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James Toney: Old School Warrior, or the Poker-Faced Assassin
By Matthew Sanderson (June 5, 2004) 
James ‘Lights Out’ Toney
James ‘Lights Out’ Toney has received many labels throughout his long career. Arrogant madman and expert ring mechanic; self-destructive young thug and crafty old pro. He’s also been called “downright miserable” – as one British fight commentator remarked – as well as a preposterous joker, a man who threatened to make Evander Holyfield “mess himself in the ring”. He yearns for chaos, to destroy his opponent, but he executes this behind the expressionless face of an expert poker player, dictated by a cool, collected mind, waiting patiently to lure and bait his prey. James Toney is a hard man to pin down.

The most fitting description comes from the horse's mouth. “Old school” is his favourite term, and this is as good a place as any to begin. It has a couple of meanings, both of which are linked; it’s an attitude and a way of fighting. It describes great fighters from the past like Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore; men who honed their craft by taking on the best on a regular basis, ducking nobody and sharpening their skills to perfection. It also refers to the skills themselves. Charles and Moore – as well as Walcott and Burley – were expert mechanics; they had all the tools for the job and took their time, sizing up every conceivable angle, finding the most efficient way to do their thing and gradually applying their craft until the job was done.

These definitions fit James Toney like a glove. In 1991 Toney exploded onto the world championship stage by knocking out Michael ‘Second To’ Nunn, one of the best fighters in the world. He did this only two months after outpointing Dominican hard man Merqui Sosa, and would defend his title against one of the best fighters in the division – Reggie Johnson – only six weeks later. After a routine defence against Francesco Dell’Aquila - who he blew out easily - in October, he took on Hall of Famer Mike McCallum in December, seemingly winning the Fight of the Year that was declared by the judges a draw. Between 1991 and 1994 he made six defences of his 160-pound title, 3 defences at 168, and fought an impressive 23 times. Further victims include world champions Iran Barkley, Doug De Witt and Prince Charles Williams, as well as top contenders Anthony Hembrick, Tony Thornton and Tim Littles.

Toney has studied tapes of Moore and company, so it’s no surprise that he matches them in terms of his skills. Like these men he adopts a practical style of fighting. Any move he makes is because it works in the most direct, effective way, instead of trying to look cute and flashy. He doesn’t waste anything, and everything he does is part of a complex system of moves to take away his opponents strengths and exploit their weaknesses. Perhaps the most compelling part of this strategy is Toney’s fearsome attitude: he not only wants to beat his opponents but to slowly break them down – mentally and physically – until they’re reduced to nothing. He does this and his face never changes; instead of allowing his rage to control him, he controls it. This was performed beautifully against Prince Charles Williams in 1994, a man whose credentials – including 6 defences of a 175-pound title – were impeccable.

During the first half Toney allowed the stronger man to back him up, blocking and slipping most of the clubbing punches and firing back with accurate counter shots. After 6 rounds Toney was at least 2 rounds ahead and Williams’ strategy – demanding a great deal of stamina – wasn’t quite working. Williams was still determined, however, so in round 7 Toney implemented the next stage of his strategy to throw him off. With Williams still confident and believing that his pressure tactics would soon pay off, Toney started to step away from the ropes, taking the fight to mid range and unleashing his renowned counter right hands over Williams’ jab, followed by left hard left hooks to the body. Williams - momentarily stunned by the force and speed of the punches and unsettled by the change in strategy - was helpless in the middle of the ring; the shark lured onto the sand. Toney had waited for just the right time to negate Williams’ tremendous efforts, giving himself himself a big psychological edge. Everything Williams had done seemed to count for nothing.

By round 10 Williams was totally outclassed, and his face no longer showed confidence, but had slowly degenerated to a visage of total despair. Toney outfought him on the inside and dominated him at mid range. In round 11 Williams was desperate, and all he could do was charge forward with sloppy shots, relying simply on brute strength, and Toney picked his man apart a little more, like pulling the legs off a spider. In the twelfth round Toney staggered Williams on the ropes with a beautiful counter right – as Williams’ left hand had been getting lower and lower – and Williams showed bravado by exaggerating the effects of the shot, doing mock wobbling gestures. Toney then made him pay with some beautiful, relaxed combinations, and with Williams hurt, tired and outclassed - yet believing he could at least make the distance – Toney applied the last cruel move, stepping back a little and firing a massive right hand that put Williams’ lights out.

Toney’s craft has improved a great deal since his impressive reign as pound for pound champion. Paradoxically, his self imposed 8 year exile – in which he lost his dedication and struggled againt the scales - had something to do with it. Between 1995 to around 2002 Toney fought a great deal of fights from 175- to 190- pounds. During this era his conditioning and motivation has been quite awful. In the light heavyweight contests he was very frequently weight drained (he collapsed before fighting Drake Thadzi!) and severely weakened. He had to fight very smart to conserve energy, to do the right moves to simply go the distance.

His move up to cruiserweight was far more impressive; and after beautifully dismantling ex champ Adolpho Washington in 1999 many believed that if Toney improved his conditioning he could be a force again. In his 2002 fight with Jason Robinson, Toney showed steady improvement. He went into the fight in pretty good – much better - shape, although he allegedly hadn’t prepared fully (Robinson is a southpaw and Toney apparently didn’t spar with any lefties). After a sharp start in which Toney took the first two or three rounds, the man called Lights Out started to slow down. Although many believed poor conditioning was a factor his strategy became apparent. It was a snare. The cagey Robinson got confident and opened up at the end of round 4. Toney turned his left shoulder inward to avoid oncoming straight lefts – at the same time loading his right hand counter – and unleashed several sharp right hands that sapped some of his now open target’s confidence.

Toney did the same thing again in the following round, this time scoring a devastating knockdown that almost ended the fight. After opening up with a furious barrage in the first 30 seconds of round 6, Robinson was repeatedly hurt but wasn’t going away easily. Toney wasn’t going to punch himself out, so he took the rest of the round off. It was noticeable by round 7 that Toney wasn’t using the left hook – one of his best punches – very much. The TV commentary team mentioned this. Toney had used the punch so seldom that Robinson wasn’t looking out for it. Eventually Toney unleashed the left hook to stop his unsuspecting opponent. He tricked his man and devastated him.

Consequently, the exile years arguably helped Toney to sharpen his already encyclopaedic craft and prepared him for his 1st world title fight in 10 years. Toney entered the 2003 fight against Vassili Jirov in far better physical condition and won convincingly, using a bobbing, weaving and blocking strategy, constantly making his relentless opponent miss and landing the cleaner blows, outfighting his foe on the inside and scoring a late knockdown to capture his third world title. His ability to take Jirov's best punch away from him - the straight left - by crouching to the right and parrying the blow, was remarkable in its simplicity. The way he picked and placed his hurtful punches had such a beautiful economy. The ability to score a knockdown exactly when he needed it wasn't without science, either. Toney sunk in a wicked left hook that bent Jirov double, setting him up for the booming right hands. This superb performance catapulted Toney into the top 10 pound for pound rankings and marked his 1st world title victory in 9 years, and he looked remarkably like Archie Moore himself. An old school great reborn.

Now a heavyweight contender, and holding a dominating victory against Evander Holyfield, Toney’s old school attitude has been infected with a strand of what can best be described as Nietzschean nihilism. He despises mediocrity and isn’t afraid to speak out against the shortcomings of others: “Chris Byrd is garbage, Fres Oquendo is garbage, every heavyweight in the division is garbage!” On Vitali Klitschko’s messy win over part time fighter Corrie Sanders: “That was total garbage!” Hasim Rahman and David Tua: “It’s shameful that they should fight for a world title.” He also embodies Nietzsche’s desire to conquer, to fight for glory, as Toney frequently calls out the biggest and the baddest on a regular basis: Vitali Klitschko (6’8), Wladimir Klitschko (6’7), Jameel McCline (6’6), Lamon Brewster, Chris Byrd, and so on… He's fought in every division from 154 to 217, and is ready to take on the world.

Since his aborted fight with Jameel McCline, Toney has been keeping in fantastic shape. He's been dilligently working out with weights and weighs a solid 230 pounds. Toney's doctor has informed him that he is 100% again, and soon will be able to commence sparring. Negotiations are being made for a fight with recently crowned WBO champion Lamon Brewster. Toney is the mandatory contender, and Brewster will be apparantly stripped if he doesn't defend. James Toney is a 230-pound tank with the skills of Archie Moore; the meanist man, Pound for Pound, in the world; the Poker Faced Michigan Assassin!
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