James Toney dropped then-undefeated cruiserweight Vassiliy Jirov in the final seconds of their 12-round war in 2003 to claim the IBF title and clinch one of the most dramatic victories of his hall of fame worthy career.
At his very best, James “Lights Out” Toney personified old-school sensibilities with new-school attitude. Under the tutelage of veteran trainer Bill Miller and his massive collection of vintage fight films Toney developed an appreciation for Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore, boxing masters that accumulated maximum numbers with minimal damage.
Showing wisdom far beyond his years, Toney began to incorporate their moves during his early 20s and embraced their hyperactive fight schedules even after winning the IBF middleweight title 21 years ago. Between May 1991 and August 1992, Toney scored a one-punch come-from-behind KO over Michael Nunn to win his first belt, notched six defenses against the likes of Reggie Johnson and Mike McCallum (twice) and stuffed in a non-title fight KO over Ricky Stackhouse for good measure. These days it would take three years for superstars to fight eight times – if we’re lucky.
While Toney was studious and sly inside the ropes, he was brazen and abrasive out of it. He talked so much trash that Fred Sanford and Oscar the Grouch would have been proud. If his antagonists got too fresh with Toney, he wouldn’t hesitate to ignite a free-for-all at a press conference, a weigh-in or a post-fight interview.
The genesis of his fury was a father who abandoned Toney and mother Sherry when the fighter was 17 months old. His rage was such that he often envisioned his dad’s face when administering punishment in the ring. Still, Toney remained composed enough to focus on the job at hand and his accomplishments will surely land him in Canastota five years after he chooses to retire. They include titles at middleweight, super middleweight and cruiserweight as well as two Fighter of the Year awards from THE RING in 1991 and 2003. The 12-year gap between honors is the longest in history, which speaks well of Toney’s longevity.
Speaking of longevity, Toney is still fighting. On Saturday, the 43-year-old will kick off his 25th year as a professional by fighting Bobby Gunn in Southaven, Mississippi. One can only guess if Toney will resemble the trim but badly faded 199¼ -pounder that lost to Denis Lebedev five months ago, the bulbous 257-pounder that out-pointed Damon Reed the fight before or the 217½ -pounder that iced Matthew Greer in two the fight before that. But no matter how he appears, one aspect of Toney will remain constant: His encyclopedic knowledge of boxing technique. He may no longer be able to fully execute what he knows, but the foundation that helped build his legend will always be with him.
Toney’s path toward history is stocked with highs, lows and lulls, which is inevitable for someone about to engage in his 86th pro fight. Of his 77 wins, at least 10 qualify as his very best in terms of execution, quality of opponent and intangible circumstances. When IBHOF voters sit down and ponder his legacy, the following fights will comprise a big part of their decision-making process.