It was a kinder, gentler version of James Toney and Hasim Rahman that showed up at Manhattan’s Tavern on the Green last Tuesday. They were in town to promote their March 18th bout for the WBC strap, which was given to Rahman when the former titlist, Vitali Klitschko, suddenly retired.

The co-promoters of the upcoming event, Bob Arum and Dan Goossen, applauded the pugilists’ newfound etiquette. But some of us were secretly disappointed. Only three weeks ago the two heavyweights scuffled in Cancun, Mexico. And both have a long history of violent outbursts, be it oral or fistic, at such settings. Hired to keep order were a dozen black-clad bodyguards—all of whom looked more the part than the tubby but talented Toney. An explosion was inevitable.

What detonated, though, was a cavalcade of boxing writers bumrushing the buffet as if they were late for The Last Supper. (Greenhorn scribes have been trampled to death by Knockout Radio’s Eddie Goldman; BoxingInsider’s Scoop Malinowski has sharper elbows than Bernard Hopkins.)

However ghoulish, many of us look forward to the chest-caving shoves, overturned tables, and yo-momma’s-so-ugly trash talk that’s expected when Toney and Rahman are forced to do press together.

But most professional athletes their age are concentrating on their golf game or signing autographs for pay at the Javits Center. Maybe that’s why these two traded in their reputed surliness for mellowness on Tuesday? Or is it dwindling testosterone levels? Are they salting away their belligerence for when it counts? Have they grown more prudent with time, conscious of snapping tendons and breaking bones? Maybe the presence of their dignified brides softened them up? Hasim’s Muslim wife, Crystal, wearing the traditional black hijab, has a round, peaceful face you wouldn’t want to disturb with foolishness. Toney’s bride of three weeks is delicate, attractive, and manicured. Her grace is the ying to James’ cantankerous yang.

What any of this foretells about the fight is unclear. We can only hope it’s good.   Because a couple decent heavyweights are worth 25 superb featherweights as far as the general sports fan is concerned.

After the promoters praised their fighters’ virtues in the ring, the moment came for the staredown. At first, Goossen and Arum feigned rejection at the idea, but powerhouse publicist Kelly Swanson pressed for it. The fighters tacitly agreed they would behave themselves. They didn’t stare into each other’s eyes, but managed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder for a minute or so. When the press got what they needed, the boxers even shook hands, Rahman putting his massive free hand on top of Toney’s smaller one.

They were unable to mask the respect they have for each other. As Toney chomped on an unlit cigar (he claims to smoke four a day), you half-expected him to reach inside his blazer and offer one to the Baltimore slugger whose life was defined by a single right hand to Lennox Lewis’ chin in 2001. Generally dismissive of his colleagues, Toney says his barrel-chested foe can fight. Rahman admits Toney’s skills are nonpareil, but of course believes his superior size, strength, and punch will prove to be too much.

The Ann Arbor, Michigan native Toney became the IBF middleweight champ in 1991 when he knocked out Michael Nunn in the 11th. Fifteen years and 75 pounds later, he boasts a ledger of 69-4-2 (43 KOs), collecting along the way major belts at super middleweight and cruiserweight, too.

“When James Toney was a star quarterback in high school, he was over 200 pounds,” Bob Arum told The Sweet Science. “Dan Goossen said it best: ‘This is not a case of a middleweight going up to heavyweight. He was always a heavyweight, who starved himself to fight as a middleweight and super middleweight.’ I think that that was a very astute, accurate statement.”

“Whenever you have two great fighters with this kind of charisma,” Arum continued, “it’s always sad that one of them is going to come out a loser. But, you know, sometimes the fights are so good that there is no loser. One guy wins the fight but neither guy loses. And I suspect that’s what you’re going to find in this one.”

The promoter calling Rahman “great” is simply good old-fashioned hucksterism. But to his credit, Rahman had a busy 2004, fighting five times and capping off the year with an inspired demolition of second-rate Kali Meehan. He would’ve been busy last year but Vitali Klitschko left him standing at the altar three times. His lone performance was against his pal Monte Barrett; those suckered into buying the dreadful PPV now know the sensation of mainlining NyQuil. If forced to give one positive, it’s that he was 236, an ideal weight for him. A Pollyanna might suggest he was fighting down to his opponent and would’ve raised his game for Vitali. He would’ve had to. The same goes when he steps inside the ring with Toney.

For all their accomplishments, both boxers still have things to prove. Rahman, that he’s more than a one-hit wonder. Toney, that he can indeed whip any man, that he hasn’t just been spoon-fed a diet of has-beens and never-weres—and that he can win clean. Steroids were found in his system after beating WBA titlist John Ruiz last year.

One is inclined to believe Toney’s claims that the juice was strictly prescribed for recovery of a shoulder injury. Certainly, the 37-year-old will never grace the cover of a Joe Weider publication. More than ever, his game is three parts guile, one part might.  And his sturdy chin isn’t something BALCO chief Victor Conte can create in a lab: it’s God-given.

“I was born a fighter,” Toney regularly declares. “Everybody else was taught.” Who’s going to argue with the next WBC heavyweight champion?