He was holding Jones accountable for all manner of slights. That Jones was a hero of the 1988 Olympics—where losing the gold medal on a controversial decision in the 156-pound final made him more famous than he would have been had he won—gnawed at Toney, by his own admission a former crack peddler. "Olympic medal," he snorted. "This country's done nothing for me. I'll bust that punk's ass for that." There was not a single social issue, when you got down to it, that could not be solved by simply busting Jones's punk ass.
People who know Toney wondered at times if this anger wasn't a put-on. He is, they said before the fight, generous to friends and strangers, and under the tutelage of 69-year-old trainer Bill Miller he has sometimes exhibited a kind of citizenship that belies his image. Friends said he can be a fun guy, a prankster who'll climb balconies to get into your hotel room and put syrup on your toilet seat or crunch potato chips between your sheets.
But there were manifestations of apparently real anger that were frightening. Toney's stated willingness to shoot his father, who is in jail on a rape charge and who shot Toney's mother when toddler James was in her arms, seemed genuine. And there are enough flashes of menace to keep those around him on their toes.
Last week manager Jackie Kallen was reminiscing about all the fun times with Toney when she suddenly remembered that they didn't always turn out to be such a hoot: "You know, we laugh now, but it's not funny when I have to sneak a sparring partner out of the hotel in the middle of the night. We lost a good one the other day. He was afraid James was going to shave his head." (After the fight, Kallen had reason to fear for her own person when Toney threatened to kill her. Though he backed off and no charges were filed, Toney also threatened to dismiss Kallen as manager.)
The cumulative effect of Toney's doomsday pronouncements, his Sonny Liston stare and his 44-0-2 record against some pretty tough middleweights produced a scare. One reporter, hearing from another that Toney was in a head-shaving mood, refused to conduct an interview in anything but a public space. All this was having no effect on Jones. A kind of wonder boy who had been nursed through the early stages of his career by a protective father, Jones has often been cast as overly cautious and tentative. Explaining why he had fought so seldom since turning pro in 1989—he was 26-0 going in against Toney—he said, "Boxing is a dangerous thing. You might not come out of a fight the same way you went in." And yet he didn't seem much shaken by Toney's promise of trouble.
"Who cares about a mouth?" Jones said the day before the bout. "You've got birds that can talk." Even a magnificent showdown at the prefight press conference left Jones merely nonplussed. "All I could think," Jones said, "was that he's so doggone ugly."
Jones's reluctance to enter the ring except under ideal conditions, and his disappearances from public life between fights, allowed boxing people to think he was underconfident. And the fact that he had become estranged from his father, however nettle-some Roy Sr. had become to the boxing establishment, and had placed himself under an amateur trainer named Alton Merkerson did not give his enterprise any added credibility. The Toney camp especially zeroed in on Jones's relative lack of competition on the way to his IBF middleweight title (which he forsook to make this fight). Maybe Jones had never lost a round, Toney trainer Miller said, but that was against lackluster opponents such as Bernard Hopkins and Thomas Tate. "Them fellows wouldn't throw rocks in a race riot," Miller declared.
As is often the case in boxing, everybody was wrong about everything. In the ring Toney's hardness of heart was irrelevant. And whether Jones would rather train his horses in Pensacola, Fla., than risk disfigurement in Las Vegas was beside the point as well. All that mattered was that Jones was too good an athlete, too creative a performer, too spontaneous a boxer to brook competition from Toney or anybody else.
And all that's left to lament is that Jones does not have a Hagler or a Hearns out there to cast his talents in the proper perspective. Then again, competition could become unnecessary to the proper enjoyment of his abilities. We'll just have to learn that boxing, at least in the Jones era, is not so much a fistic debate as it is a soliloquy.