and charming about the guy. He could be funny, profane and profound all at the same time. Toney had a way of making cultural slurs into a term of respect (he'd always refer to me as “Chinese.” It was our running joke- and no, I don't think he was racist in any way, shape or form. That was James Toney being James Toney.) and even in the later stages of his career as he became the butt of many fat jokes (mostly from those safely hidden behind anonymity), you still knew the guy could fight a bit. Even as boxing's version of “Fat Elvis,” he could still be respectable against today's lot of heavyweights.
But now at age 43, the guy who defined “old-school” is just plain old.
Here's wishing- and I have a feeling that's all it will be- that the last full-time fighter we had finally calls it a day. He's put in enough work.

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