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The Sins of the Father

March 30, 1992
March 30, 1992

Table of Contents
March 30, 1992

NCAA Tournament
Lipton Tennis
Andy MacPhail
James Toney
Wrestling
Cross-Country
Chris Mullin
Point After

The Sins of the Father

James Toney, the IBF middleweight champ, yearns to punish the man who left him and his mother 22 years ago

The son hates the father, and it is a coursing, relentless hatred born of blood and abandonment. The father was a big and violent man; he and the mother tore at each other in reckless rage until one night the father took out a gun and shot the mother, leaving a bullet in her leg. The father left a short while later, just up and split when the boy was seven months old. Today the son is 23, a middleweight champion of the world, and as he talks about the hatred, he works his knuckles in the way that some people spin the cylinder of a gun, as if he is trying to get in touch with something powerful just below the skin or at least trying to keep it at bay.

This is an article from the March 30, 1992 issue Original Layout

"I fight with anger," explains James Toney Jr. "My dad, he did my mom wrong. He left us, he beat my mother up all the time. He shot my mom, left her with a mark on her leg. He made my mom work two jobs, and he just left his responsibilities behind. I can never forgive that. Why should I? I know where he is. I hope he reads this, because if he ever decides to come out of the woodwork, I'll be ready for him. I'll have some fun then.

"Everything is about that. I look at my opponent and I see my dad, so I have to take him out. I have to kill him. I'll do anything I have to do to get him out of there." Last May 10, a 20-to-1 favorite named Michael Nunn dropped his hands a minute into the 11th round of a fight that he was winning easily. Toney looked up and saw his father there. He says now that when his left hook landed, "I felt it in my toes." Nunn went down, and he and his IBF middleweight title never made it out of the round together.

"He's got to be a helluva fighter to do what he did to my guy," says Angelo Dundee, who trained Nunn for that fight.

There was an unbridled ferocity in Toney that night, something in him that, paradoxically, he seems to be struggling to recapture. Since the Nunn fight, he has been floored in a win over Reggie Johnson and utterly baffled by old-bones Mike McCallum, who on Dec. 13 maneuvered Toney into a draw that McCallum probably didn't deserve. However, Toney was repaid handsomely for that little bit of scorecard piracy on Feb. 8, when he met an utterly anonymous Sunday school teacher named Dave Tiberi.

Toney undertrained for the fight and then tried to makeweight in a hurry. Consequently, he was flat and physically depleted. He cramped up throughout the fight; indeed, Toney was later hospitalized for dehydration. Tiberi landed most of what few punches actually mattered, and the whole narcoleptic fandango ended with Toney winning a split decision that ABC's Alex Wallau termed "disgusting." Though there is no evidence of wrongdoing, the fight attracted the attention of Representative William Roth, a Republican from Tiberi's home state of Delaware, who intends to make the outcome of the bout the centerpiece of a larger investigation into boxing.

"I knew how bad I was going in," Toney says. "I was cramping up in my bedroom all morning. The next time I fight him, I'll be in great shape." To that end, a nutritionist has been added to the Toney camp. "Burger King has seen the last of my face for a while," he says.

Toney ducks no one. When he fights Glenn Wolfe on April 11, it will be his fourth title defense in 12 months, and Toney fought six times in 1991 alone. But it's more than the fact that Toney likes to fight, it is that he must fight. He is pursuing a phantom, trying to remake himself in the middle of a long and desperate chase.

His is a modern story, perfect for a decade of ruined cities and broken lives. He is part of this new generation of athletes who come from environments in which the conventional social order has crumbled completely and been replaced by a culture of drugs and gangs that presents some sort of structure to children who have been abandoned at home. For the foreseeable future, sport is going to be in large part the province of survivors who come blinking out of a blasted landscape.

Corporate America, here is James Toney, your athlete of the '90s: He once sold drugs and carried a gun. His first manager took 19 bullets from some very professional gentlemen of the drug trade and died, bleeding, right there on the sidewalk. Toney's father shot his mother, but she was strong enough to start her own business and to look at her only son and tell him, "You got three choices: prison, rehab or tombstone. You decide." He chose boxing. He never looked back.

In place of his father, Toney is surrounded by remarkable women. His mother, Sherry, the baker of the finest pies in Ann Arbor, Mich., is the great balance wheel of his life, and Jackie Kallen, whom Damon Runyon would have created had he lived long enough, handles his promotion with the sort of aplomb you might expect from someone who once sprung the Rolling Stones on her parents as surprise dinner guests. Toney is Kallen's first champion, but he is more than that. He is a person in progress.

"Bill Miller trains him in the ring, and I feel like I'm his trainer in life," Kallen says. "I don't want to break his spirit. I don't want to change that anger in him that makes him so great. I just don't want that anger to spill over out of the ring."

He is still fighting that long fight, though, the one he can likely never win, even if his father were to be unfortunate enough to reappear. He works the knuckles one by one, and then all together. The hands are uneasy in idleness, lending truth to the old adage.

"I've been dangerous all my life," he says.

Specialty Cakes and Pies is tucked away in a small industrial park at the nonacademic end of Ann Arbor. It is a warm place on a winter afternoon, and Sherry Toney is making rum cakes for an office party across town. There are sweet-potato pies cooling on a counter, and you can gain five pounds just walking in the door. "You're going to eat something," Sherry says, and it is not a question.

In 1968, age 17 and six months out of high school in Grand Rapids, Mich., Sherry got married. She filed for divorce before the marriage was a year old. It was a vicious marriage that produced her only son before it went violently to pieces.

"That's history," she says. "It was easier to do it by myself than to do it with somebody who doesn't want to do anything at all. James never really had a father. He asked about him once, and I said, 'You don't need him now.' Kids need parents when they're walking around in diapers, snot running down their nose and all. You don't need Daddy when you're 14 or 15. He never asked any more about it." But it burned in him, nonetheless.

"You need that person there to take you to ball games and to know when you did something good," James says. "That's what he took from me when he left. He took away my childhood."

Sherry and James moved to Ann Arbor in 1976, when Sherry transferred to Michigan from Grand Valley (Mich.) State College. She subsequently earned a master's degree in communications from Eastern Michigan, and after a brief career as an actress and model—"I got tired of the casting couch," she says—she opened her bakery in 1981. "I'd go out to cat and see that there weren't any pastries worth eating, so I decided to make some myself," she explains. By then mother and son were bonded beyond all breaking. Part of it was that they are not all that far apart in age. "For the longest time," Sherry says, "James thought I was his sister."

"James had the utmost respect and love for his mother," recalls Bob Kokoszka, a special-education teacher at Huron High in Ann Arbor, where James played quarterback well enough to land a scholarship offer from Western Michigan. "And her respect for him was absolutely critical to his well-being."

Despite that, even as he excelled at sports, James began dealing crack. It was peer pressure, he says today. But it was also a living. "People are out there on the streets, and they can't feed themselves, and their kids go and see a way they can get it themselves," he muses. "It's easy money. A 14-year-old can make $700 a clay. Basically, it was something I did to fit in. Then you carry the gun for security, so you'll know who the boss is. Who the man is, you know. You see a kid and you mess with him and he pulls a gun, what are you going to do except back down? If they pulled a gun on me, they'd better pull the trigger or else they'd be dead."

One day Toney and a teenage friend were playing basketball at a neighborhood playground. Purely by accident, Toney had left his stash at home. The friend was holding, though, and the police rousted him and hauled him off to jail. Toney visited him there. Then he went home. "I got up in his face," Sherry says. "I told him, 'Even if you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time, you're guilty by association. Being a black male and 18, if they get you, you're gone. It's Casey at the Bat, and you struck out.' " James got out of the business shortly thereafter.

Through all of this, Toney never missed seeing a big fight. He was partial to the fighters from Detroit's Kronk Gym, especially Thomas Hearns. During his senior season he had broken his ankle badly in a football game, and the doctors cautioned him that he risked permanent injury if he ever played again. Boxing, up until then just a hobby, became a full-time thing. He had a brief and unlucky amateur career. In one fight Toney broke his opponent's nose and lost the decision anyway. He turned pro in 1988, a year after high school. "My mom said if I was going to get hit, I might as well get paid for it," he says.

In the beginning, Toney was managed by a local Detroit character named Johnny (Ace) Smith, who supplemented his income by doing a little indiscreet drug dealing on the side. In 1988, while Smith was walking in front of his office, a car pulled up and two men shot him down with automatic weapons. If Toney needed any more evidence of the perils of his former profession, this episode was more than enough. "I saw my best friend get popped and my manager get killed," he says. "I didn't need any more than that."

By the beginning of 1989, Toney was floundering. He had no manager, and his anger was exploding in all directions. More than once, he put his fist through a window, endangering his hands and his future as well. One day Kallen, then a publicist for the Kronk, who was also managing two fighters, came into the gym where Toney was sparring. "He stood out because he was so mean," Kallen recalls. "He got into the ring to spar, and it was like a championship fight. He had something to prove every day." Toney asked Kallen to manage him, and she agreed.

Her technique owes very little to da traditions of da fight game. Burgess Meredith is not going to play Jackie Kallen in the movie. As a former entertainment critic—hence having Mick and the lads over for lamb chops—she has more than a little flash to her approach, and to be managed by Kallen is to be virtually adopted. You will eat with her family, including her son, the aspiring rap star, and you will go bowling and you will be schmoozed to within an inch of your life. Says Kallen, "I tell him, 'When you get in your moods, don't yell at anyone else. Yell at me. I can take it.' "

The approach is deft and sure. Toney seems more confident of himself now, better defined than he was when everything that angered him unleashed all his personal demons. Through Kallen, who likes her fighters to do charity work, he has become close to two remarkable children, seven-year-old Kevin Hardiman, who has been confined to a wheelchair since he was hit by a car a year ago, and Kevin's best friend, Elizabeth Steelman, who was born six years ago with spina bifida. Kevin and Elizabeth, along with their families, are now officially members of the Toney entourage. With them, Toney is able to be loose and vulnerable and free.

Kallen has tried to temper his volatility elsewhere, but Toney has occasionally bridled. They had one memorable blowup because Toney wanted a title shot after only 12 fights. He needed to see his father's face right there where he could hit it. Finally, Kallen put Toney in with Nunn, whose celebrity had far outstripped his performances in the ring. She took the light despite the fact that it would be held in Nunn's hometown of Davenport, Iowa. Nunn took Toney very lightly, jabbing at him at a press conference and poking him in the face at the weigh-in. Toney's eyes narrowed. Sherry saw a familiar fury there. "Nunn didn't give him his respect," she says.

There was more than that. Nunn had been groomed for the larger stage. His days as a street enforcer in Davenport had been obscured in a blaze of Hollywood hype. By the night of the fight, Toney hated Nunn's image more than he hated Nunn himself.

Toney stood in for nine rounds against Nunn's stiff jab. By the 10th, he felt Nunn softening under his body shots, and in the 11th, Toney landed the punch that changed his life.

There are still moments, though, when the rage inside him surfaces. After the McCallum draw, Toney went after Milton Chwasky, McCallum's 54-year-old attorney. The fighter was restrained, and he later apologized to everyone in the room. "Before," says Kallen, "he would have gone ahead and thrown the microphone and tipped over the table."

"Hey, homey," says Kevin Hardiman.

"You stealing my girlfriend?" Toney asks him, comically menacing. Kevin laughs at the world champion in his living room on a winter evening.

There are bristling contradictions to Toney. He is a product of his times that way. Toney once carried a gun and sold drugs, and now he doesn't do those things anymore. There is no myth to him, none of the idle ceremony of celebrity. He is a champion for the cutting edge.

It is never simple. He is tender with Elizabeth and Kevin, raucous and bold with the older children, respectful of the parents. There is something genuine in the way that Toney plays, something liberating that he's been saving, like his anger, for all these years. Here, with Elizabeth giggling around his knees, he achieves gentleness. It seems as big a victory as he's ever known.

That afternoon, however, Jackie had told him that she had lined up Tiberi. A fight is waiting. Somebody else is going to get into the ring with the boy and wear his father's face, and the hatred is going to flow. The freedom is going to come, not as callow anger and rage, but as something deeper and more inexorable, the cold vengeance of a man. There are lights dancing in James Toney's eyes, but he is working the knuckles again, one by one.

PHOTOANTHONY BARBOZAToney, who used to pack a gun, now needs no more formidable weapon than his hands.PHOTOANTHONY BARBOZAToney is guided by two strong women: his mom, Sherry...PHOTOANTHONY BARBOZA...and his manager, Kallen, who makes sure his anger doesn't "spill over out of the ring."PHOTOJOHN IACONOThough Toney often connected, he got a lesson in ring wizardry in a draw with McCallum.