Maybe James Toney – boxing genius and tubby provocateur – is too tired to talk or to spit out gravelly, invective-laced word splurges that have filled in for a traceable personality over the last ten years. Too tired from denying himself all those extra helpings of dinnertime fare? Has trainer Freddie Roach finally calorie busted his guy’s bottom line? All those mumbling flourishes and all of that cardiac arrest inducing shoveling… the vacated orifice becomes a symbol of the man emerging? The past few weeks Toney’s seemed too tired to taunt and insinuate, insult to titillate; and now with hair reappearing on the dome of the middleweight made mountainous how else can we recognize this 38-year-old on a mission?

Just for fun, we’ve taken his relative silence leading up his rematch with IBA heavyweight title holder Samuel Peter as having all the signs of exhaustion rather than reticence or respect. James Toney being James Toney doesn’t even acknowledge that he lost their September 2, 2006 WBC heavyweight title eliminator; not merely mocking the decision reached by the judges, but effectively denying the validity and reality that a loss to Peter exists on his record. Sure, that’s James being James, to the last; he decides what is true in his version of reality. Then again, who doesn’t? So dragging his tongue he may for the moment be, yet who has faith in James Toney’s new normal?

You might get the idea that despite his November post-fight mumbling, he and his team felt that major changes had to be made; something was definitely not working for Toney matched up against the Nigerian Nightmare II. The old Toney, tubby and petulant, had not achieved the expected result. Perhaps, just perhaps, he really did have to do more than slap around a few sparring partners over at Freddie’s place in Los Angeles a few weeks before being paid for a night’s work. Can you imagine Toney deigning to actually take someone at heavyweight seriously not named Holyfield necessitating an honest to goodness training camp? What else has Roach been preaching to the deaf choir for the last few years? As far as the defensively intuitive Toney has been concerned, if you talk about “Jersey” Joe Walcott or Ezzard Charles often enough osmosis will fill in the rest of the story on how you win big fights. Roach has been shaking his head and holding his frustration in with regards to Toney’s haphazard training scenarios for so long he got himself into a bit of a rut. Until now or so we are to hold our breath and believe, is that what boxing fans are supposed to believe? James Toney is going to be fit and ready to fight against Samuel Peter?

Still, you have to wonder how old does James Toney feel. Boxing forces a balancing of the demands of disciplined realism against the sustaining of a functioning relativism; you have to face the hard facts at the same time be able to deny all the formulations of danger and diminishment. Boxers, especially great ones, are masters of the real, the unreal and the spiritual. How and why and when they choose from those three categories is what makes and breaks them. For in the process of championship boxing, from the realizing of greatness through to demanding of oneself what appears to the neutral observer must be the miraculous, everything is revealed, lived, endured and imagined for re-imagining. So much gritty truth is mixed seamlessly with the most transparent falsification; lies become fortifying truths of the moment, the steel of what is needed to be believed now, for the sake of one last desperate push toward the light where redemption and glory and vindication await to sanitize and reconfigure the one deemed the winner.

Holyfield’s now decade long quest to be the very image of the man that gouged and broke the cultivated but erratic titian that was Riddick Bowe comes to mind. Think of Ali, years after the Manila classic with Joe Frazier using diuretics to have his body appear ready to fight Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Consider that it took a car accident in Argentina for Panamanian legend Roberto Duran to finally give up boxing after over three decades in the ring, living out the role of prodigy, cultural hero, villain, phoenix, legend as icon. Fighters rationalize away the relevance of entropy signaled to them, sensations dimming into muscular incapacity and degrading capacity, all of those subtle shifts ignored like the flight of years, the rapturous fears, the beatings, the loss of memory and vision. Boxers seeking the ultimate, a championship pinnacle or the right to contest for a title, will say and do what is needed in order to make them self feel all is still possible, that they can do anything, that they can be great or great again.

When you have dealt out the kind of boxing exhibitions James Toney has to fighters such as Michael Nunn and Mike McCallum and Charles Williams and Vassiliy Jirov and, yes, Evander Holyfield, memory is reality, remaining actively addictive. Champions of the boxing ring are never static entities. The electric current, the voltage of their focused outputs are the very dynamics that make them who they are, what they intend to be, no matter what.

James Toney has been trying to reinvest in his health of late, trying to reinvent his approach to preparation and thus reconstitute his body for the challenge of facing what might be an improved Samuel Peter. Tae Bo guru Billy Blanks was summoned into the inner sanctum of Team Toney to remodel his body, trying to reverse the course of a career long disregard for the finer points of athletic stoicism and physical regimentation. Could fat James be cut down and remade into the kind of punching machine that he still brags about, that once beat the rock like cruiserweight goliath Jirov into a heap? And that’s where Toney understands himself to be; he’s at that place and age which demands he become something as close to his old self as can be realized in this New Year, this still blushing Millennium. For Toney is a veteran’s veteran, ring wise and worn trying to compete against Samuel Peter’s raw youthfulness and prodigious, though painfully roughhewn, power. Trying to be young again in more than spirit can be as dangerous as it is exhausting.

The sliding scales of inevitably – of absolute competence to the miraculous – tips eventually. So what measure do we take of James Toney on the scale that takes the fullest measure of a man, of a fighter? Perhaps one answer can be found by indulging in speculative calculation. Wouldn’t a 10% more effective James Toney win a unanimous decision against Peter, Peter the prodding powerhouse? Team Toney certainly believe that figure to be more than correct. Billy Blanks was brought in to put Toney through one of his famous ‘boot camps’ to facilitate just that kind of percentage, with Toney translating fitness into an upped work rate on the offensive side of the punch stats. A more concerted punching rate and Toney wins? Well, Roach certainly thinks that’s about as simple as it gets for his guy going into what amounts to his most important heavyweight fight. If Blanks can get Toney more able to work offensively, how can Peter compete, short of landing the big bomb? So enamored with fighting defensively inside the pocket had Toney become his style and actually degrade into one of deflecting and catching and being reactive and less and less able to initiate offensive surges on command.

Toney’s height to weight ratio has defied considered opinion and basic logic for so long it’s become a sort of moot point, an uncontested stigma that seemed to simply roll itself into Toney’s tidal wake of being, being the fat, small heavyweight on a mission to put it to all those bland, talent challenged heavyweights of currency in big time boxing. Plus, the fact remains that until the cards were read in September at Staples Center, in his hometown of Los Angeles, no heavyweight had been able to make Toney pay the price for his often slack professionalism. No one had made Toney pay for playing the heavy, the little big man, the former IBF – let it read world – middleweight champion menacing the heavyweight division, he of the snarling, acidic banter, sweet counter-hitting artfulness and a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Rushmore.

The man who’s usually threatening to fight managers and trainers and even promoters right on the dais, with the waiting and amused media ready to referee… well, he’s turned serious and phlegmatic for at least another two days. Seems he’s serious about behaving like an athlete. Except that all the photos of the new and improved Toney have him with a shirt on, eating, a salad, but eating nevertheless, so the symbolism, the orifice of the mouth remains open for business, ready to consume and consternate. How long will it be, one has to wonder, before the locks are taken off, the beef reconstitutes, the rants become refrains again.

All depends on winning and losing and how he deals with this Samuel Peter guy.

William Carlos Williams was right, “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow…” but that was poetry and seeing to know as living memory. James Toney and Samuel Peter, they are about the sweet science, and seeing to know who’s worth their weight in gold.

Patrick Kehoe may be reached at pkehoe@telus.net