by Cain Bradley
We left Toney at a cross-roads in his career. Was he about to throw his success away?
On his return Toney went on a winning streak. Heavyweight Ramon Garbey was a victim of this run and in 2003 Toney 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, making 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. 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 previous year The Ring magazine rankings saw him fourth in the heavyweight division.
After a tight opening, Toney began to dominate with quick hands and clever combinations. A left hook to the body dropped Holyfield, before the towel was thrown 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.
A couple of fights after this 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 for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. 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 later with a unanimous victory over Dominick Guinn. Hasim Rahman and his WBA belt were next for Toney. As always, the pre-fight camaraderie saw the men exchange insults.
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, much to the disappointment of both men. Freddie Roach waved away Toney’s post-fight apology as the judges did not understand countering, while Toney himself declared to his wife that he was still the best heavyweight in the world.
Toney received a mediocre offer to fight Wladimir Klitschko, which he turned down. Instead he fought a WBC eliminator against the highly regarded Samuel Peter. 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.
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 (MMA) and the UFC. He terrorized UFC president Dana White, asking for a sit-down meeting. Toney eventually wore him down 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 in his default position.
He didn't throw a punch while standing; immediately negating his position of power. Instead, the two circled whilst way outside of range before Couture leapt onto his front-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 257lb. Nine months later, Toney was fighting for a cruiserweight title at 200lb. 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 British champion David 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 by the speculation led to Main Events shelving the idea.
Toney did not help his cause by threatening a writer who criticised 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 would take on Mike Sheppard, who had won 24 of his 46 bouts.
Descriptions of James Toney often begun with calling him a throwback or an old school boxer. 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 was in weight. He loved to get on the inside and counterpunch from inside the pocket. The short uppercuts and hooks were deadly and accurate weapons 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 always seemed to enjoy a challenge. He would eventually find out his Dad had boxed. It was also partially nurture. He grew up in an environment where fighting was normalised. 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 19-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. 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.
His rage meant that no local school would accept him and his Mum was told by councillors to send him to a school for the mentally challenged and put him on tranquillisers 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.
During an interview with Elie Seckbach, in 2015, he 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 175lbs. His chin, which looked like a godsend in prime form, now harms him.
His love for fighting, the demons that have haunted his life and money troubles make for an uncomfortable concoction. Would winning his final fight keep him intoxicated by the drug of fighting? Would the Michigan man dream about what could happen until he took a beating that he never recovered from?
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.
He was, and always will be, one of the finest pugilistic talents to have graced the sport. His behaviour and his conditioning outside of the ring is concerning, but the lure of boxing once again has taken its strangle over an ageing, elder-statesman.