By Cliff Rold

James Toney has been a special fighter, a throwback to earlier eras whose instincts and talents were obvious from early on.  It is those truths which leave many still disappointed, frustrated, as viewers of his remarkable career.  The saga continues Saturday at Heavyweight against late replacement Fres Oquendo (29-4, 18 KO).  For the curious, Toney has weighed in at a reasonable (for him) 230 lbs. for the contest.

This examination is less concerned with this Saturday than it is the many which precede it.

Multiple world titles and stunning victories are offset by memories of nights when he didn’t seem to prepare.  Remarkable battles with Heavyweights who bested him and height and size are offset by failed steroid tests in recent years.

Toney has been fond of saying over the years that, while others learn, he was born to fight.  On his best days, anyone who respects the idiosyncrasies which make Boxing a ‘sweet science’ agrees.  On his worst days, yes even then, Toney has never failed to show flashes of the same.  But can a fighter whose bad days will always be as vividly remembered as his best ones stack up against the yardstick of history?

The question is asked:

How good is James Toney, measured against all-time?

In answering the question, five categories will be examined:

1. Accomplishments

2. Competition Faced

3. Competition Not Faced

4. Reaction to Adversity

5. What’s Left to Prove

With that in mind, let’s head to…

The Tale of the Tape

Age: 40

Height: 5’10

Birth Place: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Turned Professional: October 26, 1988 (TKO2 Stephen Lee)

Record: 70-6-3, 2 No Contests, 43 KO

Record in Title Fights: 11-1-2, 1 No Contest, 5 KO

Lineal World Titles: Middleweight (1991-92, 6 Defenses)

Other Major Titles: IBF Middleweight (1991-92, 6 Defenses); IBF Super Middleweight (1993-94, 3 Defenses); IBF Cruiserweight (2003, 0 Defenses)

Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated or Drawn: 4 (Michael Nunn, Steve Little, Evander Holyfield, Hasim Rahman)

Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated or Drawn: 7 (Reggie Johnson, Mike McCallum, Iran Barkley, Charles Williams, Adolpho Washington, Vasily Jirov, John Ruiz (win changed to no contest following failed steroid test))

Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in Defeat: 3 (Roy Jones, Montell Griffin, Samuel Peter)

Accomplishments

Toney has won a number of lesser recognized alphabelt straps (think WBU, IBO variety) in many weight classes but there are three title reigns which stand as his pinnacle of accomplishment.  As a name known only to hardcore fight watchers and readers of Ring Magazine’s “New Faces” series, James Toney was part of what would be a failed experiment when he got his first crack at a title.  HBO was testing the idea of a “Fight of the Month” pay-per-view series through a new brand, TVKO, and Toney’s challenge of then IBF titlist and lineal* World Middleweight champion Michael Nunn in May 1991 was heavily hyped in advertising throughout the premiere TVKO voyage, Evander Holyfield-George Foreman.  Nunn-Toney was a disaster in terms of sales…

…but those who didn’t make the purchase missed a classic as Toney came from behind to unseat a champion most rated then in the top three, pound for pound, in the world.  Toney followed the Nunn win with six successful (if one very controversial…more later) title defenses, one of which was supposed to be a unification bout.  Then-future Hall of Famer Mike McCallum paid a step aside fee to the WBA for the Toney bout in lieu of facing a mandatory, Steve Collins, whom he’d already widely defeated.  A second request for payment led McCallum to abandon the belt and he would draw against, and later lose to, Toney.

Toney vacated the Middleweight honors and moved to the Super Middleweight class for a hyped grudge match with veteran Iran Barkley for the IBF belt.  A nine round drubbing ensued in February 1993 and Toney would post three title defenses before losing his title in one-sided fashion to an emergent Roy Jones Jr. in November 1994. 

Toney moved up to Light Heavyweight but his title days were ended for many years, some even thought for good after an embarrassing loss to journeyman Drake Thadzi in 1997.  Toney was off for almost two years between 1997 and 1999 before returning as a Cruiserweight and embarking on a tremendous rebuilding project through ten straight wins which landed him a shot at IBF titlist Vasily Jirov.  Toney won a rugged decision and promptly moved up to the Heavyweight division, becoming only the second man ever to stop former World Heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield in nine rounds. 

Toney has not, to date, captured one of the major sanctioning body titles at Heavyweight but came close twice.  In April 2005, he outboxed John Ruiz to take the WBA belt only to have the decision reversed when he tested positive for a performance enhancer.  In March 2006, he went to a controversial draw with then-WBC titlist and former World Champion Hasim Rahman.

His campaigns in 1991 and 2003 were both recognized by Ring Magazine and the Boxing Writers Association of America with Fighter of the Year honors.  The bout with Jirov was named 2003’s Fight of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Traceable to Nunn-Sumbu Kalambay  

Competition Faced

A review of his titular accomplishments alone gives an indication of the strengths found in Toney’s quality of opposition.  He came of age in one of the most athletically gifted, and historically underappreciated, Middleweight eras in history.  Turned pro just months apart from Jones, with lesser amateur pedigree, he blew past him in terms of early ascendancy with a prodigious 1991. 

Toney began the year defeating an undefeated Merqui Sosa and two fights later toppled an undefeated Nunn with a dramatic 11th round stoppage.  Less than two months later, he got off the floor to score a split decision versus a 1-loss Reggie Johnson; two fights later Johnson would win a narrow decision of his own over Steve Collins for McCallum’s vacated belt.  Following a softer defense overseas, Toney would finish the year with the draw against McCallum which most scored a win.

His next bout would come on ABC’s Wide World of Sports against unheralded Dave Tiberi.  While documented as a win for Toney, the bulk of the world saw Tiberi winning the fight and Congressional inquiries into the sport ensued.  Tiberi quit the sport in disgust and Toney moved on a couple of fights later to a rematch with McCallum.  Again a hint of argument lingered in what would be a majority decision win.  Both fights were excellent encounters and McCallum is generally recognized as both a very good Middleweight and one of the greatest of Jr. Middleweights.

At Super Middleweight, he tested the water with fading veteran Doug DeWitt before tackling a Barkley whose career had rebounded from some tough losses with an IBF Super Middleweight title win against Darrin Van Horn and IBF Light Heavyweight title, and second upset, win versus Thomas Hearns.  A string of non-title fights followed before a defense against Tony Thornton and the first of two Light Heavyweight wins over former Olympian Anthony Hembrick in early 1994.  Toney’s next defense came against an undefeated Tim Littles in four thrilling rounds best remembered for a third round cut to Toney and subsequent knockout against the clock.  A final winning defense in a lost classic with former long-reigning IBF Light Heavyweight titlist Charles Williams ended with a final round knockout, marking the peak of Toney’s first set of glory years.  The Jones bout is a compliment in terms of opposition quality; the result less so, costing Toney pieces of his reputation, his title and a lucrative multi-year contract with HBO. 

Toney’s foray at Light Heavyweight started badly in terms of results but the competition was solid in a highly disputed decision loss to then-undefeated Montell Griffin in February 1995, bumping Toney from his HBO player position for over a year.  The second Hembrick win, nationally televised on CBS, would be his most notable before a Griffin rematch in December 1996, the winner ostensibly to face a Jones who had recently captured WBC honors at Light Heavyweight.  Toney appeared to do more than enough to win in many eyes but it would be Griffin who moved on to split two fights with Jones.  A rubber match with McCallum on ESPN in February 1997 provided a solid outing for both in what would be McCallum’s farewell bout; fittingly two judges had the bout within two points.  The Thadzi disaster followed before a win over former lineal# World Super Middleweight champ Steve Little and the long layoff.

The Cruiserweight comeback began with journeyman fare but quickly evolved to a stoppage win of former IBF titlist Adolpho Washington.  Seven more wins against various contender types viewed by large basic cable audiences built towards an IBF elimination bout knockout of Jason Robinson, securing the fight with an undefeated Jirov largely regarded as the division’s best.

Toney’s competition at Heavyweight has been solid and he has competed there solely since the Jirov bout.  Two former Heavyweight champions, Holyfield and Hasim Rahman, multiple time titlist Ruiz, a still game Dominick Guinn and two bouts with eventual WBC titlist Sam Peter kept Toney in the thick of things until the decisive second loss to Peter.

Competition Not Faced 

As noted in previous editions of “Measured Against All-Time,” this section is not concerned with why fights didn’t get made.  It simply embraces their lack of existence. 

The depth of the Middleweight division in the early 90s was such that no one, under modern schedules, could have fought everyone.  The two most notable misses for Toney can be split between evident-at-the-time and evident-in-retrospect.  Julian Jackson reigned as WBC champion in 1991 and was rightly feared as perhaps the best power puncher in Boxing.  When Toney vacated the title, Bernard Hopkins had ascended to the mandatory position, a just missed battle of legends which no one would have known for what it was at the time.  Years later, they came close to doing battle at Cruiserweight but it seems destined to remain a mythical matchup.  There were others at Middleweight, like a still viable Sumbu Kalambay and a rising Gerald McClellan, but the first two are most notable.

At Super Middleweight, the most prominent misses were the British-based triad of Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Steve Collins.  Like a bout with Jackson, bouts with Benn and Eubank were hot topics which remained chatter.  It also might have been interesting to see a rematch with Nunn, who captured the WBA and strictly lineal crown at 168.  175 is hard to assess for misses because so little of significance happened there in the Toney career.  Bouts with champions Henry Maske, Virgil Hill or Dariusz Michalczewski would have been interesting but the timing, given the Griffin losses, makes them hard to see as misses.

At Cruiserweight, Toney could have enhanced his stature with bouts against WBC titlist Juan Carlos Gomez or WBO man Johnny Nelson.  At heavyweight, Toney would likely still love a crack at either Klitschko brother.  An all-Michigan showdown around 2004-05 with Chris Byrd could have been a technical classic.

Toney stands out amongst his peers for both the number of fights he’s had as well as a strong field of competition.  In an era with less market and regional restraints, he likely faces many of the names listed in this section.  He still faced his fair share.

Reaction to Adversity

In his most grueling fights, when he was in fighting form, Toney was the rare fighter who could escalate along with opponents.  Against Nunn, McCallum, Williams, Jirov…the opponent would adjust and take the fight to a new level.  Toney would follow and then turn the bouts, forcing the opponents to catch his pace.  It is fights like those which made his reputation and keep him fascinating even past his prime.  His subtle defense, accurate punching, and sturdy chin kept him in every fight.  Even losing almost every second to Roy Jones, he found a brief opening at the end of the eighth round with an almost miracle right hand, stunning Jones only to be stopped from following up when referee Richard Steele mistook the ten-second warning for a final bell.

That he needed a miracle against Jones was another significant part of his reputation.  Toney’s greatest adversity rarely came in the ring.  It came in the days and weeks before he got there.  The idea of the out of shape Toney could actually be a bit over stated.  Six losses in some eighty fights isn’t an accident.  With Toney, it was more an expectation of eventual letdowns fulfilled at bad times.

It started early in his career and not when most remember.  A special exception from the IBF allowed him to defend his title against Francesco Dell’Aquila in October 1991 even though he’d missed weight.  This was one fight prior to the first Mccallum classic.  Most watching in 1992, and many who have heard the legends, recall the Tiberi fight.  After nearly decapitating the challenger early, a Toney who’d strained to make 160 began to cramp and struggled mightily with the activity of the light punching journeyman.  By the time he got to Jones, Tiberi was largely dismissed as youthful indiscretion.  He showed it might be otherwise.

The Griffin fights were both controversial but ended with the feeling that even if Toney had deserved the verdicts, he wasn’t pushing himself to peak.  The Thadzi loss was embarrassing as was the gut carried at over 230 lbs. for some of his heavyweight encounters.  The Rahman draw in particular left supporters shaking their head.  He could land at will until forced to move and then his girth left him unbalanced.

In retrospect, one could argue Toney didn’t handle prosperity well; that he was better as an underdog.  When Toney was assumed not ready (Nunn, McCallum) or too small (Jirov, Holyfield), he turned in gems.  He was well behind against Nunn after the first half but fought like hell unleashed all night, missing shots by shorter and shorter gaps until Nunn’s chin collapsed.  He weathered the brute size and volume of the former Olympic Gold medalist Jirov, never losing his cool, and left the larger man on the floor to end the night.  The weight of expectation was lifted and Toney just fought. 

It was in moments when he was called upon to truly live up to his prodigious talents that Toney would occasionally fall short, playing below the level of opponents and below the level of himself. 

What’s Left to Prove

At age forty, and with a decisive loss to Sam Peter in their 2007 rematch, another Toney renaissance seems unlikely.  It is not impossible.  In his last bout, he was dominating Rahman in their rematch and managed to come in at his lowest weight since the Holyfield bout, showing improved balance and crisp punching.  A win against Oquendo keeps him viable and, say against someone like Ruslan Chagaev or David Haye, a final big win would top a career full of statements when counted out.  Being Toney, it would be less than shocking if he knocked off a Klitschko and then lost to a Tye Fields.

In other words, Toney’s proven his stuff already and can only serve to magnify the good and bad of his career until its final end.  Through twenty years as a professional, Toney’s question marks weigh far heavier in terms of ‘what if’ and ‘what might have been’ then what’s left. 

For the sheer joy of speculation, if it could be made to happen, a bout with a now 43-year old Hopkins, damn the weight, could still be a classic.

Measured Against History

James Toney will always be remembered and debated when arguments come up about the best men who made up his years in the sport.  His run from 1991-94, later magnified by the Cruiserweight and Heavyweight run from 99-2003, speak to a fighter of rare quality. 

While his reign at Middleweight was short and blemished by Tiberi, wins against Nunn, McCallum and Johnson may have equaled the quality of Hopkins entire cadre of Middleweight opponents in twenty defenses.  So impressive was he at 168 that many rate him only behind Joe Calzaghe and Roy Jones as the best fighter the division has ever seen.  At Cruiserweight, Toney can argue with a straight face he belongs in any debate about the number two spot in the division’s approximately thirty year history behind only the great Holyfield.

In some respects, Toney’s career mirrors the legendary Roberto Duran.  Battles with the scale, head scratching losses and disasters on big (and small) stages are part of the legends of both.  For Duran, time quiets his faults because at his best he was easily one of the greatest warriors ever to lace gloves and his worst moments came after he’d secured his legacy.  Closer to fifteen years into his career and beyond, No Mas, Kirkland Laing and Hearns came after he cleaned out Lightweight and toppled Carlos Palomino and Ray Leonard.

Another comparison point could come from fellow former Middleweight king Jake LaMotta.  The scale sometimes beat him; he has some losses of subpar quality; no one questions his place when he regularly shows up amongst the ten-twenty best ever at 160 lbs.

Toney falls short of a Duran because his failings were evident so much earlier in his tenure and continued throughout his career.  Jones, Tiberi, and Thadzi all came when he was in his physical prime.  There is also the question of performance enhancing drugs.  Failed tests after Ruiz and a fight with club fighter Danny Batchelder in 2007 are serious strikes for some, particularly in terms of eventual Hall of Fame voting.  Ruiz might be more forgiven if not for the second test.  The Ruiz doping occurred when Toney accepted a fight on short notice coming off an injury and he was still a jiggling roll in the bout.  There is no fathomable rationalization for Batchelder.

So Toney falls short of a guy like Duran…so what?  Duran is arguably a top-ten all time figure.  There are more than ten all-time greats.  While Toney will always suffer from the questions about what he didn’t do, those are a reflection of a feeling that with the sort of monastic fervor of a Marvin Hagler, Toney may well have cracked those ten.  When people saw Toney at his best, they saw greatness.

Even with flaws, Toney beat and/or was recognized as the best fighter in the world in three different weight divisions in his career and managed to navigate himself into the top five-ten Heavyweights, his fifth weight division, for almost four years from 2003-07.  Imagined at his very best, he’s the exception to rules which say anything old beats anything new.  Toney going punch for punch with Archie Moore or Ezzard Charles is not only conceivable…it’s a dream worth having.

So he wasn’t what he could have been or what so many wish he had been.  Pound for pound, he still rates comparison with the top 50-100 fighters ever.   

Verdict on James Toney: All-Time Great

Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest. 

Previous Mesaurements:

Joe Calzaghehttps://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16920

Oscar De La Hoyahttps://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17277

Next up: Shane Mosley prior to his January bout with Antonio Margarito

Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America.  He can be reached at roldboxing@hotmail.com