James “Lights Out” Toney is a man on fire. Volatile, explosive, incendiary, and everything in-between, Toney is in New York in anticipation for this weekend’s showdown with two-time WBA heavyweight champion John “The Quietman” Ruiz at the Garden.
Toney (68-4-2 43 KOs) has won world titles at middleweight, super middleweight and cruiserweight, and was named Fighter of the Year in 2003 for his performances against Evander Holyfield and Vassiliy Jirov. Destiny – and his fists – has led him to the doorstep of the heavyweight crown. All that stands in Toney’s way is a gentleman named John Ruiz.
“Other fighters haven’t been able to beat Ruiz and make him go away,” Toney says, “so that’s why I am promising to knock him out. I told people I’d knockout Holyfield and that’s exactly what I did. Now I’m telling you I’ll knockout Ruiz.”
Although he is only 36-years-old and has been fighting as a pro for 16 years, James Toney looks, feels and fights like a champ in an old black and white newsreel. He has that kind of style in the ring.
Toney was born on August 24, 1968 and raised on the mean streets of East Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has been raising hell – in one form or another – and with varying degrees of success – for quite a while. Toney was an outstanding all-around athlete and was offered a scholarship to play football at Michigan State and Western Michigan, but he tarnished his image in pigskin circles when he punched an unknown loudmouth named Deion Sanders at a training camp.
The writing was on the wall. Football was out. Boxing was in.
Toney turned professional at the age of 20. In his first 2½ years of active duty, he compiled a record of 25-0-1 (18 KOs) and earned a shot at the IBF middleweight belt worn by the undefeated Michael “Second To” Nunn. Toney was trailing on all three scorecards when he caught Nunn in the 11th round and dropped him down and out. The new champ was 22-year-old James “Lights Out” Toney.
Toney won the super middleweight crown less than two years later from Iran Barkley at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
For a while it looked at if James Toney could do no wrong. He was high on most people’s pound-for-pound lists, spoken of as a future all-time great, but then a deal was struck to fight undefeated Olympian Roy Jones Jr. on November 18, 1994 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Toney, who always battled with his weight, ballooned to 212 pounds – 44 pounds over the 168 pound weight limit – with six weeks to go until the fight. He trained hard and managed to get rid of most the flab, but with only four days to go he still had 18 pounds to lose. He somehow made weight, but there wasn’t much Toney left for his fight with Roy Jones.
“Everyone said, ‘James, pull out of the fight,’” Toney remembers. “I said it doesn't matter. I'll get this guy. Everyone said, ‘Postpone it. We ain't in shape.’ And as soon as the bell rang, it became a track meet. I wasn't in shape, but he couldn't knock me out. If he was the best fighter in the world, as people think, he should've knocked me out.”
Roy didn’t knock James out, but he boxed circles around him, and after the loss Toney went on a bender. He ate all day and drank all night. Both his professional and personal lives were on the skids. He split with manager Jackie Kallen. He found himself in the middle of a messy divorce. A civil suit filed against his mother capped off one of the worst periods in his life.
In the summer of 1997, Toney stepped away from the game, but not, alas, away from the dinner table or barstool, and he got fatter, with his weight peaking at 275 pounds.
“It got to the point that I didn't even look at a magazine,” Toney recalls. “I didn't care . . . I was enjoying life, having a jolly-good time.”
Then a television commentator inadvertently inspired him to give boxing another run for its money.
“One day I was watching some fight. A guy was talking about the best fighters, the fighters with the best skills, and they didn't mention my name,” Toney says. “They talked about Roy Jones like he was the greatest thing since sliced cheese.”
Toney got annoyed, put down the sliced cheese he was eating, returned to the gym and never left. He won the cruiserweight title from Jirov. He moved up to the heavyweight ranks and defeated Holyfield in 2003 and Rydell Booker the next year. He is 9-0 with 6 KOs since he returned to action.
According to Toney’s promoter Joe Goossen, “It didn't take a rocket scientist to see that if he got motivated, if he sacrificed, worked hard in the gym, he'd be able to reap the dividends. Obviously, he's still a very talented fighter and has that big name. And now, for whatever reason, James understands what it was that was preventing him from giving his heart and soul to the sport. He knows getting older for him only means getting better.”
Toney believes he’s at the top of his game and now is his time. “The stars are aligned perfectly, he says. “I'm gonna show some real boxing skills. I'm ready. I'm loving boxing. The maturity is there. It's like a new James Toney. I waited a long time for this. Now it's time to cause some hell – but in a good way.''
I admit to being fascinated with Toney. But I’ll be the first to admit he has some rough edges. But he’s such a talent in the ring, even now, a decade past his prime, and such a colorful character, albeit not to all tastes, outside it, that I had to ask Toney about his past, his present and future.
“I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Believe it or not, it was me, the Mayweather family, the Buster Mathis family,” Toney tells me. “We all stayed on the same damn block. I mean, that’s a big-time family down there. Know what I’m saying?”
I know what James Toney is saying.
“My mom went to University of Michigan and I stayed with my grandmother there in Grand Rapids for the first nine years of my life. And then when I was ten-years-old I moved to Ann Arbor. I stayed there, got in all kinds of trouble, was fighting every day, and then my mom took me to the gym to try to stop me from fighting. I love to fight. I was born to fight. I found out my father was a fighter. He was trained by Eddie Futch. I didn’t learn that until years later when I ran into Eddie. He said, ‘I trained your father.’ My mom never told me that. So boxing is in my blood.”
I wonder how old Toney was when he first entered the gym.
“I was 11½. I was like: I can just stay here. I said, ‘If I’m gonna box, what don’t I have anything to show for it?’’”
Toner started as a preteen. Now he’s a full-blown heavyweight.
“I’ve always been a fighter,” Toney says. “That’s me. What you see is what you get. I’m not putting on no front or nothing like that. I’ve been this way from day one. When I played football in high school, I felt whenever somebody was trying to challenge me – I’m gonna get him. I never got along with my coaches. I got along with one coach, Coach Wilson, but the other coaches I never got along with. Some players on our team I never got along with. I wasn’t taking too much slack from nobody. I didn’t want the coach to get in my face.”
Maybe that’s why James Toney is self-managed today.
“I ain’t got nobody to answer to but myself,” he says. “I’m gonna be manager of the year and fighter of the year. Back in the days when I was middleweight champion, just to let everybody know, I called all the shots. Jackie (Kallen), she got the credit for it. I was the one doing it in the meetings, saying how much I gonna want, where we gonna do this, when. You know she got credit for me. But I didn’t care, I just wanted to fight. I made her. If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t be where she is today. The other fighter she had was named, you know, Bobby Hitz. He’s a promoter now. He couldn’t spell fight. He fought George Foreman. He became part of the George Foreman grill – got flattened in the first round.”
Kallen wrote the story of her life, called “Against the Ropes,” and somehow or other failed to mention James Toney. They made a movie of the book starring Meg Ryan. There was a James Toney-like character in the film, but his name wasn’t James Toney. I forget what it was. Kallen parlayed her book and film deals into another high-profile gambit. She’s in the celebrity spotlight mode these days, appearing every week on NBC’s “The Contender,” as surrogate den mother to pack of hungry fighters.
“Let me tell you something,” says Toney. “If you’re gonna do a show about the reality of boxing, show the total ins and outs of the game. Don’t show them when they’re sleeping in the house and all that blasé blasé. Show when they get in a fight with each other. That’s what happens every day in and outside of boxing.”
I mention that “The Contender,” for all its faults, wasn’t created with boxing people in mind.
“But you can make boxing for everybody,” Toney claims. “Everybody wanna see violence. Everybody. The Pope wanna see violence. Everybody. They wanna see something happen on TV? I’m gonna make it happen for them.”
I’m not the only one who thinks James Toney is something else. His trainer Freddie Roach seconds that emotion.
“James is the most complete fighter I’ve ever worked with,” Roach says. “The things he does can’t really be taught: the way he measures people, his timing, his eyesight. He see everything coming. He throws combinations. He’s good offensively and defensively. He just does everything very well. I believe champions are born and not made. And James is one of those guys.”
I mention to Toney that I spoke with Freddie Roach, and James says, “That’s my dog right there. I love Freddie. Freddie’s like my little brother there, bro. He my little leprechaun brother right there. That my man. He challenges me when we’re in the ring. I give him full control. He’s my man. I love him. I respect him dearly.”
Toney and Roach make an intriguing team, so I ask James what they’re working on.
“I’m just being James Toney, man. I don’t watch films of fights. I don’t watch films of opponents, because that’s not my thing. Only a scared man watch films. Come April 30, Ruiz gonna wish he’s not in there. It’s gonna be easier than everyone think it is. Ruiz comes in and tries to hug, punch and grab – which is his style – it’s made for me. I’m gonna eat him up. I’m a people’s champion. I wanna fight the best opposition out there. If I have to go through Ruiz, Klitschko – I’ll fight anybody, anywhere, anytime, because this ain’t no game, man. This is real. I take the game serious. And the way the game is right now, the way these fighters is, they take this as a game. They deprive the people of real good fights. They don’t wanna fight you. They say: I’m world champion – and keep the belt for a year and go around parading as champion. You gotta title? Fight. Defend it. I wanna be an active champion. When I win the title in April, I’ll be back in the ring by June or July.”
It’s hard to remember the last time John Ruiz looked good in the ring, but he certainly looked bad the night he fought Roy Jones.
Toney snorts when he hears that name. “But you know I don’t run,” Lights Out points out. “I’ll stay there in front of him. I don’t run. That’s not my forte. Everybody says what they gonna do, what they gonna do when they get in the ring with me, but once they feel the heat, they back off. Holyfield did it. Everybody do it, no matter what. I’m a smart ace. I’m a small guy, but I hit like a super heavyweight. I spar with 24-ounce gloves on right now. When I put those tens on? They gonna be cryin’.”
Toney’s a great guy to interview. All one has to do is strike a match – and James Toney does the rest.
He tells me: “I’ve been like this since I was a kid. I’ve always aspired that if I put my mind on something I can make it happen. When I was an amateur boxer, I put everything I had into what I had to do. Even when there was some problem, I put everything into what I had to do; even when I had some problem. Lots of times – when I fought Roy Jones – I didn’t prepare myself properly for it and I paid a dear price. But now I’m back and ready to go.”
I think a Toney victory Saturday night will be the best thing that happened to boxing in a long time.
“I’m trying to make history,” declares Toney, “not just for the boxing public, but for the mainstream public, because the people want the heavyweight champion to be mainstream and I’m mainstream.”
Mainstream or not, I wonder what Toney does when John Ruiz tries to grab and hold him.
“I slip under it, throw and uppercut-right hand, under and over. Trust me. I’m telling you. As soon as he comes in, let him try to clutch me. It’s going to be under and over and he’s out of there. What’s he gonna do when he hits me with his best shot and I don’t go anywhere?” Toney asks. “He’s gonna sh** bricks. You know what I’m saying? I’m not against taking punches, I don’t like to, but I will to land my best shot.”
Expect fireworks Saturday night at the Garden. James Toney wouldn’t have it any other way.