After 10 rounds against IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn, James Toney was playing up to his underdog role.
He was behind on points. He was being outboxed. And he appeared headed for a decision defeat.
But Toney found something within himself that night. He found greatness.
Midway through the 11th round, Toney crashed a left hook into Nunn’s chin. A follow-up flurry had the defending champion reeling against the ropes – not knowing whether he was in his hometown of Davenport, Iowa , the site of the fight – or Madrid , Spain .
A few seconds later, the fight was stopped.
Toney, the little-known fighter from Ann Arbor, Mich., was the IBF middleweight champion of the world by spectacular upset knockout.
That was May 10, 1991, and what a road it’s been for Toney since then.
He has won two additional world titles – almost three. And, 15 years after flattening Nunn, he is still among the best heavyweights in the world.
Some people may argue whether Toney is a “great” fighter. After all, he lost arguably the biggest fight of his life, to Roy Jones Jr. on Nov. 18, 1994. And it wasn’t even close.
But consider Toney’s victories.
Nunn, Reggie Johnson, Mike McCallum , Iran Barkley, Vassiliy Jirov, Evander Holyfield. All world champions. Some of them, like McCallum and Holyfield, Hall-of-Famers.
But, more admirable than that, Toney is a throwback. And he’s successful because he is a fighter who likes to fight.
He has had 76 fights in his career. Seventy-six fights. That’s two careers by today’s standards. There were years he fought four, five, six times – sometimes more. Mike Tyson used to do that.
Only, he burnt out about the 40-fight mark. Toney just keeps on going.
Saturday could be the end of the road for him, when he steps in the ring with Samuel Peter – who seemingly has all of the advantages.
He’s younger by 12 years. He’s taller. He’s bigger. He’s stronger.
Looking at the tale-of-the-tape, you wonder if Toney has a chance.
But those 76 fights have built up more ring savvy than Peter will acquire in three careers. And, because of that, the chances of the Nigerian actually making use of his advantages are slim.
Peter is slow and one-dimensional. Toney will respond by blocking, parrying, ducking, and making his opponent tired and frustrated. It happened to Holyfield. It happened to McCallum. It happened to Jirov.
Then “Lights Out” will go to work.
He’ll counter with sharp combinations, lay against the ropes, and look for follow-up opportunities. Chances are, Peter won’t know what hit him.
And then he’ll realize what a pro he’s in with.
Will it be easy? No it won’t. Peter will push him.
But, in the end, even a 37-year-old James Toney is too smart and too experienced for a young gun like Sam Peter.
And, improbably, a career that started 17 years ago will gain new life.