James Toney really could have been a quite terrific heavyweight. In fact, for a short span of time, he was. Toney, who was of course a middleweight when he first became a world champion, wasn’t given too much of a shot when it came to successfully rumbling with the big guys of the sport. But, after rejuvenating his career with a thrillingly brilliant win over Vassiliy Jirov in April of 2003, the FOTY seeing Toney claim the IBF belt, “Lights Out” moved up as far as he could possibly go.
The way Toney told it, he had always wanted to be a heavyweight, but his team had convinced him to fight at 160 pounds. Plenty of fans needed a whole lot of convincing that Toney, all 5 ft 10 inches of him, would be able to beat any elite big men. But, on this day 20 years ago, we got a pretty significant slice of proof that, yes, Toney could make noise at heavyweight.
Dubbed “War on October 4,” Toney’s fight with former four-time heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield proved interesting. Holyfield, past the age of 40 and past his best by some margin, against a 35 year old who was at his perceived best at 160 and 168 pounds. The Las Vegas crowd was leaning Holyfield’s way. Sure, “The Real Deal” had been poor in recent fights with John Ruiz and Chris Byrd, but shoulder surgery was said to have got Holyfield “pain-free,” and against the smaller man (this fight marking the rare occasion where Holyfield was the bigger guy on the night), most of the fans and experts were picking him to win.
But Toney, who was trained by Freddie Roach to Holyfield’s Don Turner, had other ideas. Coming in at a pretty solid-looking 217 pounds, to Holyfield’s 219, Toney, 66-4-2, delivered a sensational performance. With his old-school moves, his constant self-assuredness, and with his stinging shots, both counters and leads, Toney was, well, he was sensational.
Holyfield, 38-6-2, did have a pretty decent couple of opening rounds, before he was clinically beaten up. Toney was pinpoint accurate, while any opposing shots that did get through had zero effect on him (Toney, along with all his other qualities, really did have a granite chin). Holyfield was, by the middle rounds, bleeding and looking somewhat sorry for himself (although Evander would never, ever quit). Toney’s combinations were awesome to see, his right hand and his left hooks seeing to it that Holyfield was being beaten in every department.
Toney, with his swagger and his showboating, was enjoying himself in there, the ring perhaps no more comfortably occupied by any other fighter of his generation. Toney was nasty, he was dominant – he was, as he said later, “undestructable!” (sic).
The end came in the ninth, as yet another hurtful Toney combo sent the toughest fighter of his era down on his front. The sage Turner had seen enough, and the white towel of surrender was slung into the ring. Toney folded his arms and glared out into the crowd. We had been converted: Toney WAS a legit heavyweight.
“I got milk, baby! Who’s next!” Toney bellowed at Jim Gray, before knocking the microphone out of Gray’s hand. It had been vintage Toney during the fight, now it was vintage Toney from a trash-talking perspective. How many other big-name heavyweights would Toney go on to defeat?
As it turned out……none. Toney did “win” a fight with the aforementioned Ruiz, who was defending the WBA heavyweight title at the time, but Toney flunked a post-fight drugs test, and the fight was reduced to a no contest. Aside from a draw with Hasim Rahman and a close decision win over Fres Oquendo, Toney would not do much more at heavyweight; although he was deemed unlucky not to have got the decision in his first fight with Sam Peter, who Toney fought in 2006 and 2007.
A badly faded Toney soldiered on, with him dropping back down to cruiserweight for a challenge of WBA 200 pound champ Denis Lebedev, this in November of 2011. A shell of himself, Toney never won a round, this against a man he would have almost played with in his prime.
For a tantalising while, however, Toney looked like a future world champ at heavyweight. On this day 20 years ago, Toney was as special as he had ever been.