The upcoming release of Game of Shadows, which chronicles Barry Bonds alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs over the past seven years, is expected to rock Major League Baseball to its core. The only shocking aspect is the documented proof of Bonds cheating his way through baseball’s record book. Congressional hearings, tell-all books, and failed drug tests by high-profile athletes like Rafael Palmeiro have left a bad taste in the mouths of sports fans for the past few years. This was supposed to be the year that Bonds surpassed Babe Ruth’s career mark of 714 home runs, and quite possibly, Hank Aaron’s record mark of 755. Now a dark cloud looms over the legacy of the San Francisco Giants outfielder and baseball.
Approximately 3,000 miles away, James “Lights Out” Toney is in Atlantic City, New Jersey, making the final preparations for his WBC heavyweight title bout with champ Hasim Rahman. Toney was recently involved in his own steroid scandal not too long ago. After outpointing John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight belt last April, Toney tested positive for steroids in his post-fight drug screening.
The outcome of the fight was changed to a no-decision, and Toney was stripped of his newly-won title. He was then fined and given a 90-day suspension from boxing in New York, and thus, the rest of the United States.
Now, 11 months later, he is once again challenging for a different piece of the heavyweight title. The only thing he had to do to earn a second title shot was easily defeat a reeling Dominick Guinn.
The boxing community seems to have no problem with Toney’s quick bounce back after testing positive for steroids. While I feel that no one disagrees with the punishment meted out, it is highly unlikely that Toney will walk through the rest of his career or life with a scarlet “C” tattooed on his chest.
But how does this happen? When sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids after winning the gold medal in the 100 meter dash with a world-record time of 9.79 seconds at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, he was banned from competing for two years and stripped of all world records and medals that he held prior to the Seoul games. Just the suspicion that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa used performance-enhancers makes their amazing home run chase in 1998 seem like a bit of a sham, and brings their hall-of-fame status into uncertainty. Glory achieved, but with a tainted hue that will likely always be whispered.
But Toney had some sound explanations in his corner rather than most of the characteristic denials or pleads of ignorance. And the sport has some reason to be forgiving.
Toney’s recovery from a potential career-destroying situation can partly be attributed to the circumstances of boxing. However, much of it is due to his actions as well. It was he who came forth and stated that steroids were part of the medication he was taking to recover from a broken arm he sustained in his previous fight with Rydell Booker. That response is much more believable than, “I had no idea what my trainer was giving me.” Toney’s physique and his track record with injuries make it hard to believe that steroids would be in his system for any other reason.
Toney also showed an uncharacteristic bit of humility during the whole ordeal as well, admitting that he made a mistake and declaring that he would still like a shot at the heavyweight title if it became available. He also did not fall into the same boat as a Major League slugger whose power drops once he stops using performance enhancers. When Toney returned to the ring with Guinn last October, he looked as if he had not missed a beat.
The sport of boxing is different from baseball and football in the fact that it is not conducive to steroids. When a muscular Fernando Vargas fought Oscar De La Hoya in 2002, his performance was hindered by his bulk in the later rounds. Vargas tested positive for steroids after losing the bout. Most trainers will say that pumped-up arms usually start to feel as if they are made of lead in the last few rounds of the fight. The only way steroids can really assist fighters is by helping them recover from the wear and tear of training between fights.
Boxing is also suffering from one of the weakest heavyweight periods in history, which can make it a little more forgiving than in other eras. This is the same division that gave Andrew Golota three title shots in a row, and the same one that gave Mike Tyson more chances than Robert Downey, Jr. Had this happened to Toney in the mid-1990s or the mid-1970s, the positive steroid test might have relegated him to fighting in clubs.
A boxer only gets many chances if he is exciting, and that may very well be the main reason for Toney’s quick comeback. Sound-for-sound, fight-for-fight, he is the most exciting heavyweight today. That has sustained many fighters, no matter the decade in which they competed.
If Hasim Rahman cannot land his right this Saturday, Toney’s perseverance may lead him all the way to the heavyweight title.