4. James Toney – 2003: 2-0 (1)
Going into 2003, Toney was in a funk in terms of career advancement. While he had won 11 straight since suffering a 1-2 stretch between December 1996 and May 1997, Toney was treading water between cruiserweight and heavyweight. He weighed as much as 226 against Wesley Martin (KO 3) and as little as 187 versus Steve Little (W 12). The old-school skills were still there but the drive that pushed him to glory at 160 and 168 was not firing on all cylinders.
That all changed when he signed for an April 26 fight on HBO against IBF cruiserweight titlist Vassiliy Jirov, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist who forged his 31-0 (27) record on his extraordinary body attack. The challenge of winning a third divisional title motivated Toney, a boxing history buff, to get into tremendous condition, the effects of which definitely showed on fight night.
For years the rap on Toney was his inability to fight three minutes of every round and many believed Jirov’s smothering volume attack would exhaust the 34-year-old’s gas tank. But “Lights Out” fooled everyone by keeping pace with Jirov (68 punches to 86 per round) and being the far more accurate man (47 percent to 24 percent overall, 50 percent to 29 percent power). Jirov hurt himself by incurring a point penalty for low blows in the eighth but Toney hurt him even more by scoring a knockdown in the 12th that powered him to a 117-109 (twice), 116-110 decision.
Toney-Jirov was one of the year’s best fights and a rematch would have been an attractive option. But Toney had always yearned to succeed as a heavyweight and on Oct. 4 he met four-time heavyweight titlist Evander Holyfield on pay-per-view. Though the “Real Deal” was days away from his 41st birthday and had gone just 2-3-2 in his last eight fights, Holyfield still was thought to be too big and strong for the onetime middleweight. Toney proved the doubters wrong by producing his best heavyweight performance. Landing 61 percent of his total punches and 63 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts, a solidly conditioned 217-pound Toney clinically carved up Holyfield before scoring a ninth round knockdown and forcing his corner to throw in the towel between rounds nine and 10.
The Jirov and Holyfield fights propelled Toney’s star back to the stratosphere in terms of in-the-ring form as well as his standing amongst fans and media. When one considered where Toney had been at the start of 2003, the accomplishments during this 12-month stretch were nothing short of amazing.