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Where's the discipline?

Toney hardly looks like a boxer in prime of his career

Posted: Monday March 20, 2006 1:49PM; Updated: Monday March 20, 2006 5:38PM
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For what should have been the fight of his life, James Toney appeared to be in awful shape against Hasim Rahman on Saturday.
For what should have been the fight of his life, James Toney appeared to be in awful shape against Hasim Rahman on Saturday.
Al Bello/Getty Images

As I get older and less forgiving, I often find myself quoting Animal House's Dean Wormer. And so there I was, barking at the TV on Saturday night, lecturing James Toney: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

I regretted it almost immediately, because Toney, for all his faults, is no drunk. Still, what did he weigh for the biggest fight of his life? About 400 pounds? The fat and stupid definitely applied, even if he was lucky enough to waddle to a draw against Hasim Rahman in their rather drab heavyweight title bout. To fight and eat another day, I guess.

I shouldn't have been too surprised. Toney has never been a very disciplined athlete. A onetime middleweight (where else do you put a boxer who stands 5-foot-9 on his tiptoes?), Toney has often provided more drama at the weigh-in than in the ring. For several fights he simply blew past the limit, endured fines and censure and a boxing backwater during what should have been his prime. Even when he made weight, as in his 1994 bout with Roy Jones Jr., the issue of his appetite loomed large. He had to lose so much weight for that weigh-in, he had to be supported at the scales.

I didn't imagine there'd be a similar problem on Saturday night. After all, Toney had long since caved in to the dessert cart and moved up to heavyweight, where his sacrifices were bound to be minimal. And he does have a tremendous work ethic when it comes to boxing -- no fighter before or since spends so much of his training in actual sparring. Plus, this was the moment his two-year comeback had been leading up to, putting him within reach of one of the most important titles in sports.

So I knew he'd be big. But Michelin-tire-guy big? If there'd been any more fat folding over his trunks, I'd have fitted him for a thong and sent him to a dojo.

As you can gather by my disappointment, I was rooting for him. The fact that he survived on the scorecards (curiously, according to my own score-keeping) does not encourage me much. If he can't get into shape for a title fight of this importance, I can't expect much of him. And more important, if he can't outpoint Rahman under any conditions, then I fail to see the future for a 37-year-old heavyweight, even in this ramshackle division.

I was looking forward to a championship for Toney for the best of all possible reasons. I hoped to write about him again. He's something of a madman -- he likes to wave firearms about when sparring partners needlessly aggravate him -- but he's also part clown. And he has endless history, more anecdotes than any boxing writer could ever exhaust. Not all of them are entirely believable, of course. Did he really earn $2,600 a week selling crack to his high school classmates? Sounds like a lot. I would have preferred a figure more like $500, but it's his story.

Here's another one. When I once asked Toney, whose fascination with guns has been a problem over the years, if he'd ever had a chance to draw down on somebody during his drug-dealing days, he at first demurred. But his half-brother, Jimmy Griggs, prodded him toward the old family yarn.

"Tell him about the 'Switcheroo in '87,'" Griggs said. Toney laughed, but still demurred. Apparently a drug deal went bad and James -- "I'm no punk," he interrupted, during Griggs' telling of the tale -- went to the chiseler's door (substituted aspirin? Not a good idea) waving a "nine." No shots were fired, but the scene was apparently hilarious enough to inspire belly laughs to this day.

"Won't forget his look," Griggs said, chuckling. I had a feeling there were more stories just like that.

I doubt if I'll ever get to write them, though. Toney's probably not done. Boxing is so colorless at the moment that it might forgive his draw, give him a rematch or push him toward some other titleholder who could use the box-office clout this lovable lug will provide.

But a 37-year-old fighter who still can't recognize the immediacy of his career -- does he not think time is running out? -- will no longer raise hope in my household. I hate to quote Dean Wormer again, but, as far as I'm concerned, James Toney is on double-secret probation.