If it were not so sad, it would almost be funny. There’s big John Ruiz, the Rodney Dangerfield of heavyweight champions, wondering why he has to lower himself to defend his WBA championship against James Toney. “Other than talk so much, tell me what the guy has done?” he asks, which is pretty cheeky for a glorified club fighter who would have been fighting 8-rounders at Sunnyside Gardens back in the 40s and 50s. The closest Ruiz would have got to Madison Square Garden then would have been in a cheap seat beside the organ in the balcony. No matter; this is about Toney, whom I met after some dummy invited him to Michael Nunn’s local unveiling in Davenport, Iowa 14 years ago. After our first half hour together, I knew he worshipped his mother, hated his long-absent father, and thought a Whopper, fries and a large Pepsi was a gourmet meal. He snarled a lot, but he also laughed a lot. Seven months later, after watching him destroy Nunn and more than hold his own against the veteran Mike McCallum, it did not take a genius to know he was something special.
Davenport, Iowa, May 1991—Michael Nunn should have never invited James Nathaniel Toney, an ex-street thug, to his homecoming dance last Friday night. You know them tough kids: always snarling, talking about beating up people, looking mean. It was supposed to have been a happy event, a welcome home hero sort of thing. Then Tough Toney went and hit Nunn in the mouth at the riverside ballpark and spoiled everything. Mugged him right out of his IBF middleweight championship.
Other than Toney, it was a hell of a guest list. About 10,000 folks jammed into the tiny baseball stadium on the northern bank of the Mississippi River. Millions more watched on TVKO. Shucks, the last time the undefeated Nunn fought, he had been with them French people in Paris. Now he was back in Mark Twain country, where Twain wrote of the sunsets: “I have never seen any on either side of the ocean that equaled them.” Twain never wrote about the sunrises. Never got up early enough.
Buffalo Bill came from here. So did Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz great that played the cornet at Davenport High. Another legendary local was Biddie McGee; she ran a whorehouse in the Bucktown at the turn of the century.
Cary Grant died here, in a third floor suite at the Blackhawk Hotel on East 3rd St. But like Toney, he was an outsider. So were the hundreds of Confederate soldiers who lie buried on Arsenal Island in the middle of the river's brief curve westward. They never made it out of a hellish prisoner of war camp. Sara Bernhardt stopped by once to give a performance of Fedora at the Burtis Opera House. Old Sara, she did the play in French and then cut the final scene so she could catch the last train out of town.
Somebody in Davenport should have cut Toney's last act. Kid is hard; he carried a gun while selling crack at Huron High in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was also the star quarterback. “That was a long time ago,” said Toney, who just turned 22. “I didn't need the money. It was peer pressure. I just went along with the crowd.”
Boxing and his mother, Sherry, turned him around. A single mother, 39, Sherry earned a degree in education at the University of Michigan, then a masters in communication and theater from Eastern Michigan University. Now she owns a successful wholesale bakery. “I've only got one idol: Mom,” says Toney. “She taught me that if you want something, you have to work hard.”
Working hard, Toney turned pro in 1988, He had a brief setback after winning his first eight fights: his manager, a drug dealer, was gunned down in front of a Detroit bar. A pretty 45 year old Jewish publicist/entertainment writer with a passion for boxing, Jackie Kallen, filled the void. After 10 years as Tommy Hearns publicist, Kallen had just started her own organization, Galaxy Boxing.
Under Kallen and trainer Bill Miller, Toney terrorized the middleweight division. The young fighter has a pit bull philosophy: “Nothing fancy. I looked at the other guy and I have to kill him.”
He fought every month, sometimes twice. By March of this year, he had won 25 fights, 18 by knockout. His official nickname is “Lights Out.” The only blemish was a draw with Sanderline Williams, whom he later beat. Then promoter Bob Arum called and offered a fight with Nunn. Arum offered $50,000 plus $15,000 for expenses. Should Toney win, Arum offered $1 million contract for his next three fights. Until then, Toney's biggest purse had been $12,000. Kallen worried that they might be moving too quickly.
“Take the fight,” said Tough Toney. “I will beat the son of a bitch.”
“Don't swear,” said his mother.
Toney arrived in Davenport full of fury. For 16 weeks he had ignored his favorite foods, eating salubriously while abstaining from pizza, fast-food hamburgers, and French fries. “All that good health food,” he said with a rare grin. He had trained in Detroit, well, sort of. To keep him away from Burger King, Kallen rented him a house just outside of city, in Redford. “The place is full of rednecks and bikers,” Kallen said, laughing. “I figured he'd be too afraid to go out.”
“I wasn't afraid,” Toney growled. Then he laughed. “The second day I was there, as I was coming home from the gym, the guy living next door saw me. He yelled: ‘Hey, boy, come on over, I'm going to burn a cross.' I couldn't believe it.”
Toney entered the ring from the third base side wearing your basic movie villain black; his guns were holstered in red leather. To honor Kallen, he wears a Star of David on his trunks. Nunn came in from the home team dugout, tall, handsome, smiling, and wearing Gene Autry white. Only their eyes were the same: ice cubes. Nunn only masquerades as an angel; he grew up as a gang enforcer on the hard streets a few blocks from the Class A Midwest League stadium.
Although there were 24 knockouts in his first 36 fights, Nunn is a pure boxer, with Fred Astaire legs and high-speed hands, a poet in a world of violence. Toney expected him to run. “He's going to find out its no damn disco,” growled the IBF's number five challenger. “I'll pressure him until he has to fight.”
Nunn moved, but not as much as expected. Mostly he fronted Toney, fending off his attacks with a hard jab, jarring him with combinations. For five rounds the champion fought brilliantly.
After the fifth round, Toney told Miller: “He's tiring. I can hear him breathing like a freight train. I'm going to step up the pressure.”
Going into the eighth round, Nunn was ahead on one judge's card by three points, by five on another, and by seven on the third. “You're losing it, son. You're losing it,” Miller told Toney in the corner. “You've got to press him even more.””Don't worry about it,” Toney said. “He's not going the distance.”
Coming out for the eighth, Nunn appeared tired. He began to tarry too long in front of Toney, who found him repeatedly with jolting right hands. “Jab and move,” trainer Angelo Dundee screamed from the corner. “Get out of there, move.” Nunn yelled back: “He's not hurting me.”
Toney opened the 11th round with five hard punches, all misses. The last wild swing carried him face first across the ropes. Undaunted, he turned and whacked Nunn with a right to the head. Shaken, Nunn moved away. Then a moment later, stupidly, the champion dropped his hands. He never saw the left hook that snapped his head violently sideway and dropped him on his back.
A collective moan swept through the stadium; the last train was leaving town and Toney wasn't on it.
Rising unsteadily at nine, Nunn assured referee Denny Nelson: “I'm alright.” He said it twice; he was wrong both times. Only pure courage kept him on his feet. Like a Doberman chasing raw meat, Toney charged. A right uppercut turned Nunn around, a looping right to the back of the neck draped him across the ropes. As Nunn turned back toward the ring, two right hands to the head drilled him to his knees. Nelson stopped the fight as a white towel flew into the ring from Nunn's corner.
Rain fell on the homecoming parade. The wheels dropped off the floats. The high school band made a wrong turn and disappeared up a side street. In the distance, a train whistle wailed its anguish. Uncaring, the Mississippi River ran south. Nunn sighed. “I got lazy,” he said.
* * *
Atlantic City, December 1991—The young face was empty of expression, an assassin's mask carved in cold Parian marble. Only the eyes, dark chips ablaze with fire, showed the untamed fury still burning fiercely within James Toney, the IBF middleweight champion. “You blind bastard,” he snarled down at Milton Chwasky, bespectacled attorney of Mike McCallum, the recently defrocked WBA champion who had just weathered 12 ferocious rounds to escape with a draw last Friday night in Atlantic City.
At the post fight press conference, Chwasky had made the mistake of offering that while it had been a great fight, he thought his fighter had won. Lawyers are supposed to say that. Growling, Toney leaped up and started for the startled 51 year old boxing attorney. Two of his people and a Trump Plaza security guard struggled hard to hold him back. “Let me go. I want to hit him,” Toney yelled.
After Jackie Kallum, Toney's manager, had negotiated a precarious peace, someone suggested that a Toney McCallum rematch was in order. “Let's do it right now,” Toney fired at McCallum, seated nearby. McCallum smiled uneasily. From the audience, Julian Jackson, the WBC middleweight champion, suggested that Toney might consider fighting him.
Would a starved Doberman attack raw meat? “I won't make you wait,” snapped Toney, rising. “Get up here. We'll fight now.”
“I'd rather fight McCallum first,” parried Jackson, whom McCallum had knocked out in two rounds in a 1986 WBA junior middleweight title fight. Toney's lips curled in derision.
And so, 24 year old James Toney continued his proxy search for James Toney Sr., the father who beat and shot his wife, Sherry, and then deserted her when their son was less than a year old. “Someday I will find him, and I know he lives in Cleveland,” vows the champion, “and this time he won't get away.” In the meantime, professional stand-ins such as McCallum must fill the void so Toney can legally expend his smoldering rage.
Fortunately for McCallum, he has one of the five great chins in the world; the other four are on Mt. Rushmore. For 36 minutes the undefeated Toney, with 20 knockouts in 29 fights, crashed right hand rockets against that unyielding jaw, and his 35 year old challenger never wavered. “I want his blood,” Toney had said before the fight. “I want to kill him.”
What the relentless youngster got was a lesson in courage and finesse from a cagey 35 year old veteran who had held a WBA championship from 1984 until he recently relieved of his middleweight title by the Panamanian set of boxing's alphabet mobsters. The WBA had demanded that McCallum defend his title against Steve Collins, the mandatory challenger he had defeated in 1990.
“After his last title fight, Mike fought two non title fights for $10,000 each and we had to give the WBA people half of that,” said Chwasky. “Then they wanted $30,000 from this purse plus a $35,000 exception fee for letting him fight Toney. We were going to go along with that. Then they came back and demanded we give one of their partners, Barney Eastwood, Collins' manager, another $50,000 for stepping aside. That's when we said no.”
For fighting Toney, McCallum's purse was $500,000, $50,000 more than the IBF champion's. Out of McCallum's purse, the “non profit” WBA's booty would have been $115,000. Instead, Chwasky took his case to Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner sports, who backed his fight with the WBA. Abraham said TVKO would still pay McCallum his full purse even if the WBA stripped him.
“I really believe these organizations are on their way out,” said Abraham following the fight. “This was a Gillette Friday Night fight of the 40s, a great fight, and none of those organizations was around then. Our pay per view buy rate tonight wasn't lowered one bit by the absence of the WBA's blessing.”
Promoter Bob Arum turned the screw deeper. For this fight, Arum unveiled the Marvelous Marvin Hagler middleweight championship trophy, a $1,000 sterling silver cup which he hopes will eventually give the world only one 160 pound champion. Hagler, now a movie star in Italy who did color for the TVKO broadcast, was a great middleweight champion in the 1980s.
“I want to see a cup like this for every division,” said Arum. “Let's get back to sanity; one champion for every division, the way it should be. You know who won this fight tonight, the extortionists in Panama who took Mike's title. Now he has no championship. So the banditos are celebrating.”
No matter. McCallum, out of Brooklyn by way of Jamaica, gained more recognition from his heroic draw than ever he did from all his 42 victories in 43 fights. One of boxing's best kept secrets, in recent years, the quiet puncher was forced to carry his world class talents overseas, to places like Pesaro, Italy and Nogent Sur Marn, France.
In the United States, only the odds makers knew him, and they made him a 5 2 favorite over the gentle lady baker's fiery son from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “What do those idiots know,” snapped Toney, who limited himself to eating a club sandwich on Thanksgiving Day in Newark, where he trained, to raise the heat of his anger another notch. “One more thing McCallum has to pay for,” he promised.
As expected, Toney came out like a tornado, his hard punches amazingly fast but frenzied. McCallum turned him away early with wisdom: sliding side to side, circling just beyond danger, spinning his young opponent into moment's of frustration, using his jab to set up well placed shots to the head, which at times only caused Toney to grin.
Late in the second round, Toney caught McCallum with a double hook to the head, dropping him for a count of three. Referee Steve Smoger moved in quickly and ruled it a slip. From seat eight, row one it appeared like McCallum had tripped over Toney's left hand. Smoger's decision would later cost Toney the fight. A knockdown would have given Toney the round 10 8, which later would have changed judge Robert Cox's finally tally from a 114 114 draw to 115 114 and a split decision for the IBF champion.
Judge Gary Merritt scored it 116 112 for Toney. Judge Tom Kaczamarek, who should have marked his card in Braille, thought McCallum won 115 113.
Slowly Toney's youth and the rage of his attack began to wear down the older veteran, which only caused him to pause and fire back. Toney would crash a stunning right against McCallum's head, and while everyone waited for him to fall, he would step in and hammer Toney in return. Then they would repeat the violent scenario. They became single minded warriors locked in mortal combat, each trying to break the will of the other. Neither backed up even an inch.
The teacher was too good. As Toney fought, he learned, and by the tenth round the wild hunter had become a controlled executioner. After fighting himself to the point of near exhaustion, he reached deep to find an amazing reserve, while McCallum, his strength flagging badly, survived the last three rounds on pride and grit alone.
In the last round, each made one last desperate attempt to win by a knockout, but neither could summon the necessary muscle. Too weary to duck, they took turns hammering each other until the final bell. Sagging back into the ropes, McCallum, who had suffered one final furious assault, threw one last tired hook. It missed.
Now the only question was what to do with the Hagler Cup, which after the draw was announced appeared destined to go back to Arum's storeroom. “Aw,” said Hagler at ringside, “I thought Toney won. Give it to him.”
(Special to TheSweetScience.com from the Pat Putnam Classic Series. Portions of this article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated.)