James Toney: Bringing Back the Great Ghosts of the Past

BY Greg Smith ON May 04, 2005
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When James Toney defeated John Ruiz last Saturday it marked a significant turning point in the history of the heavyweight division. For starters, Toney becomes the third middleweight champion in boxing history to earn a heavyweight belt. Toney joins the duo of Bob Fitzsimmons and Roy Jones Jr. in this rarest of accomplishments.

To be sure, a closer look reveals that Fitzsimmons’ claim to the crown is the purest of all, because he won an undisputed title from a lineal champion. Jones won his belt from Ruiz when The Quiet Man was considered the weakest of the heavyweight belt holders. Thus, despite Jones’s excellent performance the night he fought Ruiz, his claim to the heavyweight throne is contrived and politicized. He took the path of least resistance in facing Ruiz, and didn’t go after the more decorated champions in the division. Jones’ win is a study in risk assessment, instead of a substantive historical contribution.

Jones’ preternatural reflexes coupled with adroit manipulation of HBO executives over the years brought him gratuitous wealth. From a historical standpoint, however, it didn’t help him when he returned to the light heavyweight division and was knocked out in successive bouts by Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson. When Jones faltered, the fall was a vicious and slippery slope. Jones is not only no longer a top-ten pound-for-pound fighter; his place in boxing history has been severely downgraded as well.

Jones’ foundation was built on sand, not concrete.

Jones was certainly more dominant in his win over Ruiz than was Toney. Moreover, I sat in awe a few yards from ringside as I witnessed Jones nearly shutout Toney when they met as super middleweights in 1994. Ironically, I strongly believe that Toney will enter Canastota earlier than Jones, and with much more fanfare. Toney built his career the traditional way while serving an apprenticeship under sage trainer Bill Miller. Now a veteran of 75 professional fights, Toney has fought the best of the middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight, and cruiserweight divisions. Most importantly, he is now poised to seek unification in the heavyweight division, and brings a breath of fresh air to a maligned division. He comes from a different age. James wears Pony gear, not Nike.

Toney’s foundation is based on concrete, not sand.

Regardless of Toney’s future success in the division, he is flirting with a more meaningful place in boxing history than many realize. As a former middleweight champion, simply going after the best in the heavyweight division brings us back to a time when boxing was an integral part of American culture. When all is said and done, Toney will not only be mentioned in the same breath as Fitzsimmons, but with Stanley Ketchel, Harry Greb and Mickey Walker. Those four top-ten all-time middleweight champions moved up to fight the best available heavyweights in their time. No other middleweight champions can claim that accomplishment.

Stanley Ketchel won the middleweight title on February 22, 1908 with a first round knockout of Mike “Twin” Sullivan. The Michigan Assassin defended his title four times in the months following his knockout of Sullivan. He lost the title to archrival Billy Papke in Vernon, California in September of that year. Two months later, Ketchel regained the crown from Papke on an eleventh round knockout.

In 1909 Ketchel cemented his trilogy with Papke with a twenty round decision, and then gave away thirty-five pounds against one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all-time: Jack Johnson. The fearless and plucky Ketchel briefly had Johnson on the deck in the twelfth round before being knocked senseless moments later.

After losing to Johnson, Ketchel fought six times in 1910. One of Ketchel’s bouts was a no decision affair with the great Sam Langford, but Ketchel reportedly got the better of the Boston Tar Baby. Ketchel knocked out White Hope contender Dan Flynn in his next bout. After winning two more fights by knockout, Ketchel was murdered in a domestic dispute later that year.

Harry Greb held the middleweight title from 1923-1926. Unfortunately, Greb’s most notable wins occurred after 1921 when he was blind in one eye. The Human Windmill is best known for being the only man to beat Gene Tunney, and for his epic middleweight title defense win over Mickey Walker when he was far past his prime in 1925.

At or near his prime, however, Greb relished in whacking around bigger men. One of Greb’s famous quotes is: “Big guys don’t bother me. They get in their own way.” Indeed, Greb reportedly befuddled Dempsey in a 1920 sparring session. Dempsey’s manager, Jack Kearns, blatantly steered Demspey away from Greb thereafter. Kearns was smart. Greb was formidable against top-flight heavyweights. Greb easily defeated Tommy Gibbons before Dempsey struggled with Gibbons. Gunboat Smith was cannon fodder for Greb. Other victims included Billy Miske and Bill Brennan. Greb was special, and just too good for his own good against the best heavyweights of his era.

Harry Greb was an American original.

John Barleycorn was Mickey Walker’s toughest opponent, but that didn’t inhibit him from becoming one of the greatest fighters of all time. Completely fearless and blessed with one of the nastiest left hooks in boxing history, Walker held the welterweight title from 1922-1926. He defeated Tiger Flowers for the middleweight title in 1926, and vacated the title in 1931 to go after the best heavyweights of his era: Max Schmeling and Jack Sharkey.

Despite being far past his prime, Walker fought to a controversial draw with Sharkey in June 1931. A day after his draw with Sharkey, Walker was playing golf with his manager Jack Kearns, a friend, and a senator.

Walker crammed in seven more bouts before meeting Schmeling in 1932. Among the bouts were back-to-back ten round decision wins over heavyweight contenders King Levinsky and Paolino Uzcudun.

Schmeling proved to be a bridge too far for Walker. Flabby and drastically slowed by Father Time and countless late nights, the Toy Bulldog characteristically pressed the action with his famous left hook, only to be met with pinpoint counters from Schmeling. At the end of the eighth round, Walker was bloody and helpless, but angry and defiant when Jack Kearns stepped in and stopped the slaughter.

Walker epitomized old school.

Two other former middleweights, and two of Toney’s favorite fighters, deserve mention as well: Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles. Moore held the California State Middleweight title in the early 1940s, and was a world ranked middleweight before moving up to become one of our greatest light heavyweight champions.

As a heavyweight contender, Moore is best known for challenging Marciano for the title in 1955. The Ol’ Mongoose walked Rocky into a right hand in the second round and had him on the deck before succumbing in the ninth round of a war.

Moore also beat a slew of heavyweights in his career. One of my favorites is his 1951 first round knockout of Embrel Davidson. Moore was giving away thirty-five pounds to Davidson. In the first round, Moore shuffled in, feinted, looked for angles, and abruptly deposited Davidson on the deck for a ten-count out with a beautiful straight right hand.

The same year Moore lost to Marciano, Archie waddled into the ring at 200 pounds to face solid heavyweight contender Nino Valdes. After giving away most of the early rounds to the younger, stronger Cuban, Ageless Archie pulled out his bag of tricks and came from behind to outpoint Valdes over fifteen rounds. Moore had previously defeated Valdes in 1953.

Ezzard Charles was the number one middleweight contender in the early 1940s. In 1942, Charles was about to turn twenty-one when he defeated the great Charley Burley in back-to-back bouts. Burley, one of the true uncrowned champions in boxing history along with Sam Langford, would floor Archie Moore several times in route to an easy unanimous decision two years later.

Charles quickly grew out of the middleweight division. In three bouts with Moore at light heavyweight, Charles owned The Ol’ Mongoose. Charles never won a middleweight or light heavyweight title, but many consider him the best light heavyweight in history. Unlike Ketchel, Greb, Walker and Moore, Charles successfully stepped up to become a heavyweight champion. The Cincinnati Cobra was a special fighter who still isn’t recognized for the breadth and depth of his accomplishments.

In its true essence, boxing is a blue-collar, populist sport, but the contemporary boxing landscape has been polluted by managers, promoters and sanctioning bodies. James Toney will change some of that for us. He’ll spew quotes similar to that of Harry Greb, and won’t give a second thought to what’s appropriate or politically correct. He’ll probably take heavy shots from bigger, more skilled men than John Ruiz, but he’ll be as defiant as Mickey Walker and probably smoke a big cigar later that night. At his best, he’ll slip, roll and counter in the tradition of Moore and Charles. He’ll remind us that Bill Miller forgot more about boxing than the trainers of Toney’s opponents can ever learn.

Don’t expect James Toney to call out Tye Fields for his first defense. James Toney will remind us of the glory days of the sport. He’ll show us that the art of boxing is more important than size. He’ll show us that street corner guts are more important than politicized rankings. He’ll remind us of Ketchel, Greb, Walker, Charles and Moore.

James Toney may be fat with too much back, but he’s taking us to a better place.

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