Were it not for Roy Jones Jr. James Toney’s pursuit of the heavyweight championship would seem almost a flight of fancy. From middleweight to heavyweight champion strikes the historically minded boxing fan as invoking Sam Langford, the insurmountable barrier of talent denied the sports ultimate laurels – the mantle of champion of the heavyweights – by the limits of genetic characteristics. As with the Jones case the name of Bob Fitzsimmons was dusted off for a point of incidental comparison, if only by vague referencing.
Interestingly, both Jones and Toney found their ‘mark’ in the person and talents of John Ruiz. Ruiz, who had been the bane of countless heavyweights of considerable promise and former champions alike, wrestling and mugging his way to successful title defenses, was completely unknotted by the selected artistry of both Roy Jones’ phantom boxing exhibitionism and James Toney’s hit and hide insider trading.
The fantastic can seem so ordinary in details singularized, but the overall affect does tend to effect even wild imaginings. We refer here to Toney making a mockery while showing mastery against then WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz, though the official record does not reflect the encounter. A ‘no contest’ itemization litters the placement where notation should have signaled the ring reality result of his most improbable achievement. That’s the wonder, though, of Toney’s ambition. A decade ago James Toney, middleweight with a weight issue, spoke out itemizing his ambition to be the heavyweight champion. In fact, both Toney and Jones articulated the idea that unless one could reach to the heavyweight championship, being a champion was a realization of being king of a smaller domain, there were always larger challenges left unmet.
Where Jones packed his body with muscle to attempt the upward vertical, Toney seemed to eat his way northward, angrily stopping to chop up belt holder past and present along the way. So Jones’ heavyweight ambition was seen as calculated risk and a planned attack of willed ego and James Toney, heavyweight contender-ship on the verge, was seen as his having arrived at the end of the competitive weight spectrum, unmotivated to run, still able to carry a massive amount of girth performing the kinetics of his defensively sound smash and slide demolition boxing. Roy Jones heavyweight was all calculation and risk. James Toney heavyweight was all indifference rationalized into opportunism.
And yet Toney arrived at heavyweight more than confident. Here was a division he declared where real men fight and settle the issue of their contending by engaging. The sting of Roy Jones’ flighty application of speed without much engagement was a lesson learned and remembered. Toney’s size was now to play a pivotal issue in his ultimate impact in the division of the giant men. The refrain Toney wisely began to utter centered on his former self, middleweight champion. Why would a heavyweight with any self-respect not physically challenge a guy who was once a middleweight? Stating the obvious was challenge and inducement for Toney. Given his size and arm reach Toney was fully aware he needed fighters to come to him or he would have to risk the often unmanageable task of wading into long winged, heavy hitting physical specimens. His hope of a successful campaign lay in his ability to control the inside tempo and punch selections based on defined defensive placement. He knew he’d be aided on the inside by quick hands, a treasured left over having fought at much lower weights.
With speed of hand on the inside and deft mastery of hitting angles which materialized out of sound defensive positions, Toney had the basic armament to cut his way through most heavyweight opposition. That – and Toney possessed a great chin, a chin that WBC heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman is not convinced has truly been tested yet by a ‘true’ heavyweight punch. One can draw a conditional compliment in Rahman’s understandable disregard given that Evander Holyfield – even an infirmed Holyfield – and Dominick Guinn both tried their best and failed to dent the Toney face plate.
When Toney has been beaten, he’s experienced defeat as limitation brought on by his own neglect. And the Californian might not be willing to admit it but neglect has been a characteristic of his professional career, the hinge upon which his fortunes have turned from promise to problem. And yet we note that James Toney has not lost a professional boxing match since spring 1997, a symbolic loss for Toney with almost unmitigated diffidence for the scheduled 12 rounds. His opponent that night, Drake Thadzi, claimed the IBO light-heavyweight title belt and the distinction of having bested the great Toney, though Toney’s efforts on the night were never for the championship itself, but for the pay. Having failed to make the contracted weight, Toney was ineligible to claim “the title” even had done enough to secure a decision. From that embarrassment of mediocrity Toney has ratcheted and at times regaled his way along an indefinable highway toward Saturday night’s showdown with a renewed Hasim Rahman for the WBC heavyweight championship and what will be claimed as the threading of the linear championship.
Yes, he’s found an invaluable aid in promoter Dan Goossen to be sure, Goossen’s advocacy of James Toney almost constituting a mystical belief, for what the eye cannot see the heart understands. And yes, there is an understanding between the two men that they have found a commonality of renewal in a truly compatible mutual aid of self-interest. Goossen-Tudor, Dan Goossen’s promotional house finding in Toney a pay-per-view super-something headliner and the ex-champion fighter finding in Goossen a man just desperate and expert and understanding enough to keep mind and interest tailored to just his inimitable style. Goossen lets Toney be Toney and wraps it all up as blessing and bounty they can share in, for all its worth, for as long as Toney can make the improbable look so possible.
For that’s what James Toney is attempting to do. He’s not going to try and perform a magic trick to make the best of Hasim Rahman disappear. “Lights Out” Toney is going to engage Rahman on his own terms, turning intricate moments of weathered attack into options to punish Rahman for his confidence and faint disregard. Punch for punch, inside the currents of engagement and round after round Toney expects to get the better of “The Rock” new and improved though he may be. By deflecting the best of Rahman’s hooks, parrying the most accurate of his jabs and slipping under the impact zone of the champion’s right crosses, Toney will do his work turning brushes with disaster into his own detonations. He likes to think of himself as the heir of Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore because those men fought beyond the limits of their physical make-up bringing technical mastery to the zenith of athletic projection.
Toney disdains thought of the past, work left undone, opportunities lost, expectations still attached to his indelible name. Living out the cliché that all which matters is the next signed opponent, the fighter in front of you, the round being sounded by the bell, the combination getting to the target, a championship for the taking, James Toney has his latest venue coming into focus. He sees things as clearly as if tomorrow was today and yesterday only what he had imagined when it was necessary.