first amateur fight, like all his bouts, was a lively affair. It was at a
Blue-Gold tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Toney, 12 years old and 125
pounds, mostly mouth, was delighted at the opportunity to display his
greatness. Giddy, actually. In what would become trademark trash talk, he
offered the poor lad his choice of poison ("Left or right?") and corner
("Wherever you wanna lay down at"). The opponent stopped Toney in the
Though Toney was embarrassed enough to go into immediate hiding back in his
hotel room, not coming out until 10 that night, the mortification did not take.
In fact, to this day he faces a steep learning curve when it comes to modesty.
A quarter century and a minimum 100 pounds later, Toney insists, going into
this Saturday night's fight in Atlantic City for Hasim Rahman's WBC heavyweight
title, that he is the "savior" of boxing.
As in that first bout, there are arguments to be made to the contrary. On the
one hand, he is among the most admired fighters in all of boxing, respected for
his old-school devotion to technique, an active ring life (76 fights, 69 of
them wins--unheard of!) and his bodacious heart. On the other, after a brief
flourish as boxing's best middleweight (maybe its best fighter) a decade ago,
he remains mostly a disappointment, having squandered his early greatness at
the dessert cart. No other fighter of comparable abilities has
wallowed--literally wallowed--so long in boxing's nether land, spending his
prime fighting no-names in Indian casinos like the Pechanga and the Chinook
And yet here he
is, paunchier than ever and at 37 certainly older, raising hopes that he can be
a dependable heavyweight, a champion of ability, devotion and personality. Can
a onetime middleweight, who ate himself out of the game after losing to Roy
Jones Jr. in 1994, possibly reclaim enough form and fire to beat the bigger
Rahman? Can a onetime crack dealer who loved nothing more than the chance to
wave a "nine" under a rival's nose stay away from mischief? Can a
three-year comeback, during which his pudginess has so far been offset by an
ingrained skill set, carry him once more into the big time?
"I have one
rule in boxing," says Emanuel Steward, who has trained dozens of champions
and who knew the young Toney as a cantankerous and boastful visitor to his
Kronk gym in Detroit. "Never bet against James Toney."
Toney does have a
way of surprising people, whether it's upsetting heavily favored opponents, or
producing a handgun during sparring, or putting itching powder in his brother's
underwear. On a recent day he was at the Sherman Oaks, Calif., office of his
promoter, positively radiant with self-satisfaction. On his way up, he had
noticed a Bentley belonging to Pete Rose, a fellow client of promoter Dan
Goossen, in the parking lot and had, after getting the keys from a valet on the
sly, reparked the car in another slot. Yet he may have simply been enjoying the
residual glow of a prefight scuffle with Rahman, whom he had run into in a
hotel lobby in Cancun, where the WBC was holding an award ceremony and where
Toney was on his honeymoon after his Dec. 19 marriage to longtime partner Angie
It is hard to
tell with Toney, who remains complicated even as he's matured. His thirst for
violence remains unquenched, yet he's still the guy playfully trying to scare
the neighborhood kids on Halloween. Reports of him as a doofus dad (at his
suburban Calabasas, Calif., home, he's surrounded by four girls and a boy,
ranging in age from 2 to 13, one from a previous marriage, the other four with
Angie) continue to compromise his fierce persona, so carefully cultivated a
decade ago, when his nickname was Lights Out.
uncomplicated about Toney is his throwback style, which he has always had and
which will be buried with him. People who know boxing agree that Toney is not
so much a born fighter as he is a reincarnated one. He is channeling any of a
host of legends, guys remembered only in grainy film clips. Depending on whom
you talk to, Toney calls to mind Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, Archie
Moore, Charley Burley or Sam Langford. These were guys who survived hundreds of
fights with a ducking-rolling style that made boxing a discipline as much as it
was a sport. They were mechanics, just as Toney is today.
Bob Arum, who
promoted Toney during his first fling at greatness, says, "He's reminiscent
of all the great fighters, back when it really was a science. The way he rolls
with the punches, avoids getting hit, the way he can cut distance in the ring.
He is probably the smartest, most skillful fighter, the most old-school, the
last guy to know all the tricks."
them from veteran trainer Bill Miller, who exposed him to his library of tapes
when Toney was a teenager. "James was a good student," says Miller, now
80, one of those final links to another generation of boxing. "He took
advantage of my library, say that."
Toney was always
surprisingly easy to train. And to motivate. His second manager, Jackie Kallen,
who got a little famous many years later when Meg Ryan starred in a movie about
her, remembers taking him to the opulent home of Tommy Hearns, the many-time
world champ and the "pope of Detroit" in Toney's eyes. He was agog at
the trappings--so excited he turned and gave Kallen a big kiss. Still, he
quickly recovered his self-confidence and blurted to the Hit Man that he'd have
more trophies someday. "Bigger house, too," he said.
That was in 1989,
and for the next three years his reputation as a fierce, glowering and
indomitable middleweight grew. As his record improved, stories from his youth
began to take on more of an inner-city flavor. Though he was an All-State
quarterback at Huron High, he may have been even better known around the
neighborhood as the go-to guy for crack cocaine, with his own secret
compartment in his hallway locker. Toney and his half brother, Jimmy Griggs,
apparently had a Junior Achievement thing going, raking in $2,600 a week until
Griggs got caught and jailed for 21/2 years. Toney, who says he immediately
quit dealing after that, did not subsequently disabuse anyone of the notion
that he was a man to be feared, in and out of the ring.