In a way, James “Lights Out” Toney is like an aging comedian who isn’t funny anymore, but who won’t get off the stage. He keeps telling the same lame, off-color jokes while ducking rotten tomatoes and paper cups tossed at his head. He hears the booing from the audience, but he just can’t let go of the spotlight, even though it doesn’t shine on him as brightly as it once did.
But he was hilarious 20 years ago.
With the crowd growing restless, they finally pull the curtain closed, but Toney somehow finds an opening and storms back to center stage. And just before he’s pulled away, he tells a very funny joke and for a second, everyone quits booing and starts to cheer. They remember how funny he used to be. But it doesn’t last long and pretty soon, everyone is booing again.
For many years, Toney was one of the best quotes in town. He’d talk for an hour on a conference call and you’d laugh, wince, shake your head or do all of them at once, wondering if you actually heard what you just thought you heard. Usually, you did.
At some point in the conference call, Toney would remind everyone that he was the best (fill in the blank) middleweight, super-middleweight, light-heavyweight, cruiserweight or heavyweight in the world and there wasn’t anyone even close to him in second place. He was the baddest fighter on the planet and back then, it was hard to argue with him. His strutting and his arrogance were all part of his game plan, part of the show, and they seemed to work pretty well for him. Say what you want about his cockiness, it all seemed part of the game. In his prime, he was a great fighter.
But then something ugly happened. Toney outgrew the middleweight division, ate himself out of the light-heavies, stopped for a short visit and a handshake with the cruiserweights and then settled comfortably into the heavyweight division like an overweight couch potato plopping down on a soft lounge chair.
As a middleweight, Toney was one of the best of all time. As a heavyweight, he won’t be mentioned in the same sentence with Joe Frazier. Or even Jerry Quarry.
Now 43, he’s slimmed back down to cruiserweight. He’s in Moscow, Russia right now probably doing his best to strain USA-Russian relations. He’s getting ready to fight Denis Ledbedev, the WBA’s No. 1-ranked cruiserweight on Friday at some place called the Khodynka Ice Palace. They'll be fighting for the interim WBA cruiserweight title.
The scary thing is, he’s been in Moscow just long enough to turn the entire country against him, and I’m pretty sure Ledbedev isn’t a big Toney fan. “Lights Out” drew first blood. But he always does.
“You ain’t going to see no lay down like Bernard Hopkins did,” Toney was quoted as saying, referring to the recent Hopkins-Chad Dawson fight that was ruled a technical draw after Dawson threw Hopkins down to the canvas and Hopkins injured his shoulder. “I will be there to kick (Ledbedev’s) ass right in front of his people. He likes to wait until fighters from my generation get old and that’s made him feel like he can fight. But I’m going to show him what a big mistake he made thinking he can pull that with me.”
Another Toney knee-slapper.
He also said he’s in the best shape he’s been in in years. And that’s easy to believe if he’s really down to cruiserweight. But he weighed about 250 pounds in his last fight in February, which he won by decision. To get down to cruiserweight to fight Ledbedev, he’s going to have to shed - in pounds - the equivalent of an average-sized third grader.
It’s also pretty big talk for a guy who hasn’t been tearing things up in any division for the last few years.
In his last seven fights as a heavyweight dating back to 2006, Toney lost two fights to Samuel Peter; won a split decision over a guy named Danny Batchelder; fought to a no-contest against Hasim Rahman; won a split decision over Fres Oquendo; stopped a club fighter named Matthew Geer, who came into the fight with a record of 12-5; and won a decision over Damon Reed (46-15), who has lost five of his last seven fights and has been stopped in four of those five losses.
Of course, those fights don’t include the thumping Toney took in August 2010 when he entered the Octagon against UFC legend Randy Couture. Toney was quickly tackled and made to look silly. Mercifully, it was over quick, Toney tapping out in the first few minutes of the fight when he was wrapped up in what they call an arm- triangle choke. Jabs don’t work if you never get to use them.
After the fight, Toney was still belligerent, still arrogant, still brash, saying what happened against Couture was a “fluke,” and that it would never happen again.
Let's hope it never happens again. He needs to stay away from anything that isn’t square.
Like all of us, Toney has gotten older. But unlike most of us, he hasn’t gotten any mellower. He’s still out there swinging away, thumbing his nose at the world and still loving it. And don't be surprised if he wins. He keeps hanging around the fight game, threatening to win another title of some sort. He still has a few good jokes, um, fights left in him.
The crazy thing is, you don’t know whether to cheer or boo.