On This Day In ’88: The Great James Toney Goes Pro

After compiling an amateur career of 35 fights, with just two losses, 20-year old James Toney went pro. Facing a guy named Stephen Lee, the man from Ann Arbour, Michigan, scored a second-round TKO.

Toney, who had been given the nickname “Lights Out” by his early trainer, Gregory Owens, would go on to achieve so, so much.

Toney, who soon hooked up with brilliant old-school trainer Bill Miller, was a supremely skilled boxer who had spiteful punching ability to go right along with his subtle moves, his almost impenetrable defense, and his lust for blood.

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Toney was the complete package. By his first year as a pro, Toney had gone 12-0(9). Born to fight and happiest in the ring, Toney knew he would be world champion. Maybe not even he knew he would go on to conquer no less than three weight divisions and would compete in five.

Toney was 26-0-1 when he challenged the gifted and unbeaten Michael Nunn for the IBF middleweight title in May of 1991. The draw had come against the crafty and durable Sanderline Williams, Toney winning a return with Williams three months after the first fight. Toney was a heavy – as in 20/1 heavy – underdog against Nunn. Facing the tall southpaw in his home town of Davenport, Iowa, Toney was urged by Miller to come on strong later in the fight – “we’re running out of rounds,” Miller told his charge. Toney ramped things up and stopped Nunn in the 11th round.

It was a clinical ending to what had been a hard fight, Toney down on all score-cards at the time of the stoppage. Toney was now king, yet he had also begun to struggle to make the 160-pound limit. Toney was never fond of training, preferring to get his work from sparring. In time this caught up with him. In his second defense (having edged Reggie Johnson by split decision in his maiden title defense), Toney failed to make weight. Miserably. Against Francesco Dell’Aquila, Toney came in at 167 pounds.

Against the masterful Mike McCallum, Toney had to make do with a controversial draw (although he did hurt McCallum quite badly in the final round). This, though, was a great fight, a boxing classic between two fine boxing brains. The largely unknown Dave Tiberi lost a decision to Toney. Next, the decision so bad some called it a total robbery. It was clear Toney needed to move up in weight. First, though, Toney and McCallum would fight a rematch, this time with Toney winning a close decision.

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Toney then made to the move to 168 and absolutely dismantled Iran Barkley to take the IBF belt. Toney put on some memorable performances at 168 before losing for the very first time. Facing Roy Jones Jr in a huge fight, Toney was well beaten over the 12 rounds. Toney had been weakened due to having to shift a ton of weight to make the 168 limit. Yet another move up was called for.

Toney never won a world title at light-heavyweight. Instead, he suffered two defeats at the hands of Montell Griffin (both fights having very close decisions, debatable even). Toney was then upset by a guy named Drake Thadzi – this after a third fight with McCallum, up at cruiserweight; Toney winning a unanimous decision. But had Toney’s lack of discipline ended his time as an elite fighter? Yet another move up in weight gave us our answer. Toney only had a short spell at cruiserweight, yet his magnificent win over Vassiliy Jirov in 2003 revived his career in a big way. Toney was back on top of the world.

And then came yet another move up – this time to, where else, heavyweight! Toney told people at this time that if he’d had his way, he’d have been a heavyweight almost from the start, that this was his natural weight. Not too many people believed him. Until he became only the second man to have stopped the legendary Evander Holyfield, Toney was superb on the night of October 4 that year – his stoppage win shocking plenty.

Toney was once again Fighter of The Year.

But then, due to injury, came another layoff. When he did return, Toney schooled John Ruiz to apparently take the WBA heavyweight title. A failed drugs test changed the fight to a No-Contest. And that performance – with the possible exception of a 12 round draw with Hasim Rahman in March of 2006, and a September 2006 split decision loss to Sam Peter, in a fight that most people had Toney winning – was the final special one from Toney.

The now 38-year-old Toney fought on, winning some but losing others, sometimes against guys who would never have lived with him in his prime. But his great days were over. But what great days they really had been. A lock for The Hall of Fame, Toney finished at an incredible 77-10-2-2 no-contests (47 KO). Toney, who boxed as a pro for an astonishing 29 years, was never once KO’d.

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What is YOUR favorite James Toney fight?

There’s a whole lot to choose from:

  • TKO 11 Michael Nunn
  • D12 Mike McCallum
  • WM12 Mike McCallum
  • WRTD9 Iran Barkley
  • KO12 Prince Charles Williams
  • WU12 Vassiliy Jirov
  • TKO9 Evander Holyfield

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