There hasn’t been too many fighters in the history of boxing that combined ability, charisma and a personal story greater than James Toney. Toney was one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks in the mid 1980s while attending Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While starring on his high school football squad, he also had a side hustle selling crack cocaine. Toney was a very volatile athlete who didn’t adhere to team rules. Instead of attending Western Michigan on a football scholarship, Toney instead turned to boxing. After a brief amateur career, Toney turned pro in 1988 at the age of 20, resulting in a sensational career in which he made huge impact at middleweight, super middleweight, cruiserweight and heavyweight for two decades before languishing as a well past-his-prime fighter in his 40s. Despite the last decade of his career which was filled with less-than-stellar performances, Toney still achieved enough to be the 16th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
Toney stayed extremely busy, fighting 26 times in two-and-a-half years with the only blemish being a draw with longtime 160-pound trial horse Sanderline Williams, a fighter he would eventually defeat in a rematch. In his 27th bout, Toney received a shot at the IBF and lineal 160-pound champion Michael Nunn.
Going into his fifth defense of his IBF world middleweight title on May 10, 1991 versus a then virtually unknown Toney, Nunn was considered no worse than the second best fighter in the world. Nunn had dominated the 160-pound division for the three years prior and had hired legendary trainer Angelo Dundee in an effort to heighten his marketability to casual boxing fans. Nunn was a huge 20-1 favorite over Toney in a fight that would take place in Nunn’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa.
At the time my father and I were watching this fight, neither one of us had ever heard of Toney. Yes, he had a shiny undefeated record, but we had never seen him fight and we speculated that he wasn’t as good as his lofty record suggested. For the first seven rounds, he proved us right. Toney followed Nunn around the ring and missed a ton of shots while Nunn moved and controlled the fight with his swift right jab. After seven rounds, Toney needed a knockout to win.
Rounds eight-to-ten saw Toney finally begin to land what the announcers claimed was his signature punch, the right cross. Nunn was visibly showing signs of fatigue but had yet to stop moving. A minute into round 11, Toney was landing his right cross more and more. Then, all of a sudden, with a little more than over a minute left in the round, Nunn walked into a spectacular left hook by Toney. Nunn hit the canvas like he had been shot by an assault rifle. My father and I were shocked to see Nunn actually get up at the count of nine on very rubbery legs. Referee Dennis Nelson allowed the fight to continue, but Nunn was done. Toney chopped the listless Nunn down with three straight bombs. As soon as Nunn went down, Dundee threw in the towel. A new star in boxing was born.
Eager to fight the very best in a division that was talent laden in 1991, Toney signed to fight the WBA 160-pound champion Mike McCallum to unify their titles. Unfortunately, the WBA stripped McCallum of his version of the middleweight title in their refusal to sanction this bout. Nevertheless, the boxing world was in accord: the winner would be considered the real middleweight champion of the world. I recently wrote in complete detail about this extraordinary fight when detailing Mike McCallum’s number 20 ranking. The fight ended in a controversial draw. Toney would win the rematch on August 29, 1992 and after one last defense at 160 pounds, he would move up to 168 pounds.
On February 13, 1993, Toney, undefeated in 35 fights, challenged IBF super middleweight champion Iran Barkley. My father was a fan of Barkley’s brawling style but he agreed with me that his style was tailor made for the defensive and boxing acumen of Toney. Toney was one of the greatest defensive fighters and counterpunchers of all-time. What made Toney’s style so special and unique is that he stayed right in front of you. He was a master boxer who didn’t dance and move around. He gave his opponents incredible head movement and was the master of the shoulder roll years before Floyd Mayweather’s pro debut. Expertly taught by his trainer Bill Miller, Toney embarrassed Barkley with this style. It was a virtuoso performance that ended after the ninth round as Barkley quit in his corner. During the post fight interview with Larry Merchant, Toney became the first athlete ever to shout out hip hop acts as he gave shout outs to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The next 21 months would show Toney excel both on the mic and in the ring.
After successfully defending his title against Tony Thornton and several non-title wins, Toney’s next significant fight was on March 5, 1994 against the unbeaten contender Tim Littles. Littles was a slick boxer with blinding hand speed. Because of his hand speed, Littles gave Toney fits through the first two rounds. Late in the third round, Toney dropped Littles with his signature right cross. Littles survived but not before engaging in a head butt that opened a huge gash above Toney’s left eye. Toney, unaware whether the referee called the cut from a butt, fought with incredible urgency in the fourth round, dropping Littles three times before referee Pat Russell stopped the fight. Toney was on a roll and the roll continued in his next defense of his 168 pound title.
Toney’s next and last successful defense occurred on July 29, 1994 against former world light heavyweight champion Prince Charles Williams. Williams was a durable, tough fighter who would wear his opponents down before finishing them off late in the fight. The first five rounds might as well have been fought in a phone booth as both men banged away at each other’s bodies. Williams was ahead on the scorecards after five rounds, but he was already beginning to tire. Beginning in the sixth round, Toney began to gain separation and land his accurate counter right crosses at will. It was a one-sided second half of the fight that came to a violent end in the 12th and final round. Toney landed a spectacular right cross that had Williams knocked out before he hit the canvas. After he landed that right, Toney looked at his right like it was a gun that had just shot a fatal blow. After this highlight of a knockout, Toney called out Roy Jones, Jr. At this point in time, Toney was considered by many experts as the best fighter in the world while Jones was no less than third. The fight would take place on November 18, 1994. Despite two of the best fighters on the planet facing each other, the fight failed to deliver the fireworks fans expected.
Toney was incredible on the press tour calling Roy every name in the book while Roy was unusually stoic. For some unfathomable reason, Toney had to lose several pounds before the weigh-in to make 168 pounds. Needless to say, Toney gave a lethargic performance that night in losing his super middleweight and pound-for-pound title to Jones. More on that fight in a later article on Jones. This was to be Toney’s swan song at 168.
Toney moved up to 175 pounds and twice was the victim of horrendous robberies at the hands of Montell Griffin. In both fights, Toney outboxed the cagey Griffin and incredulously came out losing. The second egregious loss cost him a rematch with Jones. On May 14, 1997, Toney lost a very close decision to the unheralded journeyman Drake Thadzi. After one last fight at cruiserweight a month later, Toney inexplicably went on a two year layoff. When he resumed his boxing career in the spring of 1999, Tony, now 30, looked rejuvenated as he began his quest to become cruiserweight champion. Toney railed off 10 straight wins at cruiserweight before gaining a shot on April 26, 2003 against the best cruiser in the world, the IBF champion Vassiliy Jirov.
The 29-year-old Kazakhstani Jirov 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. However, I felt Toney had a legitimate shot at defeating Jirov because of his relaxed style of fighting in which he utilized his arms and shoulders to fend off punches. His body was positioned so that he was 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 possible was, 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 ten. Both these rounds saw him out-hustle and out-punch Toney as he had Toney pinned against the ropes. Round 11 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.
Toney immediately moved up to the heavyweight division and in his next fight faced the legendary Evander Holyfield on October 4, 2003, just 15 days shy of Holyfield’s 41st birthday. I knew that Holyfield was a shot fighter and had no business in the ring anymore, especially against the cagey Toney. Despite being four inches shorter, Toney completely dominated the former undisputed cruiserweight and heavyweight champion before Holyfield’s corner threw in the towel midway through the ninth round. This would lead to a shot at WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz on April 30, 2005 at the historic Madison Square Garden. Although Toney was a bloated 233 pounds, the heaviest of his career, he completely dominated Ruiz by outfighting the rugged Ruiz inside the pocket the entire 12 rounds. Toney won the decision and temporarily was the WBA heavyweight champion. However, two days later, it was revealed that Toney tested positive for using the banned substance stanozolol in order to treat his injured shoulder. Toney was stripped of his title and the fight was changed to a no contest. Despite the fact that the official decision was changed from the record books, I have always considered Toney a former heavyweight champion. A healthy Toney would’ve dominated Ruiz every time they stepped into the ring.
Despite being in his late 30s, Toney continued to be very competitive in the heavyweight division. A year after his fight against Ruiz, the 37-year-old fought WBC champion Hasim Rahman to a draw in a fight that could’ve gone either way. Toney was robbed in his next fight against Sam Peter before getting thoroughly beaten by the Nigerian slugger in the rematch. On July 16, 2008, a month before his 40th birthday, Toney and Rahman fight again. This time, due to a clash of heads that caused a severe cut to Rahman, the fight was stopped in round three and ruled a no contest. Although he would continue to fight on and off for the next nine years before finally retiring in 2017 at the age of 49, Toney was for all intents and purposes done as a championship contender as he went 7-4 in his last 11 fights.
James Toney’s career record at the end of his career was 77-10-3 with 47 knockouts. In the 45 years I’ve followed the great sport of boxing, Toney is by far the greatest inside defensive fighter I’ve ever seen. His utilization of the shoulder roll taught by his teacher and longtime trainer Bill Miller made him damn near impossible for his opponent to hit him cleanly while inside the trenches. Toney is also one of the greatest counterpunchers who ever lived. That right cross counter of his was on par with both Juan Manuel Marquez and Floyd Mayweather’s. Toney ducked no one and fought everyone who dared to step into the ring with the technical master. With all of these accolades he accomplished during a nearly 30 year career, it is easy to see why he’s the 16th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.