Dave Tiberi has never seen “Rob Roy,” the 1995 movie about the head of an 18th-century Scottish clan with Liam Neeson in the title role. But the former world championship contender can identify with a line of dialogue in which Neeson’s character chooses to become a hunted outlaw rather than bear false witness against another, a blameless nobleman, thus violating his own code of conduct.
“Honor,” Rob Roy tell his wife, “is the gift a man gives himself.”
Tiberi, who has lived his life by similarly exacting standards, considers the significance of the legendary highlander’s message and is moved by what he considers to be the irrefutable truth contained therein.
“Wow,” Tiberi said. “That’s pretty profound stuff.”
Feb. 8 marks the 24th anniversary of a boxing match that, under relatively normal circumstances, would have been interesting but not particularly out of the ordinary. In an afternoon bout televised nationally by ABC, Tiberi, a 10-to-1 underdog, fought the fight of his life in losing a hotly disputed split decision to IBF middleweight champion James “Lights Out” Toney at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. And, although some ringsiders figured the scoring could have gone either way, the public, and those with voices powerful enough to influence the conversation, contended that a monumental injustice had been committed.
Donald Trump, whose casino hosted the event, said the nod for Toney was “disgraceful” and “an embarrassment,” and Alex Wallau, the color commentator for the ABC telecast, called it “the most disgusting decision I’ve ever seen.”
Although the outcome – judge Frank Brunette scored the 12-round bout 117-111 for Tiberi, while Frank Garza and Bill Leach saw Toney as the winner by respective margins of 115-112 and 115-11 – wasn’t the main focus of the boxing world at the time (Mike Tyson would be convicted of rape in an Indianapolis courtroom just two days later), it made Tiberi something of an overnight sensation and a sympathetic figure, the little guy whose hopes and dreams had been crushed by an entrenched system designed to always reward the bigger-name fighter.
Except that a financial windfall awaited to salve any wounded feelings that Tiberi, who earned a career-high but nonetheless modest $26,000 for the Toney fight, might have had. Top Rank honcho Bob Arum offered Tiberi an immediate rematch for April 11, with a guarantee of $250,000 along with two percent of pay-per-view revenues. Most fighters accustomed to taking short money while battling their way up through the club ranks would have jumped at the opportunity to cash in.
Then again, most fighters are not Dave Tiberi. One of 14 children born to a father who stressed the importance of doing the right thing, Tiberi said he considered himself to be the rightful champion and that he would only consent to a do-over if he was allowed to enter the ring as such. If the outcome was not reversed, he announced, he would hang up his gloves until justice was served. He was 25 years old then, married with a young child, and, although he had some leverage in contract negotiations, he hardly was in a position to dictate what would have been a historic shift in boxing politics.
Although the monetary enticements for him to return kept creeping upward – Tiberi said the top offer for a second Toney fight eventually climbed to $500,000, with three percent of the PPV revenues – he determinedly stuck to his guns. A little more than a quarter-century later, Tiberi is now 51 and at peace with his decision, which eventually led to a Senate investigation into professional boxing and the passage of two laws to modify and, hopefully, improve the sport. A book, “Tiberi: The Uncrowned Champion,” was quickly co-authored by Ed Okonowicz and Andy Ercole, and rushed into print, unreservedly backing Tiberi’s position.
“Financially, of course, it affected me in a big way,” he said of his refusal to bend on what he considered to be a matter of principle. “I wondered how I would feel 10 or 20 years down the road. Would I regret the decision that I made? I have to say I haven’t regretted it, not one bit. I knew I would have had a harder time living with myself knowing that rules had been broken and that I failed to take a stand on what I believed to be right.”
There are, of course, varying views of Tiberi’s Rob Roy-like commitment to his personal sense of honor. Some say he had to be crazy to turn his back on a mid-six-figure payday that would have ensured his family (he and his wife Angela later had two more children) a measure of financial security. Others wonder what all the fuss was about in any case, that the big brouhaha was and is much ado about nothing.
“Without a doubt, the fight was closer than it should have been,” said Jackie Kallen, Toney’s manager. “But when you get one guy on the best day of his career and another on the worst day of his career, this is what can happen.
“James didn’t have enough gas in the tank to be the same fighter that beat Michael Nunn and Iran Barkley. He was not nearly 100 percent. I don’t think it was because he didn’t take Tiberi seriously; we looked at everybody as a potential threat. But James always had a problem making weight, so some of the tactics he used to get down weakened him. James didn’t lose the weight in a healthy manner and he paid the price for that.”
Toney collapsed after the final bell and, severely dehydrated, he was taken to a local hospital where he was given IV fluids.
“It was a close fight that maybe went to an unpopular decision,” Kallen continued. “But I’ve seen much, much worse. Why this one sparked so much controversy, I don’t know. Maybe it was like the `Rocky’ story, with the white kid no one had heard much about going against the big, bad black champion. It was one of those instances where an underdog wins by losing simply by putting up such a valiant effort.”
From a purely boxing standpoint, Toney-Tiberi might never have come off in the first place had not the IBF ratings committee, acting on a request by Top Rank matchmaker Ron Katz, elevated Tiberi to a No. 10 ranking. Without a spot in the top 10, Tiberi – a resident of New Castle, Delaware, who had previously won the fringe IBC super middleweight title but had never fought a world-rated middleweight – would not have been eligible to get the slot opposite Toney.
Although Kallen had said prior to the fight that Toney wasn’t overlooking Tiberi, she outlined a timetable for the champ for the remainder of 1992 that suggested otherwise. “On April 11 we have a fight on the undercard of the George Foreman-Alex Stewart card in Las Vegas, which will be on HBO,” she said. “We’re looking at possible opponents right now. After that we’re looking at a June 6 rematch with (Mike) McCallum, and an Aug. 15 fight on ABC against an opponent to be named. Oh, and we want to finish the year with a big TVKO (which was what HBO’s pay-per-view arm was then called) fight in October or November.”
Isn’t it dangerous to speak about future fights before the one at hand is safely in the rear-view mirror?
“James Toney is not the kind of fighter who would give an underdog a chance to get lucky,” Kallen responded. “James, let’s face it, is an animal in the ring. He’s that way with everybody. In his mind, the person he’s fighting is trying to take what he has from him – and James is not about to give it up.”
For his part, Tiberi, who trained in Philadelphia and sparred regularly with such former or future world champions as “Prince” Charles Williams, Bernard Hopkins and Steve Little, believed himself to be up to the task. So did his veteran trainer, Marty Feldman, who thought he detected something in Toney’s makeup that made him susceptible to the fight plan he was devising for Tiberi to follow.
“Marty said, `I think we can stop Toney in the fifth or sixth round,’” Tiberi recalled. “He said, `You have a rock-solid jaw and Toney isn’t used to being pressured. He doesn’t punch backing up. You’re going to pressure him, and we’re going to shock the world.’”
The plan nearly blew up in the first round, when Toney connected with a big left hook to that rock-solid jaw that clearly hurt the challenger. But Tiberi made it to the end of the round, and, following Feldman’s instructions, thereafter took the fight right to Toney, despite the seeming disparity in punching power. (Toney came in 28-0-2 with 20 knockouts to Tiberi’s 22-2-2 with just eight wins inside the distance.)
When the final bell sounded, Tiberi thrust his arms into the air in exultation and was hoisted aloft by his manager, Mark Kondrath. And then came the decision that Tiberi still can’t quite believe.
“Seventeen years later, James Toney admitted that was a fight he did lose,” Tiberi said. “As a fighter, you know if you won or lost, regardless of what the scorecards say, and I definitely thought I won.”
If Tiberi had consented to accepting the big-money rematch, that likely would have been that. The furor would have dissipated over time. Maybe he would have won the second time around, maybe he wouldn’t have; a more fit Toney surely again would have been the favorite. But Tiberi said that rules had been broken, and what’s the point of even having rules if they’re disregarded?
“The two judges who had it for Toney were not licensed by the State of New Jersey,” he noted. “Their scorecards should have been null and void. It came out during the Senate investigation that the referee (Robert Palmer) was considered by Larry Hazzard (the head of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board) to be `green and incompetent.’ They just put him in there anyway, and he deducted a point from me in the sixth round for a low blow without giving me a warning.
“By no means am I a crybaby, but I follow the rules. The rules should be followed, especially for a world championship fight. To my way of thinking, the only scorecard that should have counted was the one submitted by the only licensed judge, Brunette, and he had me winning big.”
Among those outraged that Tiberi had seemingly been wronged was William Roth, the senior senator from Delaware and head of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations whose interest in the matter no doubt was heightened by the fact that Tiberi was a constituent. Tiberi, Hopkins and Bobby Czyz were among the fighters called in to testify, and from those hearings came the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, authored by Arizona senator and future presidential candidate John McCain, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The Professional Boxers Safety Act was enacted shortly thereafter.
“The Ali bill is watered down,” Tiberi acknowledged, “but I feel that a first step was taken to bring reform to a sport badly in need of it. I feel like I’ve benefited the sport in so many ways, and have made a difference. I really believe God put me here to shine a light on what’s dark. There’s a lot of darkness in the world, and in boxing.”
Eight years ago Tiberi, who owns a successful security-system company, did return to boxing, as a promoter in his home state of Delaware until he concluded that he was devoting too much time to it to the detriment of his primary source of income.
“Boxing was a sport I loved and still do,” he said. “Doing those shows at Dover Downs was a lot of fun. We had some sellout crowds, too. But without television, it’s a pretty expensive hobby.”
As for Toney … well, he hasn’t done too badly by himself. Still active as of Aug. 8 of last year, when he lost a 10-round decision to Charles Ellis in St. Louis, the 47-year-old has held widely recognized world titles at middleweight, super middleweight and cruiserweight, as well as minor titles at light heavyweight, super cruiserweight and heavyweight. The Ann Arbor, Mich., native, who has fought as low as 157 pounds (for a second-round knockout of Ricardo Simpson on Oct. 12, 1989) and as high as 257 (for a 10-round unanimous decision over Damond Reed on Feb. 24, 2011) is now 76-10-3 with 46 KOs during his 27-year pro career, despite a history of difficulty making weight. He is a likely first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.
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