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James Toney: No WBO
By Matthew Sanderson (July 8, 2004)  
James 'Lights Out' Toney
Following his impressive domination of Evander Holyfield last October, things haven’t been so rosy for James 'Lights Out' Toney. After getting himself in tremendous shape for a heavyweight showcase against giant Jameel McCline, the revitalized 'Lights Out' tore his Achilles tendon in sparring and the fight had to be called off. He’s been out of action for nine months now, probably won’t fight for another five, and a projected ‘world’ title contest has fallen through. Heartbreaking stuff, although the latter could be a blessing in disguise.

Despite the hard luck, and on the strength of the Holyfield crucifixion, the man with the best nickname in the sport was next in line for a crack at the WBO championship. After Brewster flattened Wladimir Klitschko for the vacant belt, Toney's camp pushed the WBO to enforce the mandatory. Brewster was ordered to defend. A victory would make Toney – on paper, at least – a four division world champion. But the new trinket-holder stalled, claiming that he had received no such notice.

Brewster claimed he was chosen by God to hold one-quarter – if that – of the heavyweight championship, but when questioned about a Toney contest it was easy to infer what really mattered to him. Brewster let slip that Toney wasn't a big enough draw, and that he'd rather face Tyson, who has been on the slide since 1989. Forget Toney, Lamon wants money, which Tyson will always bring to the table.

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There are other reasons behind the collapse of the contest. Don King, who promotes Ruiz, Byrd and Brewster, now ‘owns’ two of the big three (WBA, IBF) - as well as the little one (WBO) – heavyweight titles. He makes it extremely difficult to get a title shot for those who don’t – and won’t – fight for him. Fighters that don't 'belong' to him get raw deals, such as Jameel McCline, who will receive a very meagre payday to challenge King's IBF champion Chris Byrd.

Brewster deserves credit for drawing on such tremendous courage to win his title, but he looked alarmingly vulnerable – both tactically and physically – and for the bulk of the contest he appeared outclassed by Klitschko. This won't get him far against a smart operator like Toney, who is quick to expose any weakness. King and Brewster clearly want nothing to do with him.

Needless to say, after fruitless negotiations with Brewster and King, Toney willingly stepped aside. This minor setback could be a good thing then, and in more ways than one.

The World Boxing Organization has always been considered a dubious body. Does anyone consider Wladimir Klitschko a former heavyweight champion, or believe that Chris Eubank made 15 'world championship' defences at 168 pounds? Michael Moorer infamously vacated the heavyweight version because it was "retarding" his career, and no one really believes that Oscar De La Hoya is a six weight champion.

In contrast, Marco Antonio Barrera, who held the title in two divisions, was for a while considered a true champion at 122 and 126 pounds. But this was because he defeated top fighters like Kennedy McKinney, Eric Morales and Naseem Hamed. The old adage that the fighter (and the fights) makes the title is nowhere more relevant than for the WBO. To assess their current worth north of 200 pounds, Brewster's first defence will be against his sparring partner instead of his mandatory. Kali Meehan, stopped inside a round by prospective Tyson victim Danny Williams, is next in line.

It is doubtful, then, that the belt dubbed "Wicked Body Odour", by one of their ex-champions Steve Collins, will give Toney the recognition he seeks. Talks have subsequently been going on for a bout with Hasim Rahman, possibly in November or December, although nothing is set in concrete. Rahman has fallen on hard times, but is hungry again, and has the experience to push Toney further than Brewster. It would be a sensible workout for Toney, following a serious injury.

King's near monopoly could in fact be advantageous for Toney. The one champion King does not represent is WBC king Vitali Klitschko. Circumstances, then – which should keep Ruiz, Byrd and Brewster safe from James Toney – would dictate that Lights Out will be gunning for Vitali ASAP. There are few big fights out there for Klitschko – unless Lewis un-retires – and Toney wants "the biggest and the baddest" available. If Toney continues to look impressive, an opportunity could very well present itself.

Toney has been underrated following his victory over Holyfield, but he is one of the few fighters in the sport who knows exactly what he is doing between the ropes. Ask Holyfield, who had early, but short-lived, success in their fight with heavy right crosses. Toney stayed calm and pinpointed the problem. He shot in vicious left hooks to the body to deflate Evander's right side, and thus disable his best weapon. After completely dominating a top 10 contender with marvellous skills, Toney is ready for anyone.

Discussions of a Toney versus Klitschko fight will inevitably gravitate to, and linger on, the height disparity. Klitschko would have all the physical advantages. He is sturdy and can fight, but his biggest win was against the bloated Kirk Johnson, and is best remembered for his anticlimactic loss to an out-of-shape Lennox Lewis.

Although big men usually beat little ones, oversized heavyweights can be given nightmares by smaller, more skilled men, especially from lighter weight divisions. All-time light heavyweight great Michael Spinks (6'2") easily dismantled natural heavyweight Gerry Cooney (6'6") in 1987, while ex-cruiserweight Herbie Hide (6'2") gave Riddick Bowe (6'5") all kinds of trouble in a 1995 fight before his chin and stamina let him down. Toney is shorter than Spinks and Hide, but he's just as skilled as the former, and stronger at the weight than both of them.

Toney is one of the best pure boxers in the game, and has sparred with numerous huge heavyweights in the gym. He has handled massive fighters like contender Lance Whitaker (6'8"), whom he humiliated, among many others. Toney's brilliant conditioning and highly developed skills serve him well against bigger but less savvy men. 

He's a special fighter, and doesn't need Don King, Lamon Brewster, or the WBO to stamp his mark on the division.

No WBO, no King, no tragedy!
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