The son hates the father, and it is a coursing, relentless hatred born of blood and abandonment. The father was a big and violent man; he and the mother tore at each other in reckless rage until one night the father took out a gun and shot the mother, leaving a bullet in her leg. The father left a short while later, just up and split when the boy was seven months old. Today the son is 23, a middleweight champion of the world, and as he talks about the hatred, he works his knuckles in the way that some people spin the cylinder of a gun, as if he is trying to get in touch with something powerful just below the skin or at least trying to keep it at bay.
"I fight with anger," explains James Toney Jr. "My dad, he did my mom wrong. He left us, he beat my mother up all the time. He shot my mom, left her with a mark on her leg. He made my mom work two jobs, and he just left his responsibilities behind. I can never forgive that. Why should I? I know where he is. I hope he reads this, because if he ever decides to come out of the woodwork, I'll be ready for him. I'll have some fun then.
"Everything is about that. I look at my opponent and I see my dad, so I have to take him out. I have to kill him. I'll do anything I have to do to get him out of there." Last May 10, a 20-to-1 favorite named Michael Nunn dropped his hands a minute into the 11th round of a fight that he was winning easily. Toney looked up and saw his father there. He says now that when his left hook landed, "I felt it in my toes." Nunn went down, and he and his IBF middleweight title never made it out of the round together.
"He's got to be a helluva fighter to do what he did to my guy," says Angelo Dundee, who trained Nunn for that fight.
There was an unbridled ferocity in Toney that night, something in him that, paradoxically, he seems to be struggling to recapture. Since the Nunn fight, he has been floored in a win over Reggie Johnson and utterly baffled by old-bones Mike McCallum, who on Dec. 13 maneuvered Toney into a draw that McCallum probably didn't deserve. However, Toney was repaid handsomely for that little bit of scorecard piracy on Feb. 8, when he met an utterly anonymous Sunday school teacher named Dave Tiberi.
Toney undertrained for the fight and then tried to makeweight in a hurry. Consequently, he was flat and physically depleted. He cramped up throughout the fight; indeed, Toney was later hospitalized for dehydration. Tiberi landed most of what few punches actually mattered, and the whole narcoleptic fandango ended with Toney winning a split decision that ABC's Alex Wallau termed "disgusting." Though there is no evidence of wrongdoing, the fight attracted the attention of Representative William Roth, a Republican from Tiberi's home state of Delaware, who intends to make the outcome of the bout the centerpiece of a larger investigation into boxing.
"I knew how bad I was going in," Toney says. "I was cramping up in my bedroom all morning. The next time I fight him, I'll be in great shape." To that end, a nutritionist has been added to the Toney camp. "Burger King has seen the last of my face for a while," he says.
Toney ducks no one. When he fights Glenn Wolfe on April 11, it will be his fourth title defense in 12 months, and Toney fought six times in 1991 alone. But it's more than the fact that Toney likes to fight, it is that he must fight. He is pursuing a phantom, trying to remake himself in the middle of a long and desperate chase.
His is a modern story, perfect for a decade of ruined cities and broken lives. He is part of this new generation of athletes who come from environments in which the conventional social order has crumbled completely and been replaced by a culture of drugs and gangs that presents some sort of structure to children who have been abandoned at home. For the foreseeable future, sport is going to be in large part the province of survivors who come blinking out of a blasted landscape.
Corporate America, here is James Toney, your athlete of the '90s: He once sold drugs and carried a gun. His first manager took 19 bullets from some very professional gentlemen of the drug trade and died, bleeding, right there on the sidewalk. Toney's father shot his mother, but she was strong enough to start her own business and to look at her only son and tell him, "You got three choices: prison, rehab or tombstone. You decide." He chose boxing. He never looked back.