13. James Toney Vs Vasilliy Jirov
April 26, 2003
After losing his IBF Super Middleweight title to Roy Jones, Jr. in 1994, James Toney became stagnant. He would lose three very questionable decisions in the next three years before disappearing from the sport in the summer of 1997. He would make his return as a cruiserweight in the early part of 1999. Toney would go on to win 10 consecutive fights to earn a shot at the undefeated IBF Cruiserweight Champion Vassiliy Jirov. The 29-year-old Kazakhstani won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics and was a highly skilled pressure fighter. Add to the fact that Jirov was also a southpaw, this was going to be an extremely difficult challenge for the 34-year-old Toney.
Toney is one of my five favorite fighters of all-time. The main reason is his style of fighting. Toney is a throwback to the days of Kid Gavilán and Ezzard Charles. He fights very relaxed and utilizes his arms and shoulders to fend off punches. His body is positioned so that he’s always set to throw his signature right cross. In the first round against Jirov, Toney did just that and landed several right crosses while keeping the fight in the middle of the ring. Round two saw Jirov put a ton of pressure on Toney and the majority of the round saw Toney trapped against the ropes, doing his best to defend against the fusillade of punches attempted by Jirov. Toney controlled the majority of rounds three and four by keeping the fight in the middle of the ring and countering Jirov’s constant pressure with his radar-like right cross. Jirov was, however, landing several shots of his own to Toney’s body and hard-to-hit head.
Toney put on a textbook display of counter punching in both rounds five and six. Jirov continued to mount heavy pressure on Toney and threw punches in bunches. This gave Toney several opportunities, whether in the center of the ring or against the ropes, to land one right hand counter after another. Toney couldn’t miss with the right, whether it be straight or an uppercut. Jirov’s consistent shots to Toney’s body cost him a point in round eight as he hit Toney low one too many times. Referee Steve Smoger penalized Jirov, which could’ve been huge because of how close the fight could be, if it went to a decision. Despite the frantic pace kept up by both fighters, neither one showed any signs of fatigue going into the ninth round.
Jirov willed his way into a phone booth war with Toney in rounds nine and eleven. Both these rounds saw him out-hustle and out-punch Toney as he had Toney pinned against the ropes. Round 10 was another beautiful exhibition of counter punching, as Toney hurt Jirov with another razor sharp right cross and then late in the round with a crisp left hook. My instinct told me round 12 would be one for the ages. It indeed was.
The 12th and final round was a riveting display of two men engaged in a slugfest. For the first two minutes, Toney laid up against the ropes and matched Jirov punch for punch. Then, with 45 seconds left, Toney staggered Jirov with a series of left hooks. Toney finally knocked him down with a clubbing right cross with about 15 seconds left in the fight. Jirov got up and survived until the final bell. Toney won the decision and the title. In my opinion, it was the single greatest performance of his legendary career.
After losing his title, Jirov would win seven out of 10 fights before retiring at the age of 35 in 2009. Toney wound vacate the title and immediately move up to heavyweight. He knocked out all-time great Evander Holyfield in his first fight at heavyweight. On April 30, 2005, Toney defeated John Ruiz to win the WBA Heavyweight title. A few days later he was stripped of the title and it was given back to Ruiz due to Toney failing his post-fight drug test. Toney tested positive for illegal use of anabolic steroids. A year later, Toney fought WBC Heavyweight Champion Hasim Rahman to a draw. Since that fight, Toney only won seven out of his last 13 bouts before retiring from prizefighting. Despite fighting way past his prime, no one could ever deny the brilliance that James Toney exhibited throughout his prime years.