By Thomas Hauser
On October 4, James Toney will step into the ring with Evander Holyfield. Holyfield is a fighter of legendary proportions now past his prime. Toney is a very good fighter who wants to be recognized as a great one.
Toney was born on August 24, 1968. At age 14, he began fighting as an amateur. "One year later," he remembers, "I was sparring with pros. They'd beat my ass, drop me with body shots, because I had too much mouth. That's the way I was. I wasn't into being close. I did everything on my own, alone. I'm more of a people person now. I'll give you the shirt off my back if I like you, but I'll still show my bad side if I'm provoked. And just so you know, when those pros were beating my ass, I never gave in."
Fighting at 156lbs, Toney won his first 17 amateur bouts. Then he turned to another sport. "Football was my first love," he says. "In high school, I played quarterback and free safety. Jack Tatum was my favorite player because he was a vicious hitter. I got a scholarship offer to play quarterback at Western Michigan, and the University of Michigan wanted me as a defensive back. But I wasn't a team player and I wasn't good at taking orders, so I went back to boxing. I still love football," Toney adds wistfully. "I play the John Madden video game. No one can beat me at it. I haven't lost in three years."
Toney graduated from high school in 1987 and turned pro a year later. His gridiron weight had been 205lbs, but he slimmed down to 160 for the start of his professional ring career. In his first twenty-six fights, the only blemish on his record was a draw against Sanderline Williams. Then, on May 10, 1991, he journeyed to Davenport, Iowa, the hometown of IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn, and stopped the previously-undefeated Nunn in 11 rounds.
Toney successfully defended the IBF title six times. After that, he moved up in weight and KO'd Iran Barkley for the IBF super-middleweight crown. By late 1994, he was undefeated in forty-six fights and near the top of most "pound-for-pound" lists. That bubble burst when he fought Roy Jones and lost in a bout that Jones dominated from beginning to end. Toney attributes the defeat to his having to make weight and losing forty-four pounds in the two months preceding the fight. But ballooning past two hundred pounds was his own fault. And in his next outing, he was outquicked and outworked by Montell Griffin in a battle for the IBF light-heavyweight title. In 1996, he lost to Griffin again. Six months later, he came out on the short end of a decision against Drake Thadzi. Overall, his record is a laudable 66 wins, 4 losses, and 2 draws with 42 knockouts. In seventy pro fights, he has been beaten convincingly only once. And he has never been beaten up. But in recent years, he has fought mostly mediocre opposition, winning but often coming in out of shape and appearing to be just going through the motions.
"Lack of motivation hurt me," Toney admits. "I didn't train right. I didn't run for eight years. After the Barkley fight, I was never really in shape."
Enter Dan Goossen.
Goossen made quite a splash in boxing as the driving force behind America Presents. But while he often guided fighters to big fights, they rarely won them. Lest one forget; if you're a boxing promoter, the name of the game is to show a profit; and Goossen didn't. To use his analogy, he got as far as the Super Bowl when David Tua fought Lennox Lewis. But his fighters seemed to always come up short when it mattered most. Now Goossen has resurrected Toney, and Toney has been part of the resurrection of Dan Goossen.
Toney's first fight for Goossen's newly-formed Goossen-Tutor Promotions was a seventh-round knockout of Jason Robinson in August 2002. Then, on April 26, 2003, he won a hard-fought decision over Vassiliy Jirov for the IBF cruiserweight crown. Jirov is a big strong guy, who was taken the distance last year by a bloated Jorge Castro. Goossen has been beating the drums loudly for Toney ever since. "I've been zero for seven years," the promoter chortled after James's victory over Jirov. "It's nice to finally win a big one."
That brings us to Holyfield versus Toney. In truth, both fighters wanted other opponents. Toney was hoping for a bout against Bernard Hopkins, and Evander had his sights set on Roy Jones. But there was an obstacle named Don King, who has options on Jones's first WBA title defense and is Hopkins's exclusive promoter.
Toney thought he had a deal to fight Hopkins, but it fell apart because King and Hopkins couldn't agree on numbers. Then negotiations for Jones Holyfield went down the drain because King demanded options on all of Holyfield's championship fights should he beat Jones and presented Evander with a dollar amount that the Holyfield camp considered insulting.
More specifically, Jim Thomas (Holyfield's attorney), says, "Under the final offer that Don gave us, Evander would have made $8,000,000, and $36,000,000 would have been divided between Roy Jones and Don King."
Holyfield elaborates, saying, "I want to fight for the title, but I don't want anyone abuse to me. I shouldn't have to sign a longterm contract with Don King just to fight for the title. I went through that one time, and I don't want to put myself in that situation again. I don't want to deal with Don King anymore. I don't want anything to do with him. I won't give options to Don King."
Holyfield will turn forty-one on October 19. During the course of his career, he has defeated Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Buster Douglas, Michael Moorer, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, John Ruiz, and Hasim Rahman. That's 10 men who have worn a major heavyweight championship belt. But in the past five years, Evander has won only twice in seven bouts.
Still, Toney knows he has a hard night ahead. "Only a fool would take Evander lightly," he acknowledges. "People say that he's old and washed up, but let's see those people beat him. Everyone knows how Evander fights; the way he uses his head and all that. We won't be holding and hugging in there. Things get ugly in the ring. It's life and death; it's not a game. This fight will be blood and guts, but I can break Evander down. It won't be easy, but I can do it. I hurt people for a living. That's my job."
Age is Toney's edge. Size and strength are Evander's. Toney says he'll come in for the fight at a muscled 205lbs. The fear among his backers is that, without James being required to make weight, the number could be closer to a soft 210lbs. Some people see this fight as similar to Holyfield's brutal 15-round conquest of Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the WBA cruiserweight crown in 1986. But James has more skills than Qawi; and Evander is 17 years older than he was then.
Meanwhile, Toney has a lot riding on this fight. His hope is that a win over Holyfield will put him in the midst of the big-money heavyweight mix. As far as many pundits are concerned, there's a split in the heavyweight ranks. The "super-heavyweight" division is populated by big men like Lennox Lewis and the Klitschkos. The "small" heavyweights are fighters like Roy Jones and Chris Byrd. But when Mike Tyson rampaged through the heavyweight division, he was well under 220 pounds. Holyfield at his best fought in the neighborhood 215lbs. The biggest guy doesn't necessarily win, and that leaves Toney dreaming of glory.
"I'm not jealous of the guys who are making big money," Toney says. "Oscar De La Hoya, Lennox Lewis, Floyd Mayweather, all those guys; they deserve it, they earned it. But now it's my turn, and not just with the money. My legacy is important to me. I never ducked anyone. I went in with the best. For a long time, it was a big thing for me to fight Roy Jones again. Now I understand that I don't need Roy to do my thing. This is my opportunity to show the world how good I am. My skills are the best. My willpower is strong. Anyone who says I don't fight three minutes of every round; let them get in the ring with me and see how active I am. I want people to know that I'm a great fighter. I deserve to be called great."
And then, true to form, Toney adds, "I've got more discipline now. I've learned to slow down. I still get mad when things don't get done right, and there's that road rage if someone cuts me off when I'm driving. But I'm holding my temper; staying out of trouble. I've softened up some, but I'm still not kissing ass."