Iran Barkley, the aging IBF super middleweight champion, expected a street brawl, a clash of baseball bats and brass knuckles, a bloodletting to settle a dispute over turf. Instead what he received from 24-year-old James Toney, a cold-blooded expert in the sweet science from Ann Arbor, Mich., was a graduate course in high-tech violence. And every time the old student's attention wandered, the young professor smacked him in the face with the blackboard.
The fight, which took place last Saturday night at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas, had been scheduled for 12 rounds. But after the ninth round, Dr. Flip Homansky of the Nevada Athletic Commission decided that the 32-year-old champion had had enough. As Barkley plodded wearily back to his corner following the round, blood dripping from his nose and mouth, his left eye swollen and nearly shut, Homansky signaled referee Richard Steele to call a halt to the proceedings.
Moving up eight pounds from the middleweight division, in which he had reigned for nearly two years, and through six fights as the IBF champion, Toney, now at 168 pounds, channeled his celebrated anger and coolly, almost disdainfully, took command from the opening bell. As a middleweight he had snarled, sworn and spat, but on Saturday he dispatched Barkley with icy detachment. From the outset Barkley, whom the odds-makers had made a 13-to-5 underdog, was helpless against Toney's swift bursts of brilliantly varied combinations.
Toney's demeanor in the ring may have been the evening's biggest surprise. In the days leading up to the bout, he had been the same old Toney, his hard eyes burning and his streams of epithets peeling paint from the walls. "When are you going to give me the respect I deserve?" he railed at the press, which had not been impressed by his 33-0-2 record.
February 22, 1993
Toney's uneven past performances, it now appears, were not attributable to a lack of artillery or artistry but to an unfortunate choice of weight division. A natural 168-pounder, Toney had gone without solid food the final week before his most recent fights to make the middleweight limit. He paid for it with a loss of strength and stamina.
"We didn't have much choice," says Jackie Kallen, Toney's manager. "All the big money offers were at 160 pounds. There was no money at 168, just small offers."
"I'll never fight at 160 pounds again," said Toney three days before lifting Barkley's title. "Not unless somebody pays me $20 million, and I don't think anybody is going to do that."
Toney was paid $1 million to light for the championship that Barkley had wrested from Darrin Van Horn 11 months ago. Barkley, who was making his first defense of the 168-pound crown, was paid the same. That's a nice piece of change for Barkley, a guy who was earning less than $10,000 a bout 18 months ago.
There was no mystery to what Barkley's battle plan would be. He owned a 30-7 record, and he had fought all 37 of those fights the same way. Nature has a similar style—it's called erosion. Barkley places his shaved head against an opponent's chest and pounds away. The tactic is designed to wear down the other man, and while it may not be pretty, Barkley is the only man to defeat Thomas Hearns twice. The second time came in March 1992 when he took the WBA light heavyweight title from him.
Against Toney, Barkley was expected to come flying from his corner, his nostrils flared, his fists flying. Toney, who prides himself on coming from the mean maize-and-blue streets of Ann Arbor, was expected to meet him in the trenches. "I didn't label this one Two Angry Men without good reason," said promoter Bob Arum.
"Screw the South Bronx," Toney said before the fight, referring to the neighborhood where Barkley was raised. "I've been in the streets. I know tough. If he is tough enough to take a whipping for 12 rounds, then I'm tough enough to put one on him."
"He doesn't think much of the South Bronx?" said Barkley. "Tell him to stop down there on 142nd Street and Third Avenue and see what he's got. Where's he from, Ann Arbor? I've never heard of Ann Arbor."
No matter. The turf war last Saturday was over a 20-by 20-foot piece of canvas, to which Barkley staked his claim with a fierce charge at the opening bell. The glowering champion wanted a slugfest, but the unruffled challenger immediately turned it into a dazzling display of boxing. Toney began to reshape Barkley's face with a string of crisp and swift combinations thrown with astonishing accuracy: an overhand right, a hook, another overhand right, a second hook, two straight right hands; a straight right, a right upper-cut, a hook; a triple jab, a hook, a right uppercut; hard jabs, ripping uppercuts, slashing hooks. Barkley started to bleed from the nose at the end of the first round. His left eye began to blow up by Round 3 and was all but closed as he left his stool for the ninth. For much of the bout he swallowed blood from his mangled mouth.
Outgunned and outmaneuvered, Barkley tried to win the fight with one big punch, but he was never able to land it. Toney moved deftly from side to side, dipping away, moving in, bending under the left hooks, slipping the right hands. When Barkley did connect, the blows usually struck Toney's arms and shoulders, and a few low ones found Toney's hips.
After the eighth round Homansky warned Barkley's cornermen that he would give their fighter one more round to turn the bout around. "But it just got worse," Homansky said later. "He was almost out on his feet."
"That's it," said Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Barkley's trainer, as Barkley returned to his corner after the savage ninth. "I'm not going to let you go back out there."
"No," said Barkley, blood pouring from his open mouth.
"You can't see," said Muhammad.
"No," Barkley protested again.
Steele ended the argument with a wave of his hands. Until that point, all three judges—Chuck Giampa, Mike Glienna and Jerry Roth—had scored the bout 89-82 for Toney. Roth had given Barkley the second round; Glienna and Giampa had given him the sixth. Toney had won everything else—easily.
All it took was eight pounds. "Now it's official," Toney said, grinning. "I've given up the IBF middleweight title but not the belt. This is no WBC belt to be thrown in the trash. I'm keeping mine. I worked too hard to get it."