James Toney file photo: Splash News
Talk to enough people in the fight game and you’ll shortly understand James Toney to be an abrasive, difficult, egocentric pain in the ass who can consistently find new ways to make your day regrettable. Professionally, he’s consistently squandered his natural gifts, debuting at 157 pounds and eating his way to 237 pounds by the 2000s. In 2005, he was popped for steroids that erased a win over John Ruiz. If your kid had a James Toney poster hanging on his wall, you’d paint over it.
But this isn’t about Toney’s character flaws, or his disappointing sloth in what could’ve been a dynamic boxing legacy. Saturday, he did what no heavyweight champion of the world has ever dared to do: get into a real fight.
Boxing is the most superficial of all major sports. Where most fans in football, baseball and hockey accept that even the best teams have uneven records, they demand perfection -- or the illusion of it -- in prizefighting. Rocky Marciano is revered for retiring at 49-0, even though a sizable chunk of his opponents had no business in the ring with him; a loss or three late in a career can call into question your entire professional output. It’s why many boxers and their management avoid dangerous fights. Risk aversion is in the DNA of their sport.
So imagine the attitude of the boxer who is confronted by the possibility of engaging in a contest that prohibits virtually nothing and where the chance of defeat or superficial injury is greatly increased.
No one with a reputation to protect has ever even seriously considered it. Ralph Gracie stood up to Roy Jones at a press conference in 1995 and offered him a million dollars for every minute Jones could survive in the ring with him. Lennox Lewis was approached by Vince McMahon to fight Brock Lesnar in 2002, even entertaining the idea of rules that would be of more benefit to the puncher. It didn’t go anywhere. Even Mike Tyson, a man who seemed to be annoyed by the civility of his sport, wanted nothing to do with getting kicked in the head. Toney is the only one.
Did he want to cash a check? Sure he did. He hasn’t seen pay-per-view revenue since a 1994 fight with Roy Jones. Did he want attention? Most of Toney’s bouts have been quiet affairs. But in the end, none of that is enticement enough to play a game you don’t really understand unless you’re possessed by the notion that you can win.
In many ways, Toney resembled the early and unfortunate entrants of the UFC who were convinced their abilities were a match for the wrestlers. Even after Royce Gracie and Mark Coleman had demonstrated the futility of coming in with a single striking discipline, guys like Moti Horenstein and Keith Hackney gamely trudged in to try and validate their training. It was either all about ego or the complete absence of it: They weren’t afraid of looking bad. (A good thing, since some of them walked out looking like they ate the business end of an SUV.)
Toney worked up such a frenzy that he even had some people believing a boxer in 5-ounce gloves had some kind of death touch, a silly notion in a sport where kickboxers can generate enough heat to split your brain into quarters. He brought the mystique back into MMA, where you were pretty sure Couture had the edge but weren’t really sure Toney didn’t have some kind of unknown skill that would shatter him. To make that happen, Toney had to have at least a little interest in the broader legacy of martial arts. He was the one guy who made the scientific method of fighting a bigger story than his own image. Financially motivated or not, that takes tremendous guts.
I sometimes imagine the hysteria that would’ve surrounded someone like Tyson or Mayweather taking a year or two to learn at least some rudimentary mixed-style skills and then competing in MMA for no other reason than testing themselves -- that they’d have the humility to accept a loss if it came and a sense of history propelling them to even attempt it in the first place.
They didn’t, and won’t. What makes me respect James Toney is the suspicion that even if he were in his prime and sitting on top of a goldmine, he’d still have the hubris to get into a cage. That’s a fighter.