Maybe the promoters did too good a job this time of preventing a riot or brawl at the official pre-fight press conferences for Saturday’s fight in Atlantic City between WBC heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman and James Toney. Not only were the jabbing, feinting, and counterpunching reserved for the paying customers, but the atmosphere Tuesday at the final media meet, held at New York’s Copacabana, was downright mellow yellow. The buzz usually associated with a heavyweight championship fight was, sadly, largely absent.
Even a character known as “The Godfather” in Rahman’s camp who wore a small crown and did a reasonable imitation of Steve “Crocodile” Fitch of Mike Tyson entourage fame couldn’t ruin the party. He would periodically bellow outthings like “Champ of the world” about Rahman, with few reacting to this breaking news.
Toney was almost mischievously playful. Asked about the endless inquiries into his weight – he said he was 251 pounds yesterday – he said it didn’t bother him because “They let me know I’m doing something good. They let me know another endorsement, another hot dog endorsement’s coming.”
The closest thing to a public confrontation came when Rahman’s new co-manager, Yah Yah Cason, said he had heard Toney quoted as saying Rahman had “no heart.” He responded, “That’s got to be the most ridiculous thing that I’ve ever heard,” but quickly added that Toney indeed “has a tremendous heart” for agreeing to face Rahman.
In his public remarks, Toney, uncharacteristically soft-spoken, insisted, “I never said he didn’t have no heart because he got to have heart to be in the ring.”
Both were partially right.
On a March 8 media teleconference call, answering a question from Bernard Fernandez of the Philadelphia Daily News, Toney said, “Everyone is saying Hasim Rahman is bigger than me and he’s stronger. Man, you can be big all you want to. He’s lacking, he’s, he’s lacking in the one area which really counts, that’s the heart.”
So he didn’t say Rahman had “no heart,” but that he was “lacking” in heart.
Most of the boxing media with whom I spoke at this press conference agreed with Toney, at least in part. The ones I spoke to all pick Toney, although for some reason everyone seemed to speak almost in whispers when this subject was broached.
Nevertheless, Toney, a little looser while speaking one-on-one to our ragtag band of boxing writers and yakkers, said he still believes that he has not been shown the respect he thinks he has earned.
“The best pound-for-pound ratings, which really don’t mean nothing, they don’t mention my name,” he cited. “When it comes to pure boxing ability, they don’t mention my name. When it comes to pure mental toughness, they don’t mention my name.”
Just when you thought he was getting all riled up, he turned, for him anyway, almost gushy.
“But that’s all good. That’s fine and dandy. Fine and dandy,” he continued. Then he added, returning to his critique of his critics, “That lets me know that people who are writing that stuff don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, or they never did before in their life.”
Now, no pun intended, he was on a roll: “They said I’m fat and I’m overweight. So what? I can fight. That’s the name of the game, boxing, fighting. It doesn’t matter. If I wanted to be Mr. Olympia, I would have got in a Mr. Olympia contest.”
And speaking of rolls: “Instead I entered Nathan’s hot dog eating contest.”
I noted how relaxed he was, and he agreed. “I’m very relaxed. I’m ready to go.” Yes, very calm, like he knows he is on his way to an execution, and he is the one with the ax.
But he is still uncomfortable being named the favorite in this fight by the bookies. “I don’t want to be the favorite,” he said. “I want to be the underdog. Don’t start being on my side now.”
He promised, “It’s going to be terrible. It’s going to be like the Iran Barkley fight.” That was back in 1993, when, ahead eight rounds to one on all cards, Toney was awarded a TKO in the tenth by “corner retirement.”
In this fight he vowed again to win by a knockout. “Mid-rounds. Trust me.”
In his public remarks, Rahman, deprived of the chance to engage in a trash-talking contest, seemed almost baffled as to what to say. “There really isn't much to say at this point,” he said. He did add, “Everybody has conducted themselves like gentlemen. I appreciate that.”
It was actually Rahman’s promoter, Bob Arum of Top Rank, whose comments were most remarkable for their candor and perspective. Arum stressed that this fight will not be shown in the U.S. on pay-per-view, but on the regular HBO network, and on a free preview weekend as well, meaning that non-subscribers can watch it for free.
“That’s very, very, very important,” he sad. “Because as we have concentrated, all of us, on pay-per-view, because of the revenue stream, the audience for boxing has been shrinking. And here we have, thanks to HBO, the heavyweight championship of the world with the widest possible, biggest possible audience. And this fight will be watched in the United States by the biggest audience in years for any fight. So that’s really great for these fighters. And it’s something that we hope will revitalize the interest in boxing and certainly revitalize the interest in the heavyweight division.”
We’ll remind him of that admission the next time he puts King Kong against Elmer Fudd on pay-per-view.
Still, this buzzless bash does have the potential to elevate the winner in the public’s eye. If one of these fighters makes a strong statement in the ring with his performance, he could begin to stake his claim for being known as the heavyweight champion of the world, and not just one of a roster of belt holders (even though that is all he would actually be).
Arum, of course, believes that the victor will be Rahman. He did acknowledge that Rahman’s team was well aware of what has been called inconsistency, meaning he has lost to fighters including John Ruiz and Evander Holyfield, both beaten in the ring by Toney (the latter victory, of course, being nullified when Toney tested positive for steroids).
But Arum insisted of Rahman, “They know the transformation that’s happened in him. They know that he has been in the past inconsistent. They know that now and for the rest of his career he’s going to bring his ‘A’ game to the ring.”
As Arum was making his pitch, yet another fighter who owns a victory over Rahman, Oleg Maskaev, sat near the rear of the room, smiling. In 1999, leading comfortably on all three scorecards after seven rounds, Rahman was caught by Maskaev and knocked clean out of the ring. Now Maskaev is the WBC’s mandatory contender, and his promoter, Dennis Rappaport, is chomping at the bit to sign to fight the Rahman-Toney winner next.
Maskaev, however, only spoke well of the man he conquered so famously, also in Atlantic City. “I believe that Rahman is in great shape. It’s going to be a very interesting fight. He’s prepared well for the fight,” Maskaev observed.
But he would not proffer a prediction.
“It’s very tough to make a prediction for this fight, because there are two great fighters,” he stated.
Instead he said that he wants to show the world in a fight with the winner that “I’m going to prove that I can not only punch but I can box now.” If Maskaev and Rappaport have their way, and the WBC rules (lol) are followed, we will find out in the next few months.
Speaking of rules, if Toney has only been training on things like hot dogs, even with sauerkraut, relish, and mustard, he may be husky but he will do just fine with the post-fight doping test.
Larry Hazzard Sr., the veteran commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, stated about Toney and everyone else, “We test for all controlled, dangerous substances. He will be tested as are all of the combatants who participate in the state of New Jersey. Everyone is tested.” Asked if that includes testing for steroids, he affirmed, “Absolutely.”
So what, exactly, was the message of this pre-fight build-up? It was like a two-and-a-half star movie. It didn’t suck, but it wasn’t that memorable.
Without being marred by the brain-killing trash talk, there seemed to be little theme to all of this. The repeated assertion that these two are the best heavyweights in the world also was neither preposterous nor convincing.
Toney and Rahman are highly ranked in all the independent polls, but ESPN.com, The Ring, the BWRP, and the WBM polls all have IBF champ Chris Byrd ranked first. Byrd fights Wladimir Klitschko April 22 in Mannheim, Germany. WBO champ Lamon Brewster, who knocked out Klitschko two years ago, fights Sergei LiakhovichApril 1 in Cleveland. Nikolay Valuev, the seven-foot-plus Russian who won the WBA belt from John Ruiz in December in Germany by a highly controversial majority decision, fights either May 27 or June 3 against someone not yet announced, i.e., handpicked.
Even if Rahman and Toney put on an entertaining scrap, and, hopefully, the outcome is not tainted by dope, there still is something missing in the whole message of this fight.
But maybe something unannounced is being planned. The afternoon of this fight, Arum and Don King are holding what is being called a “once-in-a-lifetime joint media forum” between these two 74-year-old promoters. King still promotes Brewster and co-promotes Valuev. Maybe they will all go on HBO after Rahman-Toney to challenge the winner to take a heavyweight title unification fight, if not enter a formal tournament. Arum has previously said that he has no interest in Valuev, but Brewster is better known and more marketable in America. Maybe the momentum started in their joint April 8 Mayweather-Judah co-promotion can continue. Maybe they realize that since, as Arum said, “the audience for boxing has been shrinking” that they then have to take extraordinary steps to “revitalize the interest in boxing.”
Now that would be a very welcome message.
Unfortunately, I’m just expecting the kind of stuff they put in James Toney’s hot dogs.