There are nights in boxing, for the viewer, so vivid as to make every mention of them bring back a wave of emotion embedding them in the immediate. It feels like it just happened again because of the smile the memories bring to your face, or because the where you were when watching is instantly so vivid.
For this author, one of those fights lined up with a reader request.
J. Bell sent the following:
I'm a long time reader, but writing in for the first time. I live in the UK and...I watched it a lot. I had seen the result online and after reading about the fight in Boxing Monthly, I knew I had to watch it. I'd been closely following the second coming of James Toney and in retrospect this was the pinnacle of that run in my eyes.
What a fight! Jirov was steak tough, skilled and throwing a lot of leather with bad intentions. James gave a masterclass in defensive counter punching and applying smart, calculated pressure. His conditioning was where it needed to be. He showcased once again his uncanny composure under intense pressure. He seemed relaxed, which I think was the cornerstone of his all round skill set, especially at key moments; the definition of unflappable.
I hope you give this fight consideration for your boxing without boxing series.
The memory of this fight, of a room full of people who were on their feet, none with any particular rooting interest going in, high fiving at the thrill of the finish, remains a favorite. Even if it wasn’t, a request email this enthusisatically written is more than worth a spin.
In one corner, the Val Barker trophy winner at the 1996 Olympics, awarded for the outstanding overall boxer of the Games. Jirov had upset Gold medal favorite Antonio Tarver in the semi-finals that year on the road to light heavyweight gold, reversing the outcome of their semi-final at the World Championships one year prior. As a professional, and in the wake of Juan Carlos Gomez’s exit to the heavyweight class, Jirov had emerged as the de facto leader at cruiserweight.
In the opposing corner, an erratic talent with two major titles in lower weight classes but an inconsistent work ethic. James Toney was looking for a career resurrecting win. His professional stature had never recovered after a lopsided 1994 loss to Roy Jones. A pair of debatable points losses to Montell Griffin, and an inexplicable loss to the ordinary Drake Thadzi, would have marked the end at the highest levels for many battlers.
Toney, following more than a year off between 1997-99 after a win over Steve Little, returned to the ring sluggishly above the heavyweight limit and gradually worked his way toward the then-190 lb. limit at cruiser. Beginning with a victory over Terry Porter, Toney put together ten in a row, the last of them a knockout of Jason Robinson to earn mandatory contender status with the IBF.
Based on the styles, and aided at least a little by a vocal lobbying effort to see the fight from a young Friday Night Fights studio analyst named Max Kellerman even before Toney’s win over Robinson, Jirov-Toney looked like a potential gem going in. Writing about the quality of the fight on its eve, Kellerman noted:
...Jirov has been seen as potentially the most exciting cruiserweight since Evander Holyfield - which is the same thing as saying the second-most exciting cruiserweight of all-time. And he even has a logical foil - James "Lights Out" Toney - a name opponent with whom he can make the first great cruiserweight match since Evander Holyfield challenged Dwight Muhammad Qawi in the summer of '86.
Fans indeed got a great match in one of the great HBO Boxing After Dark encounters.
Heading Into the Fight
Titles: IBF Cruiserweight (1999-2003, 6 Defenses)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 188 lbs.
Hailed from: Kazakhstan
Record: 31-0, 27 KO
Ring Magazine Ranking: #1 (Cover Date: August 2003)
Record in Title Fights: 7-0, 6 KO
Previous Five Opponents: 203-19-8 (.900)
Previous Titles: Lineal/IBF middleweight (1991-92, 6 Defenses); IBF super middleweight (1993-94, 3 Defenses)
Weight: 190 lb.
Hailed from: Detroit, Michigan
Record: 65-4-2, 42 KO
Ring Magazine Ranking: #4
Record in Major Title Fights: 10-1-1, 5 KO
Last Five Opponents: 103-48-11 (.670)
Venue: Foxwoods Resort, Mashantucket, Connecticut
Referee: Steve Smoger
Recapping the Action
Toney starts with several feints, then a right hand. Jirov warms up quickly, winging in combination in an effort to find openings over the top and to the body. Shooting his jab and firing stiff straight rights, Toney is looking to make his shots count while forcing Jirov to expend energy whacking Toney to the back, shoulders, and elbows. In the closing seconds, Jirov lands a good shot to the body only to take one more sharp right.
Both men come out firing to start the second. A Jirov left to the body forces Toney to take a step back. Jirov keeps the pressure on, letting his hands go as Toney steps into a corner and then looks for counters off the ropes. In the final thirty seconds, Toney leans into the ropes, chopping away with rights and lefts while blocking much of Jirov’s greater volume of blows.
A Jirov low blow brings a break moments into the frame. Referee Smoger loudly lets Jirov know the next low blow will cost a point. When the action resumes, Toney brings the fight to Jirov, landing some big shots before again briefly going to the ropes. Back at mid-ring, Toney seemingly can’t miss with the right when he sees the openings. A relaxed Toney takes measured steps back, letting Jirov walk into range for Toney’s shots even as the champion digs in with some nasty stuff to the body. Toney ends the round with a short left and right.
The challenger takes the lead right away, again picking away with a series of short shots before resuming a more measured approach. Jirov finds some success with lead right hooks high on the head but seems too willing to block the jab of Toney with his face. Jirov closes with a quick hook.
Jirov starts with two lefts and Toney almost loses his balance on the Budweiser logo at center ring. A Toney right uppercut seems to wobble Jirov but he recovers quickly as they work a steady circle competing at mid-range. Jirov lands a combination and Toney replies with a right. The round ends with Toney popping stinging rights and lefts off the ropes as Jirov looks for a way to break the guard of the more experienced man.
Two Jirov blows to Toney’s body draw some effective headshots in return. Even bouncing a bit on his toes, Toney uses his feet and shoulders to keep Jirov guessing. Jirov gets some clean leather home to the head and body against the ropes on both sides of the ring, using his size to drive Toney into a corner late. Both men land thudding hooks to the sides before the bell.
The second half begins with Toney playing the aggressor for the first thirty seconds before stepping back to work the perimeter. In another tense moment in the trenches, both men land clean blows near the ropes and they do the same in the center of the ring. Toney cuffs Jirov with a series of right hands, slinging some left hooks behind them while Jirov buzzes with activity around him.
The earlier warning comes into play as another round is halted early by a low blow. Jirov loses a point and action resumes faster then it did in the third. Toney comes forward and lands a right immediately but Jirov battles fiercely to offset the deduction. Landing some of his best lefts to the body, and rights to the head, Jirov refuses to give even as Toney finds opening after opening to use his aggression against him.
The slick ring logo again worms into the action, Toney’s feet sliding out from under him during an exchange and sending him to the floor on a knee. They step into a phone booth in the final minute, exchanging punches back and forth with Jirov seeming to have a boost in energy and more accuracy down the stretch.
Toney gets Jirov’s attention with whipping right hands at the start. Toney goes to the ropes and starts to tee off, a right uppercut stunning Jirov who seems to be losing steam by the second. Jirov responds to fatigue by moving his hands anyways and some zip returns in the final minute. Toney takes some slapping blows to the head and closes the tenth with a battering left hook.
Another left hook is Toney’s first significant blow of the round and Jirov uses his body to smother the incoming and push Toney backwards. A Jirov right knocks Toney off balance, in part due to the ring logo, but Toney responds as if rattled. Tottering toward the ropes, Toney takes more than he can give until late in the round. With Jirov letting it all hang out, Toney digs with some hard counters before the bell to keep Jirov’s respect with three minutes to go.
Both men respond to trainers Tommy Brooks (Jirov) and Freddie Roach (Toney) as they psyche themselves up for one last walk through hell. They touch gloves and Jirov fires first. It’s not long before both men are just taking turns landing bombs. Gradually, it is Toney’s shorter shots inside the moving arms of Jirov that start to turn the tide. With just more than a minute to go, Toney lands a left hook and the posture of Jirov slacks. Jirov just keeps swinging and Toney lands more lefts. Then a Toney right nails Jirov and the challenger steps forward. Another right lifts Jirov’s left leg from the floor but Jirov stays on his feet. Jirov takes a right, then lands a bigger one. Toney lands a left to the body, then the head, a right upstairs, another left and finally a right as the late Emanuel Steward explodes in glee at the action on commentary. Jirov falls with less than twenty seconds remaining in the fight. Jirov beats the count and the bell sounds before another blow can land.
After the Bell
The decision was unanimous for the more accurate, masterful display of Toney at scores of 117-109 twice and 116-110. The BWAA would vote the vicious encounter the Fight of the Year, a rare split with Ring Magazine which shaded the honors to Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward III. Neither was a wrong choice.
The win was the first half of a pair that saw Toney end 2003 as both the Ring and BWAA Fighter of the Year. In Toney’s next start, he would move to heavyweight and become only the second man to stop the great Evander Holyfield. While a faded version of the former heavyweight king, Holyfield would fight ten more times, receive two more alphabelt opportunities, and never be stopped again.
It was no small feat.
Toney’s win over Jirov left an impression on many who had seen him lose so much time over the years. Writing for Maxboxing at the time, Doug Fischer offered:
It was about time we saw James Toney fight like he gave a damn. The last time we witnessed old "Lights Out" slip and dip under that many punches from a truly world-class opponent and come back with deadly accurate counter punches was 10 years ago when the brash-but-savvy youngster chopped up the menacing Iran Barkley over nine one-sided rounds to win the super middleweight title.
Ten years and 22 pounds later, Toney, 34, was almost as sharp as the 24-year-old version of himself in winning his third world title, the IBF cruiserweight belt, against the very game and tough Vassiliy Jirov via unanimous decision. But this fight wasn't one-sided, despite the rather lopsided official scorecards. Toney had to work hard for this win. Toney had to dig deep.
As good a year as it was for Toney, it was only a matter of time before old habits resurfaced. He was still the sort of fighter good enough as a relative novice to beat Michael Nunn and Mike McCallum and unreliable enough to need a terrible decision to keep the middleweight crown against Dave Tiberi.
After Holyfield, Toney ruptured his Achilles in training for Jameel McCline. By the time he got to a title crack at WBA titlist John Ruiz in 2005, Toney had blown up to 233 lbs. He won anyways, only to forfeit the victory after a failed test for PEDs. Two fights later he came in even heavier and mustered a draw in a shot at WBC heavyweight titlist Hasim Rahman.
He followed that by losing a debated decision to rising Sam Peter and then dropped a clear decision in their rematch. Between the second Peter loss and a rematch with Hasim Rahman, there was another PED incident. The Rahman rematch is largely forgotten but was a glimpse of what might have been. Coming in at least below 230 lbs., Toney was off to a great start, having his way with the former undisputed champion. He would continue to fight on until 2017 but never won another title.
Toney has not yet been eligible for voting for the International Boxing Hall of Fame but, despite the lows, had more than enough highs to assume induction in his future. One of the best of those highs came against Jirov.
Jirov’s time as a titlist ended that memorable night in 2003 and he never got a crack at heavyweight glory. It wasn’t the last memory he left in the ring. Jirov won a pair of fights before consecutive losses in 2004 to heavyweights Joe Mesi and former champion Michael Moorer. The Mesi fight was a sad one, with some errant shots to the back of Mesi’s head believed to have contributed to an early end to Mesi’s career. While not Jirov’s final fight, readers are encouraged to seek out the clash with Moorer. It was a brutal contest that stands as arguably the last, best outing of both men.
Toney-Jirov felt like a blip on the radar at the time in the US market in terms of cruiserweight relevance. It was instead a precursor of a rich era to come on both sides of the Atlantic. Through the rest of the decade, fans would be treated to memorable clashes between the likes of Jean Marc Mormeck, O’Neill Bell, Wayne Braithwaite, Steve Cunningham, David Haye, and Tomasz Adamek among others. While still more marketable outside the US, cruiserweight has been one of the most consistently deep, talented, and entertaining weight classes of the 21st century.
On a spring night in Connecticut, we got a hint of the possibilities and an enduring classic all its own.
While the sport is largely postponed, boxing has a rich library of classic fights, films, and books to pass the time. In terms of fights, readers are welcome to get involved. Feel free to email, comment in the forum, or tweet @roldboxing with classic title fight suggestions. If they are widely available on YouTube, and this scribe has never seen them or simply wants to see them again, the suggestion will be credited while the fight is reviewed in a future chapter of Boxing Without Boxing.
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Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com