Inside the second floor Wild Card Gym with frayed fight posters of yesteryear adorning its walls, James “Lights Out” Toney bellows out commands and taunts to his sparring partners in mid-punch with a dozen or so people watching.
School is definitely in session.
“Shut up and watch,” Toney (69-4-2, 43 KOs) shouts toward light heavyweight Daniel Judah who is quietly watching by a speed bag. “Is that you Judah’s talking?”
Sparring or talking, Toney’s like an IMAX theater camera, he sees everything in a large radius and expects to use that extraordinary vision to victory when he faces Hasim Rahman (41-5-1, 33 KOs) for the WBC heavyweight world title on March 18 in Atlantic City at Boardwalk Hall. The fight will be televised by HBO.
Toney commands an audience like few other fighters in the history of the sport. He’s a multi-task personality with an ability to juggle opponents, conversations, or observe facial expressions of gawkers in a microsecond.
Only a few in the history of the sport have proven capable of the same feat.
“Everyone keeps saying ‘Hasim Rahman is so big ‘how can you beat him,’” mimics Toney in falsetto while sparring. “He ain’t got a chance.”
Back when Toney fought as a super middleweight and told anyone who would listen he was really a heavyweight, people scoffed and looked at his 5-9-height and walked away politely. Even a 168-pound Toney was not a person to disrespect.
In the year 2000, visitors would see Toney inside the Hollywood location boxing gym and smugly dismiss the Michigan native as a has-been who was once considered the best fighter pound-for-pound in the world.
“He cut me,” Toney says while looking at his former promoter Bob Arum – now representing Rahman – at a press conference in Sherman Oaks, California. “I told him I was a heavyweight in a middleweight’s body. Bob Arum wasn’t trying to hear me though.”
Now, after convincingly defeating several high-caliber opponents in the heavyweight division, the boxing world views Toney as the real deal.
A victory over Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield in 2003 shockingly exhibited the skill level of Toney who had brazenly predicted a knockout over the man who had never been stopped in his career.
“It was embarrassing,” said Holyfield after the fight. “I stopped throwing punching because I couldn’t hit him.”
Before that fight Toney had promised Holyfield, who had just beaten Rahman the year before, he would stand right in front of him and knock him out.
“Anyone stands in front of me is going down,” Holyfield confidently replied during a press conference to promote their matchup.
Toney lived up to his promise and bobbed and weaved, slipped and countered and battered Holyfield until the fight was stopped in the ninth round. It was a feat Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Rahman were unable to accomplish.
“People say I beat a washed-up fighter,” Toney said after sparring on a Thursday afternoon. “Hasim Rahman couldn’t beat him a year earlier.”
In Toney’s world of confrontation and humiliation, the battle of words and accusations play right into his mindset. He was bred that way.
“I’m from D-Town baby, not the rap band. I’m talking about Detroit,” says Toney the former middleweight, super middleweight, cruiserweight and current IBA heavyweight title-holder. “All the great champions come from there like Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, Tommy “The Hit Man” Hearns. And James Toney.”
Toney explains to anyone within earshot that walking into the famous Kronk Gym on Detroit meant enduring verbal putdowns, physical challenges and daily provocations.
“Anyone going into that gym had to be able to handle it or get out,” he says.
After parrying the behind-the-back insults for nine years as easily as he does incoming punches, Toney proceeded to capture the IBF cruiserweight title and WBA heavyweight titles. The last title was stripped away because of steroids detected in his system.
Rahman views Toney as an over-hyped media creation.
“I honestly am not being cocky, I’m not being over confident, I’m trying to like expose James for the fraud that he is,” Rahman said. “I’m just going to punish him.”
Play Joe Frazier
In 1994, Toney was on top of the world as the media’s consensus best fighter pound-for-pound in the world. Then he met Roy Jones Jr. in a battle of super middleweight titleholders looking to unify and establish Hall of Fame credentials.
Toney lost that fight, big.
Jones proceeded to gather wins and titles like a lawnmower cutting grass on a lazy summer afternoon. It was methodical and often yawn-inspiring work. But he was unbeatable for 10 more years.
Meanwhile Toney attempted to prove to anyone who would listen that he was not a shot fighter and still possessed boxing skills that could shoot him to the top. It all seemed for naught until he was gingerly picked to play Joe Frazier in the motion picture “Ali” starring Will Smith.
“They were worried I was going to hurt Will,” said Toney, who was eventually selected for the part. “I wouldn’t do anything like that. I’m a nice guy unless you mess with me or step inside that ring and try and take what’s mine.”
After that movie, Toney was given a chance by promoter Dan Goossen, another boxing survivor whose epitaph was written before he was completely cold. Two men tabbed dead were like negative and positive battery posts when connected to each other, the sparks flew.
“Me and Dan have a good relationship,” Toney says of his promoter Goossen. “That’s why we get along.”
With Goossen-Tutor Promotions supporting him, Toney was able to face competition in front of television audiences who could see for themselves that his skill and talent were intact.
First came Jason Robinson in Temecula. For those remembering Toney’s last television appearance in Compton a year earlier against Wesley Martin, the shock of watching a fully prepared Lights Out was only surpassed by his knockout victory.
Next came the undefeated Vassiliy Jirov who held the IBF cruiserweight title. Toney had been chasing him for years to no avail. Finally with Goossen in his corner, the Michigan transplant backed by his trainer Freddie Roach moved into the biggest fight that division had ever staged.
Jirov, a gold medal winner during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, had held a tight hold on the cruiserweight title. With his tenacious attack and superb conditioning, the Kazakhstan national who had moved to Arizona and teamed with famed trainer Thel Torrance, was a slight favorite to defend his championship successfully.
That day, April 26, 2003, in Ledyard, Conn., both Jirov and Toney fired punches nonstop for 12 rounds with the clinching blow coming in the final round as the champion succumbed to the body shots and counterpunches for a brief time in dropping to the ground. He survived the onslaught but Toney had proved to be the superior fighter. From that moment on Toney’s skills were no longer a question mark. The majority of pessimists had to recognize erosion had not set anchor on Toney.
“James knows more about boxing than most people,” said Roach, whose patience and loyalty has led to more recognition in the sport. “I just try to help him see some things he can’t see while fighting. I’m his extra pair of eyes.”
The battle with Jirov was voted Fight of the Year by many publications and Toney had seemingly reached out from the dark canyon of obscurity into renewed fame as Lights Out II. He was also universally recognized as the Fighter of the Year for 2003.
Toney further shocked the boxing world by boldly moving into the realm of the heavyweights. His first victim: Evander Holyfield.
“I’ve always been a heavyweight,” professes Toney. “I was just a heavyweight in a middleweight’s body.”
Wins over Holyfield, Rydell Booker, John Ruiz and Dominick Guinn were interspaced by injuries, but now, he’s facing Rahman for the vacant WBC heavyweight title.
“He’s been calling me out, now he’s going to get what he wants,” Toney blurts out after sparring 10 rounds a week before the fight.
Rahman, a former champion whose right hand separated Lennox Lewis from his title in 2001 only to lose it to him seven months later, said Toney is too small his recent past suggests a problem.
“I don’t always keep very well against smaller guys. You know, I do well against taller guys,” Rahman said. “You know, he can’t just lay on the outside and beat me on the outside, so he got to come in. When he come in I’m going to punish him.”
Sitting on the edge of the ring, with sweat pouring down his face, Toney looks up calmly and delivers four words for Rahman and fight fans in general.
“Shut up and watch,” Toney says.