Before the Lights go out

By Cain Bradley on May 12, 2017
Before the Lights go out
Freddie Roach described Toney as the most complete fighter he had ever worked with.

James Toney is only two years older than Mike Tyson but is going to take part in what may be his final fight Saturday night…

James Toney was the closest boxing came to seeing another Mike Tyson persona. Both were true wild men who could say anything, were angry with the world and had spates of boxing ability. Mike Tyson has seemingly been through the worst of times and come out on the other side. It took him seven or eight years after his final appearance in the ring for Tyson to arrive at that point. James Toney is only two years older than him but is going to take part in what may be his final fight Saturday night. Fighting for the WBF heavyweight title, he only takes on Mike Sheppard, who has an almost even record and has lost to almost every good heavyweight he has fought. Seven years the junior of Toney, Sheppard is also surely thinking about the end of his career. The fear is always for Toney that a win could get the Michigan man dreaming about what could happen or he takes a beating that he never recovers from.

In hindsight, Tyson always looks to have been a reluctant fighter. Toney has the opposite problem, he loves it. As Toney often said, others learned to fight but he was born to fight. It was a propensity over his childhood which led his beloved Mum, Sherrie, to first take him to a boxing gym aged 11. Boxing was not something he would begin to take seriously until he was much older. Instead, Toney was a crack dealer who toted a gun whilst at Huron High. He played American Football with such a talent that Western Michigan wanted him to play quarterback whilst Michigan hoped he would play fullback. An ankle injury and a confrontation with Deion Sanders which led to him punching the star are both feted as reasons Toney would eventually concentrate on boxing. For Toney, relying solely on himself was preferential to teammates who may not want it as much as him. The words of his beloved Mother who had warned him he had “three choices: prison, rehab or tombstone—you decide,” echoed loudly for Toney.

Boxing became more than a hobby. His amateur record of 33-2 came with a fearsome knockout ratio which led to the nickname “Lights Out.” Gregory Owens scouted Toney and would train the big puncher into the professional ranks. Even when a professional, trouble seem to hang around Toney. His manager, Johnny “Ace” Smith was killed after his seventh fight and he was still putting his fists through windows on a regular basis. It was a dangerous alliance for Toney and his relationship with then manager Jackie Kallen provided the support structure Toney needed. Kallen saw Toney angry after a training session where he did not train as well as he liked. Kallen liked the perfectionist side of Toney and took a chance on his talent. To show his appreciation he bought his manager sweaters and diamond rings and wore the famous Star of David on his trunks.

Two years after his debut and Toney was on his 23rd professional fight, a Tysonesque pace. It came in a rematch against Sanderline Williams, who he could only draw with four months prior. Williams looks at first glance like a journeyman but inspection of his record shows he was a dangerous gatekeeper who many great fighters struggled with. The rematch was a shutout for Toney. A couple of bouts later and he would take on undefeated prospect Merqui Sosa. Toney considered the big punching, stone-jawed Dominican his toughest opponent as he edged a split decision. So started the year of 1991, his banner year in which he won The Ring Fighter of the Year. He stopped Alberto Gonzalez before taking on Michael Nunn, as an injury replacement. Nunn was the IBF and lineal middleweight champion, ranked in the top five of the pound for pound rankings. It was on the HBO pay-per-view series “Fight of the Month” that failed badly. It was a disaster sales wise, with Toney the 20-1 underdog and the fight widely seen as an easy homecoming for Nunn. The IBF fifth ranked contender, Toney declared he would “pressure him until he has to fight.” The first five rounds followed the script with Toney landing only 12% of his punches. After five rounds he declared to his corner that Nunn was breathing like a freight train and would not last the distance. Toney came into the fight as his pace and intelligent slipping begun to have an impact. In the eleventh round, Toney landed a huge left hook to drop Nunn. After an onslaught of right hands, the ref jumped in to crown Toney.

Against two-weight world champion, Reggie Johnson, he climbed off the floor to win a world title. Francesco Dell’Aquila was stopped before the year was finished with a draw against Mike McCallum. The Jamaican was seen as lucky by most observers, especially when referee Steve Smoger called a Toney knockdown as a slip. Bob Arum had also used this fight to introduce his Marvelous Marvin Hagler Championship Trophy to denote the best middleweight in the world. Hagler decided he believed Toney had won and so Toney got the inaugural silver cup. Toney showed his volatile nature at the post-fight conference when security guards had to hold him back from attacking boxing attorney Milton Chwasky whilst screaming he was a “blind bastard.” Mike McCallum was his next target as he suggested the rematch should happen right there before Julian Jackson received a similar offer.

1992 begun with Toney receiving his own gift of a decision against Dave Tiberi. The decision was so bad it saw Senator William Roth call for an investigation into corruption in boxing. He did retain his title by split decision and blamed a bad weight loss leaving him flat, as he ended up in hospital with dehydration. Mike McCallum was his final victory at middleweight by majority decision. His first opponent at super middleweight, Doug DeWitt was stopped after six brutal rounds. He would contest the IBF title with Iran Barkley who had previously taken the title from Thomas Hearns. ESPN commentator Barry Tompkins described the performance by James Toney as “as close to perfection as you can be in a boxing match.” James Toney was brutally dominant before Barkley was pulled out by his corner at the end of the ninth round with severe swelling under his eyes. HBO commentators insisted Toney was crazy for hoping to stop Barkley but Toney proved he was as powerful as he was accurate. After the fight he told of how he broke the rib, cheekbone and earlobe of Barkley leaving him in hospital for two days, which he deserved for talking junk.

The Barkley fight came in February and Toney would fight six more times that year. Most were keep busy non-title fights but he ended the year with a defense against Tony Thornton who he beat by unanimous decision. Toney ended the year ranked third by The Ring. Next up was unbeaten Tim Littles. The stylish speedster gave Toney early struggled and caused a vicious cut. Toney had already started to come into the fight but when told he needed to stop it in the fourth, Toney become a vicious cobra, looking for the strike needed to down his foe. He managed it, with Littles stopped in the fourth by the referee. Another exciting victory came over “Prince” Charles Williams. The fight saw both men exchange power punches with disregard for their health, before Toney finally put him to sleep with a huge right hand in the final round when narrowly ahead on the scorecards. So came the marquee clash, a unification with Roy Jones Jr.

Prior to the clash, Toney insinuated that Jones was not fit to carry his gym bag and he would “leave him cryin’ like one o’ his dogs, make that boy my bitch for the night.” James Toney was the favorite heading into the contest but as became a James Toney tradition he was struggling with the weight. Both turned down guaranteed purses for a share of the pay-per-view cut. The event drew 300,000 buys which suggests Toney made just over $4 million. Weight struggles saw Toney needing to lose 44 pounds in six weeks and 18 in the final few days. In hindsight, Toney entering the ring at 186 pounds should have been a warning that his weight cut had been particularly horrific. Toney was lethargic for all but bursts out the fight. He suffered a debatable knockdown in the third round and never real got into the fight. A bitter disappointment for him and the fans.

It was only a boxing match, but for Toney it meant the world. A couple of days later Jackie Kallen received a call from Sherrie. She was warning Jackie that he was on his way. In the background Jackie heard him threaten to “shoot her and her fucking family.” Toney alleged he had been forced into fighting despite having the flu and misgivings about the weight. He called her a “hoe” on Detroit radio and insisted she take her money and get out when the contract expired. A messy divorce from his wife, a civil suit against his Mother and a social life falling apart as Toney descended into partying and binges. Roy Jones predicted it and he declared after his victory that Toney had real problems and asked once “you take away his bad boy bluff, who is he then?” Toney carried on in the ring, moving straight up to light heavyweight. He lost to rising star Montell Griffin, but most scored it to Toney including George Foreman who was outraged. Even in tough times he still fought 9 times in 20 months with all wins. A second loss to Griffin, also controversial, was followed by another win against Mike McCallum and a big loss to journeyman Drake Thadzi with a record of 28-8-1. With that Toney would take a self imposed break, missing the whole of 1998.

On his return Toney would go on a winning streak, although at nowhere near the pace of his first stint. Ramon Garbey was a victim of this run and in 2003 he got his chance against Jason Robinson in an IBF eliminator, defeating him by stoppage. Vassiliy Jirov, the unbeaten champion, would stand in his way. The aggressive Kazakh took it to Toney, which made it a Fight of the Year contender. The final round was the icing on the cake as Jirov looked to catch Toney early. Toney fought back, countering shots whilst against the ropes and dropped Jirov for the first time in his career with a right hand following a left hook to the body. He won a wide unanimous decision and Jirov was never the same. Following this, he would move to the heavyweight division to take on Evander Holyfield. Holyfield was 2-3-2 over his last seven fights but was still a top fighter. The Ring end of year rankings the year prior saw him fourth in the heavyweight division. After a tight opening, Toney begun to dominate with quick hands and clever combinations. A left hook to the body dropped him before the towel was chucked in to stop the fight in round nine. Toney was a contender in the heavyweight division and won the Ring Fighter of the Year for the second time in his career. He also declared himself to be indestructible.

A couple of fights later and he would take on John Ruiz for his WBA title belt. Roy Jones Jr. had beaten him a few fights earlier so Toney was confident heading into the fight. Toney was busier and landed 45% of his punches in a poor fight to take the title. A couple of weeks later and Toney had his title stripped from him. Toney had tested positive. Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, was found in his system. His team believed the reading came from the medication he took whilst injured after having surgery on his ruptured left biceps and triceps tendons. As Toney quipped, “If I’m the poster boy for steroids, steroids is going out of business.” He returned just six months with a unanimous victory over Dominick Guinn. Hasim Rahman and his WBA belt were next for Toney. As always the pre-fight saw the men exchange insults with Toney suggesting Rahman needed to thank Don King for his title. Rahman took the fight to Toney trying to outwork him. Toney perhaps landed the cleaner shots against the volume of Rahman but the judges scored it a majority draw. Freddie Roach waved away Toney’s post-fight apology as the judges did not understand countering while Toney declared to his wife that he was still the best heavyweight in the world.

Toney received a mediocre offer to fight Wladimir Klitschko, which was turned down. Instead he fought a WBC eliminator against Samuel Peter, who many rated very highly. Toney mainly avoided the power punching of Peter, making him miss the target more often than not. Despite that he lost a controversial split decision. Given the controversy, an immediate rematch was granted. This time, it was clear-cut. Peter dominated behind his jab, using his reach to keep himself out of range. Another rematch came for Toney against Rahman. It was again tinged with controversy. After landing a great right hand in the second round, the two clashed heads in the third round. With blood leaking into Rahman’s eye he declared he could not continue. The ref originally declared it a Toney win but was eventually ruled a no contest. Toney of course told the media that he would have continued if he had the cut. Fres Oquendo came next and the two engaged in an intriguing clash. Toney dominated early but Oquendo came on strong hurting Toney late. Oquendo dropped a split decision thanks to a point deduction for rabbit punching.

Toney was not done with desiring big fights. With his boxing career looking over, he cast a glance towards the world of Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC. He terrorized UFC president Dana White, asking for a sit-down meeting. Dana went on record as calling it a “joke.” Toney wore him down though and soon a fight with UFC legend Randy Couture was announced. Of course Toney talked a good fight. He insulted Couture, Brock Lesnar, Dana White, Joe Rogan and Jon Jones prior to the fight and insisted he would put Couture to sleep, even if Couture got him to the floor. It summed up the general feeling when Dana described the fight as a “freak show.” Unsurprisingly, the smart money was on Couture but most previews of the fight included the line, every round starts standing and Toney will be dangerous whilst he is standing. He did not throw a punch while standing. Instead the two circled whilst way outside of range before Couture leapt onto his foot bringing Toney to the ground. It quickly became evident Toney had no clue what to do when he was on his back. Couture postured up, getting an arm triangle choke on which Toney submitted to. His foray into MMA was over. Toney was well paid for his troubles, earning $500,000 which was more than Couture and main event participants BJ Penn and Frankie Edgar earned.

To begin 2011, Toney would return to boxing and fight at his heaviest weight yet, beating Damon Reed despite being 257 pounds. Nine months later, Toney was fighting for a cruiserweight title at 200 pounds. Denis Lebedev will not be remembered as a legend of the sport but a good, dangerous cruiserweight who was far too much for Toney at this stage of his career. Toney barely won a minute of the fight in a dismal performance that saw him touch the canvas when he missed a big right hand. Next up was Bobby Gunn, who of course has also fought long time foe Roy Jones Jr. Gunn broke his hand and was promptly pulled out by his corner in the fifth round. Following the fight, Toney declared that Haye and the Bitchsko sisters were avoiding him.

Toney was then put in with unbeaten slugger Lucas Browne. It was a year since the Gunn win and Toney had struggled to find a fight. Tomasz Adamek was mentioned as a potential opponent but the outrage caused led to Main Events shelving the idea. Toney did not help his cause by threatening a writer who criticized the matchup in an indecipherable fashion. Journalists again bemoaned the Browne fight calling it a “morbid curiosity.” Browne used his long reach to keep Toney away and limited to wild single shots. Only two months later he was back in the ring beating journeyman Kenny Lamos. He then traveled across the pond to enter the Barry Hearn Prizefighter tournament. He beat Matt Legg by stoppage, showing glimpses of his talent but Jason Gavern would beat him in the semi final before losing to Michael Sprott. It was over 18 months before he got in the ring again, when he lost to Charles Ellis who outworked him, again using his length. Toney was declaring his intention to fight on until he had boxed 100 bouts. Instead he disappeared from the scene only to reappear with news of a bout in Michigan. He will take on Mike Sheppard, who has won 24 of his 46 bouts. It is being advertized as his final bout and boxing fans will really hope it is.

Descriptions of James Toney often begun with calling him as a throwback or an old school boxer. It is easy to see why. Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore have both been studied by Toney and implemented into his style. His defense was always his calling card. It was subtle, narrowly avoiding his opponents’ punches or taking them on his gloves and shoulders. His defensive excellence out of the Philly shell meant that Toney could be aggressive without slipping too many shots. His sturdy chin which meant he was never knocked out however high he got in the weights was another advantage he had. He loved to get on the inside and counterpunch from inside the pocket. The shorts uppercuts and hooks were deadly and accurate for Toney, something he used to perfection against Barkley. Toney also had the one shot power which saw him shock Nunn, but that shot also came from a cleverly laid trap and the work rate which had tired Nunn out. Toney seemed to enjoy a challenge, escalating along with his opponents.

The only time a challenge did not draw more out of Toney was Roy Jones and you can look at his explanations as to why. Toney also seemed to use disrespect to fuel him, punishing opponents who he believes have disrespected him. Even at distance his defense was subtle but effective, with a lovely counter right often firing back at an opponent’s jab. Freddie Roach described Toney as the most complete fighter he had ever worked with. He described his best features as things that cannot be taught, pointing out his timing and eyesight which helped him measure people better than anyone else.

Born to fight was always the refrain given by Toney. It was probably apt as he would eventually find out his Dad had boxed. It was also partially nurture. He grew up in an environment where fighting was normalized. The violence he encountered before his first birthday was more than most people ever encounter. Toney’s Dad consistently beat Toney’s mother and one night he shot her in the leg whilst she held James leaving a mark that still remains. When he was a year and seven months old his Father left, never to return. It had been a violent marriage, that Sherrie rushed into at 17. She fell for the recently paroled southerner. Schooling ended at ten after a rape charge while his first marriage ended after Toney Sr. went to prison for hitting his first wife with a clock. As Toney went on to say, “He made my Mum work two jobs and left his responsibilities behind.” Toney never forgave him. Whenever his rage and anger was brought up, it was his Dad he pointed the fingers towards. A relentless hating born of blood and abandonment. It meant that as a child he was troubled at school. His rage meant that no local school would accept him and his Mum was told by councilors to send him to a school for the mentally retarded and put him on tranquilizers to take the heat out of him. Sherrie refused and found a school where the teachers looked after him. He sees every opponent as his Dad, it fuels the anger that sees Toney explode. Toney believed if he ever met his Dad, he would kill him.

The reason Toney continues to fight is of course money. In 2012 it was revealed he was over $350,000 in debt to the California State despite earning more than a couple of million dollars from fighting. This is despite all the evidence which suggests James Toney is badly damaged. Dan Rafael suggested he believed Toney was suffering from brain damage. His speech has got progressively worse since the turn of the decade. The slurred rant about the ESPN writer who dared to suggest he should not fight was only the beginning. Donald McRae, who wrote Dark Trade, suggests he sounds “damaged and ruined” and we should be worried about his lack of clarity. His interview with Elie Seckbach in 2015 once again showed deterioration in his speech. Jackie Kallen had always planned for Toney to work in her husband’s construction business when he retired. Perhaps their relationship falling apart cost Toney a chance for normality post-boxing. Toney took shots from heavyweights. Naturally Toney should probably not have taken any shots from anyone weighing more than 175 pounds. His chin, which looked like a godsend in prime form, now harms him. Boxers like Lebedev, Browne, Oquendo and Rahman all hit Toney a worrying amount of times. It has all added up and Toney looks to be suffering the consequences.

With Toney the fear has to be his future. His love for fighting, the demons that have haunted his life and money troubles make for an uncomfortable concoction. Bill Miller declared without boxing Toney “would self-destruct” and declared that like all the other tough guys, he would be dead. Now we have to hope he is wrong. There is a possibility that there is a happy ending to the James Toney story, however the strong likelihood is that it will go wrong for Toney. He has never been positioned to succeed after boxing. However, neither was Tyson. The difference is that Toney seemed to have more choice and opportunity to make the best of his life. Jackie Kallen provided a launch pad in boxing, he turned on her. His Mum Sherrie raised him well putting him in a position to succeed at school but he fell into peer pressure and eventually turned on her. LA Times writer Chris Dufresne wrote about Toney at the peak of his powers and stated “the rage has paid him nice dividends.” It was true at the time, he had channeled the rage into boxing which he excelled at. He was one of the best boxers in the world and has an incredible résumé with brilliant wins. As much as Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather are labeled defensive geniuses, so was Toney and watching the way he integrates his attacks so seamlessly with his defense is still a treat for boxing fans. However, rage is a dangerous tool and for all Toney got the best out of it, he has also seen the worst. While the promotion behind boxing often comes across as false and pretend, Toney never seemed anything but real. He was truly himself and for it all can provide entertainment and add depth to a bout, it is also a little scary. A man with such rage who could use his fists as dangerous weapons is scary. It was uncomfortable enough when it came against trained professionals but when Toney threatened promoters or kicked spectators out of his gym if someone looked at him incorrectly, it should have set alarm bells ringing. Maybe we should just blame his Dad, Toney certainly has enough times. His issues remain unsolved, the people around him and himself never doing enough to solve them. It seems like it is probably too late but we can all hope that once again Toney proves the doubters wrong.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Michael Nunn vs James Toney (Full Fight.)

Iran Barkley vs James Toney 【Full Fight】

James Toney vs Vassiliy Jirov (High Quality)

Evander Holyfield vs James Toney [Full Fight]

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  1. Cain Bradley 09:49am, 05/18/2017

    As Toney often said, it depends whether he could be bothered to train. He believed he was good enough to beat them. If he really felt he would struggle against Jones then he would surely have trained but I believe he was at an absolute high then and would have believed himself untouchable.

    Thank you Lindy, means a lot

  2. Lindy Lindell 01:48am, 05/13/2017

    Simply put, this is the best piece ever on James Toney, one of the three great fighters to come out of southeast Michigan since Joe Louis.  The others are, of course, Tommy Hearns and Michael Moorer as a light heavyweight (Moorer was from Monessen, PA, but developed as a pro by Emanuel Steward).

  3. nicolas 06:20pm, 05/12/2017

    The writer claims that Jirov was never the same after the Toney match. While maybe the defeat did hurt him, it was earlier that one could see some problems. I remember the fight with Jorge Castro I believe it was, you could see that something was wrong there. I believe he had management troubles, one of the problems of boxing, even Toney may have had those, and I think that he even sued his wife, who was involved in his management. When Toney took the title from Ruiz, was shocked that there was not a match between Jones and Toney. In their only fight, Toney was weight drained I believe. How they might have fought as heavyweights, it is not entirely impossible that like Hopkins, Toney might have had his revenge. A Toney-Nunn rematch might have been interesting as well.

  4. Alt Knight 04:26pm, 05/12/2017

    And the ” SPIDER RICO, IS HE STILL AROUND AWARD” for 2017 goes to James Toney.

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