James Toney vs. Vassiliy Jirov – A Moment To Cherish From An Unloved Division

28.01.06 – By James Slater: Although enjoying more interest and enthusiasm of late, due in large part to the terrific brawl put on by O’ Niel Bell and Jean-Marc Mormeck, the Cruiserweight division has never really been as respected or loved by fight fans as much as boxing’s other weight classes. Since its conception, back in 1982, there have been only a handful of great fights held there. In fact, the first Evander Holyfield v Dwight Muhammad Qawi fight, held as long ago as 1986, would more than likely still top the list of best cruiserweight fights. And Holyfield, without a single doubt, ranks as the 195 pound division’s finest ever practitioner. But, shortly after cleaning out the division, “The Real Deal” moved up to compete as a heavyweight, in the process leaving the cruiserweight class a barren wasteland, bereft of talented fighters.

However, as I say, just lately, perhaps due to the current state of the division above it, some more interest has been given to this, now 200 pound, weight class. The sad thing though, at least it’s sad for the cruiserweight division’s followers, is that the two men who produced one of the few moments that could genuinely be called great, and whose fight is the subject of this article, would also move up to heavyweight soon after putting on a show that temporarily boosted the cruiserweight division’s appeal. Both James and Vassiliy bulked up to campaign as heavyweights, once again leaving the cruiserweight division deserted of big names. It remains to be seen whether or not Bell and Mormeck will eventually do the same. The heavyweight division, clearly, is and always has been, alluring to any boxer who weighs around the 200 pound mark. But before they did the move, Toney and Jirov put on a scintillating fight that, to some minds, even topped the classic between Holyfield and Qawi.

Toney needed this win. His career had been in the doldrums for quite some time, and after four defeats- all of which came in a depressingly swift period of time, including one to the little known Drake Thadzi- most had written him off as a player on the world scene. But a chance at a new world title was now his, courtesy of his good win over Jason Robinson, which was in an IBF cruiserweight title elimination bout. Amazingly, in light of Toney’s recent success as a heavyweight, a lot of people thought that he would be ineffective up at cruiserweight. It was too high a poundage to carry for a former middleweight, they claimed. It’s a wonderful thing isn’t it, hindsight? Still, Jirov was undefeated and he started as the favourite. He would be no pushover. Not with his pedigree.

While representing his country of Kazakhstan, Vassiliy had won a gold medal in the Atlanta Olympics back in 1996 and since then had gone on to capture his world title. His defence against Toney would be his seventh. He was a respected fighter and considered by nearly everyone as the best in the world at the weight. James would need a punch perfect performance to overcome the odds and be the first to defeat Jirov. As well as being a good puncher, particularly to the body, Vassiliy also had a rock solid chin, up until now looking almost impervious to punishment, marching on through all that had been thrown at him. He was a very tough man and was probably at his very peak. He’d won the title in 1999, KO’ing Arthur Williams in seven rounds and had scored some good wins in defence of his belt, against the likes of Saul Montana, Adolpho Washington (both of whom had been in with Toney) and the unbelievably brave Jorge Castro, who had managed to last the full twelve despite being the naturally smaller man. To add to the difficulties that Toney faced, Jirov was also a southpaw.

The fight, which took place on April the 26th 2003, was memorable. Toney had trained very hard for his last chance at the big time and did indeed put on a punch perfect performance. Jirov waded into Toney right at the start and there were long periods of toe-to-toe action. But James fought a smart and strategic fight too, giving ground at times and countering effectively. He used all his ring experience to let the younger man burn energy and he was as adept as always at blocking and parrying blows. Jirov landed some hellacious looking body blows though and the relentless pressure he applied on James’ midsection made it look at times as though the champion would prevail. Toney had to grit his teeth but he too was very tough and he was in the best shape he’d been in for years. He was accurate with powerful shots to the head and a KO win one way or the other looked likely on a number of occasions.

Jirov was docked a point for low punches in the eighth round but then had one of his best rounds in the ninth when he poured dozens of punches over Toney while “Lights Out” was on the ropes. In the tenth it was Jirov who was visibly hurt and the precision of Toney’s head shots at last began to take its toll. The fight seemed very close going into the last two rounds and after the eleventh, which Jirov appeared to win, Freddie Roach told his man, “You’ve got to put him on his back!” In the final three minutes of warfare Toney tried his best to do just that. The crowd was at fever pitch, they couldn’t have asked for a more action packed and exciting fight.

This was value for money all the way and any boxing junkie in need of a fix could have done far worse than be in attendance for this one, the slugfest put on here was boxing at its very best. With the crowd on its feet a left hook to the body followed by two rights to the head finally put Jirov down. As Roach had demanded, Toney was closing the show with a big round. Showing great courage, Vassiliy somehow beat the count and fought through the last remaining seconds. Then the final bell came and the agonising wait for the scorecards started. Had Toney done enough?

Surprisingly the judges didn’t have the fight anywhere near as close as most observers did. James won a wide unanimous decision and was on top of the world once again. An incredible comeback and a well deserved win. Despite the last round effort not being needed after all, James had finished like a true champion and had given his all. One of the fights of the year had unfolded and both men had put on a supreme effort. Jirov, despite losing for the first time, also earned himself a lot of admiration. Afterwards, Toney said how much it meant to him to be a world champion again and expressed his gratitude for the opportunity, it had been a long time coming!

It’s a shame in a way that Toney didn’t stick around in the cruiserweight division for a while longer after claiming the title. There would have been some intriguing fights for him had he done so. A rematch with Jirov, for example, springs to mind. But James had his eyes on the ultimate prize, and who could blame him? Especially as he will soon (this March against Rahman, of course) get a chance at making his ultimate dream come true. And, again, Vassiliy too would soon move up. He would give Joe Mesi a very tough night’s work but doesn’t look like achieving anywhere near the success his one time conqueror has.

He will be best remembered for being one half of the rarity that is a great cruiserweight fight. The fight between he and Toney, which proved great fights can occur in any weight class. Even the unloved ones!