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
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.
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.
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
was that guy willing to play at Carnegie Hall one night and then at the local
Friars Club the next.
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.
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
have engaged in that many professional contests.
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.
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).
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.
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.
we won’t even mention Toney’s forgettable foray into the MMA, where he was
summarily choked out by Randy Couture.)
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.
now at age 43, the guy who defined “old-school” is just plain old.
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.