By Terence Dooley
In this post-modern boxing age of old-school, new-school, never-went-to-school James Toney (77-10-3, 47 KOs) is patronised in some quarters as a fat guy who could do a few shoulder rolls. Yes, and Joe Louis was a short guy who could punch a little bit. In a single year, 1991, Toney arguably achieved more at middleweight than Bernard Hopkins achieved in the years in which he allowed inertia to creep in after the triumph of his win over Felix Trinidad.
Some fighters receive a fighter of the year award despite only fighting twice in a year. When most fighters win a title they don’t think 'Hey I cannot wait to defend this title' but rather 'I’m going to take six months off then try and duck out of my mandatory'. Toney was a different breed and in 1991 he created a very good year for Michigan-born boys who love to fight, one that is unlikely to be bettered, especially given the fact that keep busy non-title fights are no longer in vogue.
Toney’s epic year opened with a crossroads fight as he squared up to the fellow unbeaten hopeful Merqui Sosa for the spurious IBC middleweight-title. This was a clash to determine which of the two undefeated fighters would step into the higher echelons and it was also a fight in which we began to see embryonic flashes of the silky skills that Toney would perfect over the next few years.
“Once in a while, I do look back at my fights and think: ‘Damn! I was a bad dude’,” exclaimed Toney when speaking about the remarkable year when he fought Sosa (W SD 12), Alberto Gonzalez (W TKO 5), Michael Nunn (W RSF 11 to win the IBF middleweight title), Reggie Johnson (W SD 12), Francesco Dell’Aquila (W TKO 4) and Mike McCallum (D12).
“I was losing to Nunn because I lost the focus of what I went in there for, to win the world title, and was trying to knock him out with one shot,” was his recollection of his title win. “Once I got back into my game plan, I started to bring him down. I knew after the 10th that after one more round he’d be gone.
“Against McCallum, I won that fight, but they just saved him for another one with the draw. He knows who won. Mike was the best fighter I ever fought, though. Before I fought him, I was not as cute as I was after we fought. Everything he did made me think and work.
“I fought all the time. I was just trying to make a name myself, to let people know I was the baddest motherf***er out there. Everyone wants to be a rapper, a movie star or a TV star today, they want to be known for something else and not for being a fighter.”
Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan Toney came through when Detroit was still an industrial as well as a boxing hotbed. Heated sparring sessions had left him bruised and bemused, underlining the need to adopt a more methodical approach to his craft.
“At first, I was just trying to knock everyone out. Then I sparred some guys and that sh*t wasn’t working so I thought: ‘I need to adapt’. I went home, put tapes in my VHS of guys like Charles, [Archie] Moore, [Sandy] Sadler and all those names. It was like I was back in high school. I was studying again.”
He added: “If you are going to be a fighter you need to be serious. You can get in with a guy who looks like Pee-wee Herman and discover that this motherf***er can fight.”
Toney had relied on his physical prowess early in his career before veteran trainer Bill Miller added finesse. Miller had learned a lot of lessons under the legendary Whitey Bimstein and brought them all to bear on Toney.
“I owe Bill a lot. When we first started gelling together, Bill would say: ‘OK, here is how it works, first thing you will do is come and stay with me’. The first two nights, he had me up running in the morning. Well, he said the morning, but he didn’t tell me the time, so when 5.30am came was knocking on my door to wake me up. I told him he’d said we were going to run in the morning and he said: ‘It is 5.30, this is the morning’. It was cold as hell, too. Bill dropped me off away from the house then would tell me to run right back. Bill was like soft jazz as a person, but it was an ass whooping for me at first.”
“The reason I don’t train fighters myself is that I’m a hothead,” answered Toney when asked if he will eventually move into coaching. “If a kid won’t train, I won’t kiss his ass or chase him. I’m not a babysitter. People want to be fighters because they see [Floyd] Mayweather earning big money. They don’t understand that he trains and works hard. ‘Triple G’ works hard, so does Danny Jacobs. That’s what makes a fighter. You got 18, 19-year-old kids at home and this is them: seven o’clock (feigns snoring), 10 o’clock (snores), 12 o’clock (snores)—f*** that, get your ass out of bed.”
The phrase “Old-school boxer” is often bandied about to describe someone who can actually box—a boxer, as they were once simply known—without an over-reliance on physical gifts, craftsmen. Toney believes that there are few of them about these days.
“Not everyone can fight like Tommy [Hearns], not everyone can fight like James Toney—we were too original to copy. People try. People say Floyd is closest to me yet he doesn’t do the things I’d do. I’d stay close, in the pocket, and try to hit you back. I don’t run from punches.”
Former rival and potential foe Bernard Hopkins has also been named as a fighter who has stylistic echoes of a peak Toney, a comparison that raised a bit of the old ire when I mentioned it.
“I’d have knocked Hopkins out, he was a simple, easy fighter to figure out,” blasted Toney. “The only reason y’all consider him a great fighter is because he held and head butted his way to titles and defences of the titles.”
Toney was also featured in-depth in the December 14 issue of Boxing News, you can purchase a copy here: https://www.boxingnewsshop.com/store/boxingnews/boxing-news-14th-december/.