Updated: Aug 12, 2019
James Toney had all the makings of a Mike Tyson 2.0. Both men were wild, angry with the world and had spates of endless boxing ability
At only two years older than Tyson, a then 49-year-old Toney took part in his final bout last May. It was a win against Mike Sheppard. He won the WBF championship that night and managed to remain out of the boxing ring until November 2018.
He found himself back in the ring for a white collar bout against former ABA Champion Sam Pomphrey. Toney drew that night, but onlookers reported him doing the cleaner work.
Mike Tyson always looked a reluctant fighter, in complete contrast Toney had the opposite problem; he loved 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 mother, Sherrie, to first take him to a boxing gym aged 11. Boxing was not something he began to take seriously until he was much older. Instead, Toney was found himself getting into trouble, dealing drugs and threatening violence while at high school.
Nicknamed 'Lights Out', as a teenager Toney played American football. He was seen as 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 - leaidng him to punch the star- were both feted as reasons Toney would eventually concentrate on boxing.
Boxing became more than a hobby. His amateur record of 33-2 came with a fearsome knockout ratio which led to his moniker. Gregory Owens scouted Toney and would train the big puncher in the professional ranks.
Even as 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 liked the perfectionist side of Toney and took a chance on his talent. To show his appreciation he bought his manager sweaters, diamonds and wore the famous Star of David on his trunks.
Two years after his debut and Toney was on his 23rd professional fight, a Tyson-esque pace. It came in a rematch against Sanderline Williams, whom 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 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 started to take effect. In the 11th round, Toney landed a huge left hook to drop Nunn. After an onslaught of right hands, the referee jumped in to crown Toney. “I told you so,” he screamed to a stunned crowd as he became the youngest middleweight champion in 50 years.
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 'Marvellous Marvin Hagler Championship Trophy ' to denote the best middleweight in the world. Hagler decided he believed Toney had won and so Toney was given 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.
Fortunately, 1992 begun with Toney receiving his a gift of a decision against Dave Tiberi. The decision was so bad it saw Senator William Roth call for an investigation into boxing corruption. He retain his title by split-decision and blamed a bad weight-cut leaving him flat, as he ended up in hospital with dehydration. Mike McCallum was his final victory at middleweight by majority decision.
Toney's first opponent at super-middleweight, Doug DeWitt was stopped after six brutal rounds. It was also the night where he was pulled away from beating up a man outside of the ring by Jackie and Sherrie. That man? The current President of the United States - Donald Trump. He still wishes he “knocked his head off.”
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 whom 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 he 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, [and] make that boy my bitch for the night.”
James Toney was the favorite heading into the contest but in what became a 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 an astonishing 44lbs in six weeks and 18lbs in the final few days. In hindsight, Toney entering the ring at 186lbs should have been a warning that his weight cut had been particularly horrific. Toney was lethargic for all but little bursts out the fight. He suffered a debatable knockdown in the third round and never really got into the fight. A bitter disappointment for him and the legion of expectant 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 Sherrie and a social life falling apart, Toney descended into partying and addiction. Roy Jones Jr 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 nine times in 20 months - 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. Leading to Toney taking a self imposed break, missing the whole of 1998.
Where would the troubled star go from here? Taking boxing seriously always seemed a struggle.