Roy Jones Versus James Toney: The Night Superman Landed

By Matt McGrain: Even in 1994 James Toney was something of a throwback. Unbeaten after forty-six fights, the former IBF middleweight and reigning super-middleweight champion of the world was considered by many the pound-for -pound best in the world having destroyed the respected Charles Williams in April of that year with the kind of highlight-reel knockout that takes a fighter over the top.

Toney was all craft and counter-punching, he had clever defence and set beautiful traps, he let his opponent work himself into position and then hit him anyway. Not a puncher in the conventional sense, Toney created angles and used timing to make leveraged punches count - and nobody figured a fighter like Toney. Firmly out-worked and arguably out-boxed by Michael Nunn in his 1991 title-challenge, Toney was in desperate need of a knockout, which he duly delivered, but only after smugly informing his corner, “I got this.” Toney was buoyed by more than confidence, owning a skillset that belonged more firmly in boxing’s golden age of fifteen round fights, feints, traps and fanatical activity, having squeezed in around twenty fights in the three years between his lifting the middleweight title and his fight with Jones.

But like Roberto Duran, James Toney had trouble leaving the man he was behind and also like Roberto Duran he was infuriated by the glamour and attention afforded the Olympic superstar suddenly tearing up his turf - one Roy Jones. Jones had in many ways come up just as hard as the crack-dealing gang-banging James Toney, trained by a father whose methods frequently tipped over into abuse, leaving Jones suicidal and homicidal as a youngster. But those dark days shaped a fighter of absolutely extraordinary dimensions and Jones showed the type of speed seen once in a lifetime in pursuit of his Olympic dream which would be torn from him by the type of corrupt judging more usually seen in the professional code. This made Jones, like Ray Leonard before him, a national hero, coming into the professional game with the type of bounce Toney could only have dreamed of.

On top of the world, arguably on top of the pound-for-pound list, Toney inexplicably pursued a fight with Roy Jones for more than a year even as the two campaigned in different divisions, Roy having picked up the IBF middleweight strap that Toney had worn before moving up to super-middle. By the time Toney was matched with Williams, the fight had already been made.

For his part, Jones was ready to come to 168, now having trouble with the 160lb limit which he had only made once since picking up his title from a young Bernard Hopkins, for his title defence against Thomas Tate in May of 1994.

Tate, out of Detroit, was ranked #1 contender and had never been stopped (in spite of the best efforts of the murderous punching Julian Jackson) but his antics before the first bell aside, he added little of interest to the contest. For his part, Roy Jones seemed to know the defence was something rather beneath him as he started lackadaisically at the crowd, the ceiling and eventually his shucking opponent. Jones landed the first five right hands he threw in that fight and every one of them was different. One was wide and overhand, an uppercut, a straight counter, a lead-right-hand, a short-right hand on the inside. He showed less accuracy with his hook, but even when he missed he looked balanced and poised, a genuine rarity in a speedster who throws power punches. Jones moved languidly around the ring and Tate plodded after him, hands high, now reluctant to throw; the two look like film from two different realities have been spliced together, Jones inhabiting some far-away universe where gravity is less demanding.

Jones stopped Tate with his second punch of the second round, a lead left-hook thrown whilst on the back foot against an opponent with his gloves up. To his ever-lasting credit, Tate regained his feet, staggered drunkenly across the ring, was waved of by the referee and boxing had a welcome new problem - who to pick? Jones, who danced a freakish celebratory jig out of the neutral corner, was deeply inexperienced having the same number of paid contests for his fight with Toney as Toney had had for his first world-title tilt against Michael Nunn. The crucial difference was that however formidable Nunn may have been, he was no James Toney. Toney was a nightmare for inexperienced fighters, a boxer who excelled at picking his opponents weakness in the ring and then drawing maximum capital from that weakness, a fighter who held his power late against world class opposition and seemed to get stronger as the fight got late, a granite-chinned trapsmith with great experience and an inscrutable style who worked at all angles. Every single one of these attributes is nightmarish taken in isolation against an inexperienced professional, taken together they should inevitably spell victory. On the other hand, Jones seemed at times to be genuinely untouchable. Incredibly, at a time when he was due to fight for his second world title there was little to no proof that he could hold a punch yet - Jones just hadn’t been hit properly.

Toney’s Ezzard Charles obsessed trainer, Bill Miller, was satisfied that Toney would win. “Only Muhammad Ali can get away with [that style],” he offered in build up before also suggesting that Toney had the stronger corner!

Angelo Dundee was another trainer to sniff at Muhammad Ali comparisons, picking Toney by late knockout. The great Eddie Futch provided counterweight to Dundee’s legendary eye, seeing it as a decision win for Jones. Ray Leonard, then working for MGM was as diplomatic as ever comparing it directly to his fight with Thomas Hearns. “It could go either way,” Ray offered helpfully, although in fairness, this was the position of many experts and ringsiders.

The fighters themselves were less reticent. James Toney:

“I’m going to knock him out. His strength is his his speed. That’s good, but speed don’t cut it with me. I can match anything he’s got. My job is to expose him as a fraud. He brawls with me, it’ll be quick. I’ll take some shots to land mine. I ain’t afraid to get hit. He don’t know what the hell he got into.”

But Jones did seem to know.

“He’s the best I met in my career, so I expect him to bring out the best in Roy Jones. He can’t intimidate me. He says I’m scared. That’s just talk. They got birds who can talk.”

The hype was burning beautifully, but storm clouds began to gather. Toney broke and moved his training camp amid rumours that he was struggling desperately to make weight. Asked about his training camp issues in an interview with HBO, Toney didn’t flat-out deny that he was struggling but claimed that he was in “great shape.” However, journalist Donald McRae enjoyed a close working relationship with James Toney and his camp for a number of years and his take was rather different:

“For six weeks Toney had struggled to make [168lbs]. When he started training he had been more than forty pounds overweight. He was also bloated with talk of moving up to the light-heavyweights after Jones. Sometimes, usually before he sneaked in a cheeseburger, he even speculated about skipping right up to fight the heavyweights.”

In between the weigh in and the fight Toney would gain what was, for the 90’s, a frightening 17lbs.

Controversy still rages about the Toney’s weight-making and the impact it had on the meaning of the Jones-Toney result, not least because of what came after the fight. How hard Toney fought to make the weight and how much it took out of him is something only he can know, but it needs to be pointed out that there were fourteen weeks between the Williams fight and the Jones fight. In that time, according to Donald McRae, Toney gained “more than forty pounds” some sources putting him at 214 when he arrived at camp. That’s eight weeks to eat on forty to forty-five pounds and six weeks to tear it back again. Unquestionably, it is not good for the health and it does not lend itself to the ideal of physical perfection on fight night. The counter-argument is that this is who Toney was as a fighter, that he always battled to make weight. But apart from between the McCallum and DeWitt fights, and between the Thorton and Hembrick fights, Toney just hadn’t been given the three months to eat himself out of shape - and on both of those occasions, Toney moved up in weight for his next fight. I suspect he did himself some serious damage making weight on this occasion.

Jones, on the other hand, looked as coiled and polished as a steel rattlesnake.

Jones seemed unusually nervous in the ring pre-fight in strict contrast to his ringtime with Tate. He stalked the squared-circle and bounced out his tension, but there was no far-away look in his eyes this time. Nor was there any of the fear James Toney claimed he could see. Toney looked relaxed on the verge of greatness and more importantly a reported $30m dollar five-year deal.

Very little happened in the first, which Jones likely pinched with a couple of glancing right hands to the body and several sniping left-hooks, but several things became apparent. Firstly, Jones didn’t need a jab to fight this fight. He did toss out a couple of range-finders early in the round, but Toney was unquestionably there for his bigger punches, although he managed in the first round to pick most of them off on his guard. Secondly, Jones’s feet were as fast as hands. He flashed beautifully around the ring, the multi-coloured tassels on his boots bouncing out his rhythm-busting action as Toney stalked carefully after him. Jones was twice able to throw the left hook at mid-range then bounce to Toney’s left, making himself excruciatingly difficult to hit whilst leaving Toney open to his own punches. In less than one-hundred seconds he had demonstrably shown that Toney’s greatest weakness - his sometimes plodding footwork - was more than a theoretical weakness, it was real one that could be exploited.

For Toney’s corner there was as yet no reason to panic. The LA Times had reported the day of the fight that Toney expected Jones to have the best of the early running, and that Toney would be “stalking and assessing” Roy’s footwork. In round one, Roy had given him plenty to assess.

Toney tried to snake his way in at the beginning of two, stabbing at Roy with a jab straight out of a 1900’s era boxing manual. It was the closest Toney came to surprising Jones all night and very nearly landed. Jones bounded out and back in, landing body shots before landing his first combination, a left hook, right hand, left hook. Toney dropped his hands and baited Toney in, Jones nodded, sure of himself, leading against Toney as the James draped himself on the ropes, before moving off.

Jones landed another flurry at one-minute of the round and James offered his gumshield as a warrior’s smile, but he was befuddled, both hands up around his head mid-ring as Jones landed a body-punch. In the final seconds, Jones found the sweet spot behind that guard and followed it with a flush right hand. He missed with the follow up left hook and then moves into position to throw a right hand which only glances, but the spot Jones throws it from is impossible, he’s somehow suddenly behind Toney, his right foot behind Toney’s left foot, the right-hand punch a fully fledged cross on a lost, ducking Toney, his guard useless. The champion righted himself, showed Jones his left glove, an empty gesture as rather than punch he pressed both his hands to his head in the next second, confusion forcing him into a shell. Jones nods, and belts Toney to the body with his left.

I think at this point Toney realised that his original plan - to come out and pressure Jones into leading, counterpunch and then try to bully him physically, breaking him down for the deep water in the later rounds - just wasn’t going to work. Firstly, Jones was to fast to be allowed to lead. His combination of hand speed and reaction time were to much in combination for countering him to be an option as a primary plan. Secondly, his footspeed was such that cornering him and bullying him was not going to be possible. On the rare occasions Toney had pinned Jones, he had to be so careful of what was coming back that a fifty-fifty split of the exchange was the best he could hope for, but worse, Jones had no problems getting away from Toney without being taxed by punches. This was really the nightmare scenario for Toney, who had seen Jones do it to every other man he had faced, but never really believed he could have done it to him.

Whatever his thinking, instead of boxing for the later rounds, he came out in the third and attacked. A rare fierce exchange followed, and although Jones seemed to get the better of it, he was forced to the back rope, where he inexplicably reprised the dance he had done against Tate after his knockout victory. The referee waved him in. Jones stuck out his chin, arms at his sides and dared Toney to hit him. Toney declined, but stuck out his own chin, his own hands even lower. Jones cocked his head to his left and then threw himself forwards into a left-hook that caught Toney full in the face. Suddenly a drunk that had stood up to fast in a bar, Toney propelled himself backwards in a desperate attempt to find his feet, finally crashing into the near-left ringpost, his trunks still two inches of the canvas and Toney had to take the count.

It was a humiliation that Toney may not have recovered from.

Worse, a few seconds later, Toney landed his best punch of the fight, a beautiful counter right-hand. Jones looked momentarily perturbed, but did not fold or run, and Toney knew that the best he had landed in seven minutes of fighting was nowhere near good enough to get him out of jail. He was going to have to wear down Jones with attrition. The prospect must have seemed exhausting.

Miller was and will remain a well respected trainer, but his advise between rounds three and four beggar belief. “Double up on the jab…you’re off with the right hand, just a touch.” Toney had hardly landed a jab to double up on and his right hand had landed meaningfully but once.

In the fourth and fifth, Jones landed a dazzling array of punches, including such monstrosities as a lead right-hand from a square stance, a counter left uppercut to the body, a lashing right hand to the body from the outside (technically the hardest punch to land against an orthodox fighter), a right hand feint which he turned into a flush left hook to the face and left-uppercut from the outside, all against the man regarded by many only five rounds previously as the best boxer on the planet.

That man managed a total of fifteen landed punches in round five, but one of them, at least, was a good one, the right hand again, and again Jones took it. Having now been caught twice by that punch without ill affect Jones perhaps decided he could afford to stand his ground a little more. From the sixth onwards, the tassels on Roy’s boots would become dangerously still for spells.

Dancing beautifully for the first minute of the sixth, Jones pot-shotted with the left-hook but then went static and the two fought along the ropes. Toney threw - incredibly - his first uppercut of the fight, missing. They fought in the corner, Jones flashing out a furious ten punch combination, Toney momentarily reminding us what a good defensive fighter he is by making Jones miss with all of them.

At the beginning of the seventh, Toney was seven points behind with six rounds remaining.

“Jones is never really directly in front of Toney!” Gil Clancy offered up in HBO commentary as Jones commenced to thrash his opponent in that round, and he was right, but Jones was moving less and less, ready to stand and fight, confident to the point of dismissal, shifting off the middle line, probing for weaknesses. Toney finally landed a counter in the final minute, a right hand as they boxed in the corner, but it was Jones who smothered, flurried and then lashed out like the consummate professional as the round wound down. Asked if he could think of another middleweight who could throw punches with this kind of speed, Clancy said he would have to go back “a very long way”, paused, and then said. “Maybe to the days of Sugar Ray Robinson.” These days comparing Roy to Sugar in the wrong company can get you into trouble but during this fight it really did feel as if he were boxing his way towards that sort of status.

Toney started the eight trying to feint Jones out of position. Jones looked unimpressed moved out and then roared into Toney, a left-hook to the body followed up by every kind of punch in the book (except the jab) and plenty that aren’t. Jones was fighting more and more inside, shooting out clipping right hands, short hooks and a beautiful long uppercut, his feet still moving but with less urgency. Toney’s last bastion of hope, to bring the fight inside, was being beaten out of him.

Toney’s luck now deserted him too. He was interrupted by the referee whilst in full flow ten seconds before the end of the round, Rirchard Steele mistakenly believing the round to be over. At the beginning of the ninth, Jones showed himself to be mortal, slipping in a neutral corner but Toney just wasn’t positioned to take advantage. He then appeared to slip himself, in the same corner, after landing his best punch in some rounds, ballooning forwards into the ringpost as Jones slithered away from him once more.

“We’ve got to make our move,” Miller offered Toney before the tenth. Toney looked blankly into middle distance.

Toney’s move consisted mainly of edging painfully after Jones in a semi-crouch, his hands high, standing at distance and leaning back when Jones wove his double-handed spell. By the eleventh Jones was being allowed to hang his left hand on Toney’s face and hit him with the right hand, mixing up lateral steps with small moves taking the sting out of Toney’s second-wind surges as he began, for the first time, to show signs of fatigue. In his corner before the 12th, Toney looked dead, his corner men were silent and his manager Jackie Kallen conspicuous by her absence. Roy’s, by contrast, was alive with voice and moves, Jones himself with the look of a kid on Christmas eve.

“Don’t take any chances.”

For the most part, that was Roy’s mantra for this fight. It’s led people call this fight boring. It’s not boring. To me, it’s as spectacular as any fight, ever. The people who dismiss it because Toney is weight-drained or because it was one-sided or for both reasons are missing the point. It is spectacular specifically because it is so one-sided. James Toney was one of the best fighters of his era, possibly third only behind Jones and Whitaker and he is completely out-classed. If it were Detroit sparring it would have been pulled for not being competitive enough - it was a cake-walk.

What was perhaps most extraordinary about it was that Toney arguably didn’t win a round. Also notable is that Toney never landed an uppercut. This is astonishing. Toney completely mastered this punch over nearly fifty fight as a professional and nobody can be seen on film in that era throwing that punch better. But even more that that, Toney did not make one inch of progress with Roy Jones, Toney was a fighter famous for his adjustments late in the fight, for drawing out the weakness of his opponents but had failed to make so much as a dent in the Jones idiom. Jones on the other hand took Toney’s slowness of foot and exposed and exploited it mercilessly. Nobody watching this fight cold could label Toney the veteran and Jones the novice. If anything, the reverse seemed true.

Roy Jones may have turned in the best performance ever filmed in colour.

Toney congratulated Jones immediatly after the scorecards (117-110 and 119-108 twice) were read, Jones said Toney was “still a great fighter”, and acknowledged that the forlorn “Light Out” may have struggled to make the weight and that this might have made things easier for him. Then things went sour. James Toney’s mother placed a call to his manager Jackie Kallon on the 22nd warning her to get out of the house - James was coming for her and he had a gun. “I heard him yelling and knocking over furniture in the background,” Kallon said. She called the police, who staked out Kallon’s house. Toney didn‘t show, and no charges were ever filed, but the damage was done. His motives are cloudy. The first explanation seems to be that Kallon was insisting Toney try again to make 168lbs for a rematch with Jones, as stipulated in the original contract. Toney considered making this weight impossible and so elected to instead shoot her. More stories emerged, he had the flu (again - he made the same claim after knocking out Charles Williams) and Kallon had forced him to fight, then finally that she only cared about the money, a conclusion he reached after he supposedly heard her tell an associate at ringside that “James has to win” because “there’s $30m [in future deals] riding on [winning this fight,].”

Jones had driven Toney off a cliff and he would never recover. He would never reclaim his aura of invincibility, he would never again lift a meaningful world title. The bombast concerning Jones went on for years and years as he continued to stalk Roy, this time hopelessly, for a rematch at a higher weight. In 2008 he appeared on an internet radio show, and during a phone in an excited told Toney that he had “never seen [Toney] beaten for real.” Toney paused for a moment and then he said, “Roy Jones beat me. He beat me for real.”

As for Jones, his star was on the rise. He never again reached the kind of heights he reached against Toney and his achievements do not come close to matching his near limitless talent but he added light-heavyweight and heavyweight straps to his middle and supper-middle titles before he was beaten. Unfortunately, Jones continues to box today, doing his very best to tarnish his legacy and damage his health.

But whatever happens to him now, the fight with Toney is the fight he should be remembered for, the kind of night on which Gil Clancy comparing Roy Jones to Sugar Ray Robinson was more than reasonable.

Article posted on 23.02.2012

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