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High and Too Mighty

Nov. 28, 1994
Nov. 28, 1994

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Nov. 28, 1994

Chris Webber
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High and Too Mighty

After dominating James Toney to win the super middleweight title, Roy Jones Jr. finds himself all alone top

Roy Jones Jr. did himself no favor with his calculated domination of James Toney last Friday night. He was terrific, all right. Actually, he was too terrific for his own good. Watching Jones so thoroughly befuddle the guy thought to be the next Marvin Hagler, we had to wonder who will pay to see Jones in the ring with, say, Chris Eubank. Or with anyone. Poor Jones—he means well, but he fights himself out of every division he enters.

This is an article from the Nov. 28, 1994 issue

There is nothing left for him to do but fight exhibitions, which is what the bout for Toney's IBF super middleweight title in Las Vegas so entirely resembled. It wasn't a boxing match in the ordinary sense; it was a solo act, a one-man show, with the champion reduced to the role of stagehand. Toney, whose reputation for ring terror had established him as boxing's new force, was mostly incidental to this performance.

It's impossible to imagine getting worked up about any subsequent rival for Jones. If Toney, 26, wasn't the guy, who will be? Toney was undefeated. His skills as a counterpuncher, as a finisher and as a superb defensive boxer—when motivated by a free-floating fury that was a marvel in itself—made him seem the most dangerous man in boxing. Yet he could barely lay a glove on Jones. From Round 1, Jones hooked and whirled at his own convenience, peppering Toney with sharp left hands. There was one flurry by Jones that, though of no consequence in terms of the outcome, was nevertheless instructive. He delivered three left hands to Toney's midsection from three different angles before Toney could think to react. So whom do you buy as an opponent now?

Still, Fred Levin, one of two lawyer brothers who help Jones self-manage his career, tried to salvage a remnant of marketability. Yes, he agreed, Jones, 25, who came into this fight untested by worthy foes, had just demonstrated that he circles in a higher orbit than his middleweight brethren. "But don't you see," said Levin, "he's now the Mike Tyson of the middle-weights. When Tyson was fighting, nobody cared whom he was fighting. People paid to see Tyson."

It will have to be the same for Jones if he is to carve up the pay-per-view market. And maybe it can be. Networks now pay Olympic ice skating stars to simulate competition in prime time; maybe they'll do the same for Jones. Put him on a little tour, a kind of Fight Capades for people who enjoy seeing virtuoso athleticism spiced with occasional concussions and busted-up eyes.

One light that nobody would ever buy again is Jones-Toney. Hyped for two years as a sort of morality play featuring an angry former drug dealer versus a coddled Olympic hero (we'll tell you which was which in a bit), the long-awaited meeting of these two Ray Leonard wannabes fizzled in Round I. The suspense dissipated as soon as Jones revealed that he was too quick even for Toney: He danced in with left hooks and then spun around Toney (who knows how to cut off a ring!) or lured him into the corner and then easily escaped him, mocking him.

And it wasn't just a matter of Jones's dancing in and out. There had been a lot of talk about his footwork, but this wasn't Fred Astaire (although Toney did a fair impression of Ginger Rogers). The velocity of Jones's hands translated directly into power, and though his knockdown of Toney in the third round was more a result of Toney's posturing and tangled feet, Jones repeatedly demonstrated his willingness and ability to throw concussive punches. "My hands are fast, my feet are quick," said Jones afterward, "but I knew I also had to show a championship heart." He was not afraid to mix it up.

Toney, who claimed he was sluggish after shedding about 35 pounds in training to make weight in his fourth defense of his title, obviously ran out of gas in the late rounds. He remained resolute, but you didn't need to see his mouthpiece turning red from cuts inside his mouth to know that he didn't have a chance, not even a puncher's chance. His promised attack to the body never materialized. With Jones in front of Toney, beside him and, often-times, behind him, nothing in Toney's arsenal worked. One judge gave Toney three rounds, another two, and the third just one. At that, the scoring seemed generous to the loser.

Toney, who had repeatedly said this would be his last fight at super middleweight before he moved up to light heavyweight and eventually heavyweight, may also have been slowed by the apparent gorging that brought his weight up from 167 at Thursday's weigh-in to as much as 184 by fight night. "Sluggish," he kept repeating afterward.

It was odd to encounter Toney and his entourage in the postfight setting and feel no need for a notebook. For once, neither he nor his handlers had much to say. If, at the moment of truth, he was unable to make a very good fight with Jones, he had at least been able to promote it in the weeks before. At Jones's insistence the lighters had refused guaranteed purses ($2.5 million for Toney, $2 million for Jones) from HBO and instead took percentages of a pay-per-view telecast (which will net Toney at least $3.4 million and Jones $2.6 million). With this financial imperative to hype the bout, Toney popped up on every interview show imaginable, promising a vindictive beating of Jones. One day, in a car heading for Roy Firestone's ESPN show in Hollywood, it occurred to him that he had just missed spending Halloween with his two-year-old daughter. Jasmine, because of training. "Missed Halloween," he mused. "I'll make the punk pay for that, too."

He was holding Jones accountable for all manner of slights. That Jones was a hero of the 1988 Olympics—where losing the gold medal on a controversial decision in the 156-pound final made him more famous than he would have been had he won—gnawed at Toney, by his own admission a former crack peddler. "Olympic medal," he snorted. "This country's done nothing for me. I'll bust that punk's ass for that." There was not a single social issue, when you got down to it, that could not be solved by simply busting Jones's punk ass.

People who know Toney wondered at times if this anger wasn't a put-on. He is, they said before the fight, generous to friends and strangers, and under the tutelage of 69-year-old trainer Bill Miller he has sometimes exhibited a kind of citizenship that belies his image. Friends said he can be a fun guy, a prankster who'll climb balconies to get into your hotel room and put syrup on your toilet seat or crunch potato chips between your sheets.

But there were manifestations of apparently real anger that were frightening. Toney's stated willingness to shoot his father, who is in jail on a rape charge and who shot Toney's mother when toddler James was in her arms, seemed genuine. And there are enough flashes of menace to keep those around him on their toes.

Last week manager Jackie Kallen was reminiscing about all the fun times with Toney when she suddenly remembered that they didn't always turn out to be such a hoot: "You know, we laugh now, but it's not funny when I have to sneak a sparring partner out of the hotel in the middle of the night. We lost a good one the other day. He was afraid James was going to shave his head." (After the fight, Kallen had reason to fear for her own person when Toney threatened to kill her. Though he backed off and no charges were filed, Toney also threatened to dismiss Kallen as manager.)

The cumulative effect of Toney's doomsday pronouncements, his Sonny Liston stare and his 44-0-2 record against some pretty tough middleweights produced a scare. One reporter, hearing from another that Toney was in a head-shaving mood, refused to conduct an interview in anything but a public space. All this was having no effect on Jones. A kind of wonder boy who had been nursed through the early stages of his career by a protective father, Jones has often been cast as overly cautious and tentative. Explaining why he had fought so seldom since turning pro in 1989—he was 26-0 going in against Toney—he said, "Boxing is a dangerous thing. You might not come out of a fight the same way you went in." And yet he didn't seem much shaken by Toney's promise of trouble.

"Who cares about a mouth?" Jones said the day before the bout. "You've got birds that can talk." Even a magnificent showdown at the prefight press conference left Jones merely nonplussed. "All I could think," Jones said, "was that he's so doggone ugly."

Jones's reluctance to enter the ring except under ideal conditions, and his disappearances from public life between fights, allowed boxing people to think he was underconfident. And the fact that he had become estranged from his father, however nettle-some Roy Sr. had become to the boxing establishment, and had placed himself under an amateur trainer named Alton Merkerson did not give his enterprise any added credibility. The Toney camp especially zeroed in on Jones's relative lack of competition on the way to his IBF middleweight title (which he forsook to make this fight). Maybe Jones had never lost a round, Toney trainer Miller said, but that was against lackluster opponents such as Bernard Hopkins and Thomas Tate. "Them fellows wouldn't throw rocks in a race riot," Miller declared.

As is often the case in boxing, everybody was wrong about everything. In the ring Toney's hardness of heart was irrelevant. And whether Jones would rather train his horses in Pensacola, Fla., than risk disfigurement in Las Vegas was beside the point as well. All that mattered was that Jones was too good an athlete, too creative a performer, too spontaneous a boxer to brook competition from Toney or anybody else.

And all that's left to lament is that Jones does not have a Hagler or a Hearns out there to cast his talents in the proper perspective. Then again, competition could become unnecessary to the proper enjoyment of his abilities. We'll just have to learn that boxing, at least in the Jones era, is not so much a fistic debate as it is a soliloquy.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOAfter doffing his prefight tux, Jones used his superior speed to administer a thrashing to Toney.PHOTOV.J. LOVERO[See caption above.]PHOTORICHARD MACKSONWhen not being thwacked, Toney pursued the challenger, but there was no keeping up with this Jones.