Playing the Heavy

After a decade in oblivion, trash-talking, pistol-packing (but downright lovable) former middleweight king James Toney has grown--and how--into a contender for boxing's biggest title
March 20, 2006

James toney'sfirst amateur fight, like all his bouts, was a lively affair. It was at aBlue-Gold tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Toney, 12 years old and 125pounds, mostly mouth, was delighted at the opportunity to display hisgreatness. Giddy, actually. In what would become trademark trash talk, heoffered the poor lad his choice of poison ("Left or right?") and corner("Wherever you wanna lay down at"). The opponent stopped Toney in thethird round.

Though Toney was embarrassed enough to go into immediate hiding back in hishotel room, not coming out until 10 that night, the mortification did not take.In fact, to this day he faces a steep learning curve when it comes to modesty.A quarter century and a minimum 100 pounds later, Toney insists, going intothis Saturday night's fight in Atlantic City for Hasim Rahman's WBC heavyweighttitle, that he is the "savior" of boxing.

As in that first bout, there are arguments to be made to the contrary. On theone hand, he is among the most admired fighters in all of boxing, respected forhis old-school devotion to technique, an active ring life (76 fights, 69 ofthem wins--unheard of!) and his bodacious heart. On the other, after a briefflourish as boxing's best middleweight (maybe its best fighter) a decade ago,he remains mostly a disappointment, having squandered his early greatness atthe dessert cart. No other fighter of comparable abilities haswallowed--literally wallowed--so long in boxing's nether land, spending hisprime fighting no-names in Indian casinos like the Pechanga and the ChinookWinds.

And yet here heis, paunchier than ever and at 37 certainly older, raising hopes that he can bea dependable heavyweight, a champion of ability, devotion and personality. Cana onetime middleweight, who ate himself out of the game after losing to RoyJones Jr. in 1994, possibly reclaim enough form and fire to beat the biggerRahman? Can a onetime crack dealer who loved nothing more than the chance towave a "nine" under a rival's nose stay away from mischief? Can athree-year comeback, during which his pudginess has so far been offset by aningrained skill set, carry him once more into the big time?

"I have onerule in boxing," says Emanuel Steward, who has trained dozens of championsand who knew the young Toney as a cantankerous and boastful visitor to hisKronk gym in Detroit. "Never bet against James Toney."

Toney does have away of surprising people, whether it's upsetting heavily favored opponents, orproducing a handgun during sparring, or putting itching powder in his brother'sunderwear. On a recent day he was at the Sherman Oaks, Calif., office of hispromoter, positively radiant with self-satisfaction. On his way up, he hadnoticed a Bentley belonging to Pete Rose, a fellow client of promoter DanGoossen, in the parking lot and had, after getting the keys from a valet on thesly, reparked the car in another slot. Yet he may have simply been enjoying theresidual glow of a prefight scuffle with Rahman, whom he had run into in ahotel lobby in Cancun, where the WBC was holding an award ceremony and whereToney was on his honeymoon after his Dec. 19 marriage to longtime partner AngieCorulli.

It is hard totell with Toney, who remains complicated even as he's matured. His thirst forviolence remains unquenched, yet he's still the guy playfully trying to scarethe neighborhood kids on Halloween. Reports of him as a doofus dad (at hissuburban Calabasas, Calif., home, he's surrounded by four girls and a boy,ranging in age from 2 to 13, one from a previous marriage, the other four withAngie) continue to compromise his fierce persona, so carefully cultivated adecade ago, when his nickname was Lights Out.

What remainsuncomplicated about Toney is his throwback style, which he has always had andwhich will be buried with him. People who know boxing agree that Toney is notso much a born fighter as he is a reincarnated one. He is channeling any of ahost of legends, guys remembered only in grainy film clips. Depending on whomyou talk to, Toney calls to mind Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, ArchieMoore, Charley Burley or Sam Langford. These were guys who survived hundreds offights with a ducking-rolling style that made boxing a discipline as much as itwas a sport. They were mechanics, just as Toney is today.

Bob Arum, whopromoted Toney during his first fling at greatness, says, "He's reminiscentof all the great fighters, back when it really was a science. The way he rollswith the punches, avoids getting hit, the way he can cut distance in the ring.He is probably the smartest, most skillful fighter, the most old-school, thelast guy to know all the tricks."

Toney learnedthem from veteran trainer Bill Miller, who exposed him to his library of tapeswhen Toney was a teenager. "James was a good student," says Miller, now80, one of those final links to another generation of boxing. "He tookadvantage of my library, say that."

Toney was alwayssurprisingly easy to train. And to motivate. His second manager, Jackie Kallen,who got a little famous many years later when Meg Ryan starred in a movie abouther, remembers taking him to the opulent home of Tommy Hearns, the many-timeworld champ and the "pope of Detroit" in Toney's eyes. He was agog atthe trappings--so excited he turned and gave Kallen a big kiss. Still, hequickly recovered his self-confidence and blurted to the Hit Man that he'd havemore trophies someday. "Bigger house, too," he said.

That was in 1989,and for the next three years his reputation as a fierce, glowering andindomitable middleweight grew. As his record improved, stories from his youthbegan to take on more of an inner-city flavor. Though he was an All-Statequarterback at Huron High, he may have been even better known around theneighborhood as the go-to guy for crack cocaine, with his own secretcompartment in his hallway locker. Toney and his half brother, Jimmy Griggs,apparently had a Junior Achievement thing going, raking in $2,600 a week untilGriggs got caught and jailed for 21/2 years. Toney, who says he immediatelyquit dealing after that, did not subsequently disabuse anyone of the notionthat he was a man to be feared, in and out of the ring.

But in thebiggest fight of his career, in 1994, he was not so dangerous. By then hisrecord was 44-0-2 and he'd held the IBF middleweight crown for nearly two yearsbefore moving up to win the super middleweight title from Iran Barkley, settingup a showdown with an undefeated Roy Jones Jr. Inexplicably, though, Toneyfailed to train and showed up in Las Vegas four days before the fight weighing180 pounds. He somehow got down to 167 for the weigh-in, though he had to besupported by Griggs at the scales, but then botched his rehydration. "Myregular IV guy was out of town," he says. Probably anytime you have a"regular IV guy," you are courting disaster. The substitute doctorhooked up a line, and the next morning Toney weighed a highly liquid 189pounds. "When I walked to the ring," says Toney, "it seemed all Icould hear was 'squish, squish.'" Still, he intended to soldier on, oldschool. "Then Jones starts running around, and I thought, Aw, hell,"says Toney, who lost by unanimous decision.

After the lossToney went into a tailspin that lasted nearly 10 years. "He was justfloundering," says Freddie Roach, who became his trainer in 1996. Roachoversaw a sad decline, during which Toney failed to make weight for severalfights, even as he moved up the ranks to cruiserweight. The 200-pound highschool QB, who had been forced to make his pro debut at 159 because he was just5'9", was at least getting his revenge at the dinner table. He was fightingoften, but in progressively sadder venues, against weaker and weaker opponentsand for less and less money.

But thensomething happened. "Yeah," says Roach with a laugh, "he gotbroke."

The other thingthat happened was Toney gave into his appetite and moved up to heavyweight,where he probably belonged all along. The original decision to cast him as amiddleweight did not acknowledge his genetic disposition or his "eatingdisorder," as his former trainer, Bill Miller, still calls it. Toney alsoacquired new management in Goossen and, at Goossen's urging and driven by asense of pride he had never let go of, newly dedicated himself to a second act,George Foreman--style.

Beginning in 2002Toney, huffing and puffing, got through Vassily Jirov for a cruiserweight title("I could not believe he sucked it up to win," says Steward), then, inhis first heavyweight fight, made Evander Holyfield quit. Finally, he defeatedJohn Ruiz for the title a year ago. Though that was taken away from him whensteroids were discovered in his system (Toney insists he had taken them for therepair of a torn biceps and torn triceps and certainly not to acquire ripplingmuscles--a defense backed up by his physique), he was nevertheless impressiveenough that he was put back in line for Rahman's crown after serving a 90-daysuspension and paying a $10,000 fine.

The one constantthrough all these changes is Toney's temper; witness his honeymoon dustup withRahman at the slightest provocation. Roach says this is simply somethingeverybody's going to have to deal with, maybe learn to enjoy. This does notseem possible when Toney, as happened at one sparring session, grew frustratedand went to his locker for a gun. "Anyone who doesn't want to getshot," he announced, "clear out of the gym." That incident ismemorable to Roach, not so much for the production of a weapon but for the calmof Toney's stablemates. Roach remembers one fighter, accustomed to suchthreats, requesting that Toney not aim in his direction.

Roach has sinceoutlawed firearms in his gym. ("Now he has to go out to his car for hisgun," he says. "It's like a cooling-off period for James.")Otherwise he loves Toney's blustering persona as much as his surprising workethic. "I try not to do anything to egg him on," says Roach, "butsometimes he's so damn funny."

Even Kallen hasmostly fond memories of Toney, though she feared enough for her life during hispost-Jones despondency to call the police when she felt he had threatened her.(Toney denies that he threatened her, and no arrest was made, but when a guyhas more artillery than the average militia, you do take certain precautions.)"He had his moments, throwing things at the wall, breaking mirrors,"she says, "and he'd say evil things to you. But then comes Mother's Day andyou get the most beautiful gift. He has that duality. If we'd go to the mall tobuy him shoes, everybody got shoes. I don't remember the bad things, just thefun we had, the way he'd kidnap my little dog and hold him hostage, just todrive the funniest deals. I loved James."

Everybody does.Still, caution is best not forgotten. Goossen, who gets a lot of credit fromhis rivals for saving Toney's career, spent about an hour recently talkingabout how changed Toney is, now that he's older, married, an unhungryheavyweight at last--not unlike Foreman, who underwent that remarkabletransformation from bully to preacher. Yet, some time later, when Rahman andToney assembled at a press conference in New York City (at which both fightersbehaved like gentlemen), Goossen, mindful of the Cancun confrontation, could beseen scurrying up and down the dais before the combatants arrived, instructingassistants to collect all the silverware. "You never can tell," hesaid, shrugging.

After Toney brandished a weapon one day, RoachOUTLAWED FIREARMS IN HIS GYM. ("Now he has to go out to his car for hisgun," he says, "It's like a cooling-off period for James.")


"I have onerule in boxing," says trainer Emanuel Steward, who knew the young Toney asa cantankerous and boastful visitor to his Kronk gym. "NEVER BET AGAINSTJAMES TONEY."


TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Manuello PaganelliOLD SCHOOL In or out of the ring, Toney is a throwback to boxing's more glittering past. PHOTOERIC JAMISON/APRIGHT STUFF In his first heavyweight outing, Toney (right) battered Holyfield, the former champ, to win on a ninth-round TKO. PHOTOANTHONY BARBOZATHEN AND NOW Kallen (inset, in '92 with the 168-pounder) guided Toney to his first title; Roach is working to get him another. PHOTOED MULHOLLAND/WIREIMAGE.COM (ROACH) [Seecaption above]