How boxing history, or to be more precise, middleweight boxing history, could have been different had this fight taken place – as it came so close to doing. It’s the early summer of 1992, and 23 year old James Toney is the IBF middleweight king, having won the belt with a terrific showing against classy southpaw Michael Nunn, and having retained it five times since, all against decent or very good opponents.
24 year old Gerald McClellan is the WBO 160 pound king, this belt at the time being looked upon as a lesser strap. But McClellan, trained by the great Emanuel Steward, was very much the new kid, or star, on the block. It was after he had wiped out a reasonable fighter in Carl Sullivan, on the under-card of the Michael Moorer-Bert Cooper slugfest, that “The G-Man” called out Toney.
After barely breaking a sweat in wiping out Sullivan, McClellan was asked what’s next, and though McClellan made it clear he would fight anyone, he did say how he would like a shot at Toney’s IBF crown: “He’s a guy who’s always calling me out,” McClellan said of Toney. Steward revealed how he and Bob Arum had been talking and the plan was for McClellan to fight the winner of the Toney-Mike McCallum fight of August of 1992 (this fight, a rematch of a fight Toney and McCallum had drawn in late 1991, was won by Toney, via 12 round majority verdict).
As we know, the fight was never made; Toney instead opting to move up to 168 pounds in February of 1993. But what a fight, what a classic this one would surely have been had it gone down. But who would have won?
Toney, who was having serious problems making 160 pounds, might well have been vulnerable against the raw power, the speed and aggression of McClellan, who was 25-2(23) at the time. Despite his granite chin, would Toney, then 32-0-2(21) have come closer than ever to being stopped had he stuck around and, possibly drained, boxed McClellan at middleweight? Or, would the classic old-school skills of Toney have seen to it that the less experienced (McClellan having gone as far as just eight-rounds, and this on only three occasions – all his other fights ending inside six-rounds, most of them inside one-round) fighter from the Kronk Gym was soundly outboxed?
The early rounds, where McClellan was at his most lethal, his most ferocious, would have been extremely interesting. Had Toney got through these rounds, and had McClellan’s attack faded, had his game-plan of what to do if the quick KO failed to come proved insufficient, then it would have been Toney’s fight. We never did see McClellan box a full 12 rounds in his entire career; the ill-fated fight with Nigel Benn, which ended in the tenth-round, being Gerald’s final bout. But who knows, maybe against Toney, his bomb of a right hand would have prevented McClellan from having to go the distance.
It’s so hard to envisage Toney – a man with one of the greatest chins in boxing history – being KO’d or stopped, but McClellan really was a pure punching machine. And when he still had Steward guiding him (before McClellan made the dumb decision to leave Emanuel and be trained by Stan Johnson; this proving catastrophic in the Benn fight) McClellan was in very good hands indeed. In fact, this battle of the trainers, of the boxing masterminds, between Steward and Toney’s trainer Bill Miller, would have been a fascinating sidebar to the actual fight.
Looking back now, with all we know, Toney would have to be the pick to have won, but don’t forget how McClellan also had good boxing skills; his amateur career seeing him defeat both Roy Jones and Michael Moorer. Of all the oft-talked about Dream Fights there are, this one is the most mind-boggling, the toughest to picture in the mind.
For every ten fans that tell you Toney would have won, ten more will tell you McClellan would have won. Maybe we would have seen a quite mesmerizing trilogy.