You wake into a world this Sunday the fourteenth of May, 2017, which James Toney rules as heavyweight champion of the world.
Toney picked up the vacant World Boxing Foundation strap, the worthlessness of which is underlined by the heavyweights to have held it. Audley Harrison is probably the most well-known name on my side of the Atlantic to have thrown it aloft, while forty-year old former Mike Tyson victim Francois Botha is likely the most famous waist adorned by this belt in the United States. At least, that is, until Toney struggled to piece it around his ample girth in the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center last night.
His opponent was 24-20-2 journeyman Mike Sheppard, a fighter who hasn’t won a contest since early 2015 when he took a six-rounder against Thomas Hanshaw, whose record then stood at 6-4. For all that the likes of the WBC can be regarded as nothing but morally and sportingly bankrupt, you have to say to yourself, it could be worse. The WBF aren’t so much scraping the barrel as digging its ashes out of landfill and scouring its remains for anything they can sell.
Still, so far departed is Toney’s one-time genius that he ran into brief moments of difficulty in the fourth round before mastering his opponent in the sixth. The circumstances of the knockout were disturbing. Toney appeared to land some tired looking left hooks before slapping a right hand against Sheppard’s heart. Sheppard apparently decided that it was quitting time and stumbled face-first to the canvas in one of the worst sells I’ve ever seen before doing a better job of nearly beating the count and protesting his right to continue as the referee brought the contest to a merciful end.
Toney celebrated with a broad smile. The absolute master of bluster in his prime, past his prime, and even into the strange twilight he has been boxing in for the past five years, even Toney refused to sell the belt he wore as anything but window-dressing. Certainly the call for him to be recognized as the world’s oldest ever heavyweight champion is conspicuous only by its absence, and although, for me, the WBA strap is no more or less convincing as an identifier of “the” champion than the WBF version, Toney knows his belts. He should. He’s worn plenty of them throughout a mostly sparkling career that saw him earn the respect of ranked opposition all the way from middleweight to heavyweight.
It is true, too, that for all the excess poundage he carried on Saturday night, a lot of the cute moves that he exemplified in his prime are still there. The nice line in a sneak left-hook remains and his judgement upon baiting his opponent to the ropes remains unmolested. All the snap is gone from the punches he used to use to punish transgressions of his space, however, and his reactions are so slowed that it takes an opponent like Sheppard to draw his best shots out of him. As for power, there is none. Some media outlets reporting today credit Toney with “snapping body punches” that “sapped the strength” of Sheppard. I saw none.
It is right, then, that he has apparently decided to call time on perhaps the last of the old-school careers in the fight game. Like the long line of African-American stylists that stretches behind him he found his way through the divisions in search of pay and respect and like those men he did not embarrass himself until the last. It took dalliances with mixed-martial arts and losses to fighters who, in his prime, actually may not have been allowed to carry his jockstrap that finally caused boxing to wrinkle its nose at him. Even his wide 2011 loss to Denis Lebedev wasn’t that embarrassing, the old-man slipping and sliding his way to a decision loss against one of the most celebrated punchers of his era; it is since 2012 that Toney, perhaps, began to taint his stunning legacy.
It is worth remembering, briefly, that legacy this morning. Toney fought the best in the world in five different weight divisions over the course of twenty years. He spent three years on Ring Magazine’s pound-for-pound list, and although he was never ranked as number one, he was kept from the top only by the combined genius of Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez. He fought a long list of worthy opponents which reads like a who’s who of three different eras: Michael Nunn, Reggie Johnson, Mike McCallum, Roy Jones, Vassiliy Jirov, Evander Holyfield, John Ruiz, Sam Peter. His special type of brilliance belonged to another era, and his use of angles, distance, shifting weight, feints, and clever defense is rapidly becoming a lost art.
He may have been the proud owner of the greatest chin in the history of the sport.
So give it up for James Toney: heavyweight champion of the world, at last.
It might be bullshit, but he earned it.
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