James Toney’s Greatest Hits: Lights Out
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The Ring Magazine.
THE CONSUMMATE THROWBACK FIGHTER RECALLS SIX ‘LIGHTS OUT’ PERFORMANCES DURING A LEGENDARY CAREER THAT SPANNED TWO DECADES AND FIVE WEIGHT CLASSES
James Toney was both a throwback fighter and one of the faces of a brash new era in the sport.
Although Toney was part of the next wave of boxing stars that defined the 1990s along with Riddick Bowe, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Terry Norris, Shane Mosley and his hated rival, Roy Jones Jr., his boxing mentality was decidedly old school.
Toney would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime. He’s proud of the quality of his opposition, especially early in his pro career, which began in October 1988 and was kicked into high gear when, as a 20-to-1 underdog, he got a shot at IBF middleweight titleholder Michael Nunn in May 1991 and beat the pound-for-pound-rated southpaw with a dramatic come-from-behind 11th-round stoppage.
“I always wanted to fight the best, and I never avoided anyone in my whole career,” Toney told The Ring during a one-on-one interview in August at Buddy McGirt’s Gym in Northridge, California.
“I fought Michael Nunn and Mike McCallum in the same year,” continued the Michigan native, who earned The Ring’s 1991 Fighter of the Year award on the strength of those two performances (the McCallum fight ended in a split draw). “After I beat Nunn, I fought Reggie Johnson – the No. 1 contender – the next month. Who does that?”
Toney, who turned 51 on August 24, is also proud of having been a fighting champion.
“In 1992, I fought three title fights – including my second fight with McCallum – and two non-title fights,” said Toney, who fought 12 times in 1989, his first full year as a pro, and 10 times in 1990.
“In 1993, I fought two title fights – including Iran Barkley, who had belts at light heavyweight and super middleweight – and five non-title bouts. In 1994, I fought three title fights – including ‘Prince’ Charles Williams, the (IBF) light heavyweight champ, and Roy Jones – and two non-title bouts.”
His first championship run, which combined IBF middleweight and super middleweight reigns, ended with his unanimous-decision loss to Jones. It would be almost nine years before he fought for another major world title, but it was a wild ride that thrilled fans and fascinated sportswriters.
‘I don’t know who changed the routine in boxing or why they did it, but fighters these days only spar on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I don’t play that shit!’
A big part of Toney’s appeal and media interest was his hot temper. The product of a broken home and rough upbringing in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, it never took much for Toney’s inner rage to explode into his surroundings when he felt disrespected. His volatile nature made him a polarizing figure in boxing, but his outbursts and antics – which included verbal abuse and sometimes physical attacks on his opponents at press conferences and weigh-ins – went hand-in-hand with the often vulgar and violent “gangsta rap,” which he was quite fond of and was very popular during his peak years.
Like that vitriolic brand of hip-hop, Toney enjoyed crossover success for a number of years but had pretty much run his course by the end of the decade. Most fans believed he had burned out on the sport following a loss to unheralded light heavyweight Drake Thazdi in 1997. And they were right. Toney retired for one year (1998) and gained 100 pounds during his time away from the ring.
However, while his persona may have mirrored gangsta rap, his boxing craft, which was taught and developed by jazz aficionado Bill Miller, was pure Bebop. And that brilliant blend of offense and defense enabled Toney to make an improbable comeback in his 30s. His extended encore – which included a cruiserweight world title, The Ring’s 2003 Fighter of the Year award and legitimate heavyweight contender status – was guided by Freddie Roach and co-manager John Arthur, but Toney’s ability to mix it up with much bigger men was mainly due to a boxing foundation that was built by the old sage from Detroit.
“Everybody knows about Emanuel Steward, and most think he was the main trainer at Kronk Gym, but Manny had help,” Toney said. “Bill Miller, Luther Burges, Walter Smith – these were the main guys developing the first champions out of the gym. When Bill and Manny had a falling out and I parted ways with my trainers, Bill became my head coach in 1989.
“He sat me down and said, ‘We’re going to do this my way. You’re going to be a champion if you listen to me, I promise.’”
Toney learned how to box like the pro fighters of the 1940s under Miller’s tutelage, which meant learning the finer points of craft: jabs, feints, proper hand placement and footwork, head- and upper-body movement, blocking and parrying, inside technique, combination punching and counterpunching (which he had an uncanny knack for).
Toney, who only had 33 amateur bouts, put Miller’s teachings into practice during countless rounds of sparring.
“The only way to be a great fighter in this era is to box every day, and by that I mean you have to get your sparring in,” Toney said. “Bill Miller is one of the greatest trainers of all time, and he told me the only way to be a real boxer is to box every day.
“I had a gym back home in Michigan for a while, and every day everyone just came in to hit bags. One day, I came in and told them I want all these bags out. I told everyone in there, ‘If you ain’t boxing, don’t come to my gym.’
“I don’t know who changed the routine in boxing or why they did it, but fighters these days only spar on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I don’t play that shit! I’m going to do it my way, and that’s the best way. From 1987 to 2013, I boxed every day in the gym.”
With Miller, who parted ways with Toney in 1995 and passed away in 2012, the education continued after gym hours at his house reviewing footage of fighters from past eras.
“Bill was a fight collector,” Toney said. “He had a giant VHS tape collection and I watched them every night after training, before I went to bed. I would take a look at the greats – Henry Armstrong, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott – and also some of the old-time fighters most fans don’t know about … Battling Siki, Gypsy Joe Harris. He introduced all these greats to me.”
Toney’s career far surpassed those of Siki and Harris, and had he been more disciplined, it could have been on par with Armstrong and Charles. With 92 pro fights, he fought 21 more bouts than Walcott, which was clearly too many, judging by his severely slurred speech today. However, he appears healthy; his spirits were up the day The Ring visited for this interview, and his mind remains sharp (he instantly recalled dates, locations, names and other details of every fight discussed).
When asked if he regretted fighting as long as he did or fighting at heavyweight, which brought on an added degree of physical punishment, he said he wouldn’t change a thing other than be more dedicated to the sport.
“The only man that could truly beat me was me,” he said.
“It was always my dream to be heavyweight champ. I’m proud that 18 years after I turned pro at 157 pounds, I fought the No. 1 contender, Sam Peter, and I know I beat him. Fuck the judges!
“If I was 35 years old today, I’d challenge all the top heavyweights, starting with Deontay Wilder – because he’s the easiest.”
That’s ole “Lights Out” for ya. He still loves boxing but adds that he doesn’t like the way the sport has changed, pointing to the inactivity among top fighters and their unwillingness to challenge themselves.
“Boxing has become soft, and I have a word for what it suffers from,” he said. “I call it ‘bitchitis.’”
Toney has mellowed a lot with age, but he’s still got some gangsta rapper in him and he remains at heart a fighter – one that certainly didn’t suffer from bitchitis, as evidenced by six of his greatest hits.
May 10, 1991/John O’Donnell Stadium, Davenport, Iowa
Titles: IBF middleweight
“I wasn’t even supposed to fight Michael Nunn in ’91. He was supposed to fight (mandatory contender) Reggie Johnson. Didn’t happen. Then Steve Collins was supposed to get the shot. Didn’t happen. So, when they came to me with (the opportunity), I told (manager) Jackie (Kallen), ‘You better take this damn fight. I’m going to knock him out.’ She was nervous about it because Nunn was a star – he was supposed to be pound-for-pound and all that – but I didn’t care. I’m a dog. I’m coming to get you no matter who you are, even in your hometown like I did Nunn. I told Michael this at the last press conference on Wednesday, and he tried to say something back and put his hand on me. I picked the motherfucker up and threw him on the table. I told him, ‘You touch me again, I’ll kill you.’ But I knew it would be a difficult fight, because I had never fought a southpaw before. So, I trained diligently for eight weeks. I sparred every day. But come fight night, Michael had me so mad that for the first five rounds, I was trying to knock him out with one shot. Before the sixth round, Bill slapped me and told me to get back on our game. I started putting punches together – three, four and five at a time – and wearing him down. Everything changed after the fifth round. I told Bill after the seventh round, ‘Pops, I got him. He won’t make it,’ because I started getting to his body and I could hear him grunt every time I hit him there. Before the 11th round I said, ‘Pops, I’m getting him this round.’ He was ready to go.”
RESULT: TONEY TKO 11
December 13, 1991/Convention Hall, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Titles: IBF middleweight
“Mind you, nobody wanted any part of McCallum. Mind you, Michael Nunn didn’t want any part of McCallum. Mind you, McCallum was trained by Eddie Futch. Mind you, McCallum had trained at Kronk. And I didn’t give a damn. At first, I thought he was old, and I was getting ready to bum rush him in the ring. But Bill had worked with him at Kronk, and he told me, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t just run in on a veteran like McCallum. Listen to me, son. We’re going to get to him with smart pressure.’ Pressure busts pipes. And that’s what happened to him. I settled down, I picked and picked at him – pop, pop, pop – and then we came on strong (down the stretch). I thought I won the fight, everybody did, but they gave me a draw. I grew up in that fight. Before then, I tried to knock everyone out, but with Mike, I had to be careful so I wouldn’t get set up. I was more well-rounded after that fight, and that’s why Mike didn’t want to commit in the rematch. I was a slicker fighter; I was moving him, turning him into punches, and I also had more confidence. I knew Mike McCallum was a great fighter, but I knew I was better. And he knew I had that hot sauce for him in the rematch, which is why he ran.”
RESULT: SPLIT DRAW
February 13, 1993/Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
Titles: IBF super middleweight
“The first thing I remember about that fight was the press conferences, back when they did real press junkets, city to city. Barkley was crazy. He was trying to fight right there at the press conference in each city, and I obliged him. When we got to L.A. for the final press conference, things got out of hand. Iran actually had a blade, like his nickname, and he acted like he was trying to stab somebody. But I wasn’t playin’. I tried to grab a gun from a security officer. (Barkley) got mad about that, but I don’t play that shit. That was my first big Las Vegas fight, and I trained in L.A. Every day, I ran at Griffith Park up to the Hollywood sign. Every day. Believe me, I didn’t like L.A. back then. I wasn’t enamored with Hollywood and all that shit, so I wasn’t happy. I was hoping Barkley would try to back up all the street-gang talk in the ring, because it didn’t mean shit to me. I was built for this, and I knew I was gonna put it on him, because I had problems with him and his trainer, Eddie Mustafa (Muhammad). I wanted to knock Eddie out, too. I had fun whuppin’ Barkley’s ass. I was at my best for that fight, and I had my stamina back because I was fighting at 168 pounds. Everybody forgets I used to play football in high school. I was 205 pounds. I came down to 157 to turn pro because everybody told me that I had to fight at middleweight. But to make 160, I couldn’t eat the week of the fight. So, I was strong for Barkley, and he paid for that. I cut him up. It was bloody. I probably broke parts of his face.”
RESULT: TONEY TKO 9
July 29, 1994/MGM Grand, Las Vegas
Titles: IBF super middleweight
“He was a strong fighter, very strong. He was determined. He was taking the shots I was giving to him and coming back with his own. I fought the first half of the fight on the ropes, and I know people were thinking, ‘What the hell is he doing there, letting this big, strong dude hit him?’ But I could take his punches, and I was blocking most of them. People thought I was getting beat up. My eye was swollen, but he was coming in with his head and he had something in his hair, maybe Jheri Curl, and that got in my eye. But I knew what I was doing, and I knew I was hurting him with body shots and uppercuts. I could tell I was getting to him by the fourth or fifth round. But he kept coming. Just before the 12th round came, I said, ‘Bill, I’m about to knock him out. It’s coming.’ Bill said, ‘Nah, we got the win. Just move around.’ Man, fuck that. I’m hard-headed. I wanted to do things my way and knock this motherfucker out. And boom! That right hand came. Lights out. Everything Bill Miller taught me over the years worked in that fight. I was taught to weaken my foes and then take advantage of them. I would slip and counter in the first half (of a fight), just touch them with accurate punches, and then land the power down the stretch. I wore my opponents down mentally, too, because I always talked to them. I’d say anything, I’d talk about their mommas, just to get in their head. But Charles didn’t talk back.”
RESULT: TONEY KO 12
April 26, 2003/Foxwoods Casino, Mashantucket, Connecticut
Titles: IBF cruiserweight
“He was an Olympic gold medalist. They made him the best fighter (Val Barker Award winner) at those Olympics (1996 Games). He was undefeated. He was the cruiserweight champ. He had Tommy Brooks and Thel Torrance in his corner. But what the fuck did I care? We ain’t amateurs. This is the pros. What was he going to show me that I hadn’t already seen? Were Tommy and Thel going to fight for him? I had my experience. I had Freddie Roach and Pops (John Arthur) in my corner. Jirov’s team made it easy work for me, because they thought he could break me down with pressure. They thought he could hurt me to the body. They didn’t think I was a real cruiserweight, even though they said I wasn’t going to make the weight. Everybody made me the underdog, but it didn’t matter. The only thing I remember about the fight itself was that I was war-ready. Anything and everything, I was ready for it. I trained like a deranged dog for that fight. I had him down in the 12th round and almost had him knocked out, just like Charles Williams. But I made my point. I will outbox the boxer, like I did Mike McCallum, and I will out-slug the slugger, like I did Iran Barkley. I can box and I can punch, but I would rather punch.”
RESULT: TONEY UD 12
October 4, 2003/Mandalay Bay Casino, Las Vegas
Titles: Non-title bout
“I was confident going into that fight, because I was at the weight that I should have been my whole career. I was strong and I had another great camp. I couldn’t wait for that fight. I was a fan of Holyfield. Before we sat down for the opening press conference at a steakhouse in Burbank, I told John (Arthur), ‘Pops, I’m going to be cool for this one, because I love Holyfield.’ But when Holyfield said I would be a good tune-up fight for him, I said, ‘Pops, all bets are off. Fuck Evander Holyfield.’ All respect I had for him went out the window, and I told him right to his face I was going to kick his ass. That made me step my training camp up a couple notches. I wanted to show everybody not only am I going to knock him out, but I belong at heavyweight, and I can even be heavyweight champion.”
RESULT: TONEY TKO 9