By TK Stewart
Great prizefighters are rarely mean-spirited people. The great ones have a way of letting their fists do the talking. For them talk is cheap. The very nature of their chosen profession seems to siphon away their maliciousness outside the ring. In simpler times, another time, another place, the world was less complicated and the fight game was populated by noble men.
Having been lucky enough to have spent summer mornings and fall evenings with gentlemen like Floyd Patterson, Carlos Ortiz and Alexis Arguello its easy to forget that these men achieved what they did in life by beating others with their fists. They are gracious, humble souls full of endearing qualities and they have an appreciation for a having lived an honest life.
They respected their sport and the championships that they won and lost in the ring. There was no trash talking during their primes, no profanity laced tirades and no disrespect. They weren’t thugs – they were men – and they wore their violence subtly.
Earlier this week, the defiant James Toney, who seems to have issues with the world and everyone living in it, was asked to comment on the status of his preparation for his upcoming heavyweight bout with fellow contender Samuel Peter. They were honest questions that deserved an honest answer. Instead, James Toney used this as another opportunity to disrespect not only himself, but also the very sport which he represents.
When the mercurial Toney, who has often shown up for bouts in less than trim condition, was asked about his weight he rudely responded, "I am a (bleeping) heavyweight. No one questioned Ali and Foreman, so don't question me." When he was asked who his sparring partners were it was more hatred from Toney, "Keep asking stupid questions, it'll be you. Now (bleep) off!"
Walk the grounds of The International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York on any afternoon and it becomes readily apparent that many of those enshrined are spoken about in revered terms. Joe Louis was regal. Rocky Marciano was charming. Floyd Patterson was humble.
Great fighters are often remembered as great men first and as great fighters second. Listen to the old-timers talk about the greats and there are as many anecdotes and stories about the character of the man as there are about their ring achievements.
James Toney is destined to be enshrined into the same hall of fame that contains names that are boxing royalty. He has that kind of career. Sure, we’re living in different times now, a different world, and being a thug sells. Violence, vitriol and crass behavior is certainly appealing to some fight fans and a wide cross-section of the public in general.
Being crude and rude is attention grabbing and it will probably help sell a few tickets when Toney meets Peter in Los Angeles in less than a month. Maybe the world we live in now would chew a sensitive guy like Floyd Patterson up and spit him out.
Legendary sports writer Jimmy Cannon once wrote about what it was like to be a friend of the gentlemanly Rocky Marciano. "The ferocity of his style was glorious in its persistent recklessness, and his fights were a series of crises. But this is a guy that left his cruelty in the rings that were splattered with his blood." Cannon was always impressed with Marciano’s gentle nature, his warm smile and happy handshake. Marciano retired as heavyweight champion of the world with a perfect record of 49-0 and he left the sport, and later this world, with legions of adoring fans.
Look at the old black and white pictures of Marciano and those around him and the faces are gleeful ones filled with joy. There was no swearing, no rudeness and no bragging.
Perhaps the great former welterweight champion Jimmy "Baby Face" McLarnin put it all into the best perspective. Interviewed many years after his hall of fame career had ended, the always affable McLarnin had this to say: "I was in the fight game for twenty years, and very rarely have I run across a fighter I didn’t like. I came up as a poor youngster, and I think most of the boys that ever get into the fight game are poor kids. They learn to take and to give. I think a lot of them have learned from experience that it pays to be nice. James J. Corbett used to come out to my camp. Any time I was training for a fight, he’d always come and visit me. He used to come to my dressing room and advise me. I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Jimmy, remember one thing. A fighter can always afford to be a gentleman.’ And I’ve never forgotten that."
Maybe James Toney should begin asking himself now how he’d like to be remembered.
Five years after he throws his final punch as a prizefighter, on a warm Sunday afternoon in June, James Toney is going to slowly climb a few steps to a lectern in Canastota, New York. His friends, family and a great crowd of boxing fans will be in the audience. Ed Brophy is going to present him with an oversized gold ring. He is then going to be asked to say a few words into the microphone.
Whether James Toney is remembered as a thug, or as a man, will be up to him.
TK Stewart is a 2006 Boxing Writers Association of America Barney Award recipient. He can be reached at [email protected]