There is a quiet, reflective James Toney, a James Toney who knows that all of life’s problems can’t be solved with a right uppercut and a left hook.
It’s not easy to reach that Toney. You have to wade through a seemingly endless stream of trash talk, the obligatory stare-down, the questions about your credentials to judge his fighting ability and the high-decibel predictions about all the future opponents who will rue the day they stepped into the ring with him.
But last week, after his sparring partners had left the Wild Card gym in Hollywood, where Toney trains, he sat down, away from the hangers-on, and talked softly and seriously about the long and arduous road he has traveled to reach tonight’s heavyweight fight against Evander Holyfield at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Center.
That road began in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Toney was born 35 years ago, then went through Ann Arbor, where he grew up in an abusive home in a poverty-ridden neighborhood.
But even when Toney discovered he had the talent to box his way out of his dismal surroundings, there were regretful detours. He was accused of threatening to murder his manager, he went through a nasty divorce and has had a legal battle with his mother over money that continues to this day.
Toney also struggled with his weight, his drinking, his partying and his distaste for training.
“My head wasn’t right. It wasn’t in the game of boxing,” said Toney, talking about the bleakest point of his boxing saga, the 21 months beginning in mid-1997 when he gave up the sport. But he could have been talking about other periods in his career.
Toney began as a middleweight in 1988, won his first 20 fights and was 25-0-1 when he went into Davenport, Iowa, Michael Nunn’s hometown, in 1991 to fight Nunn for the International Boxing Federation middleweight title.
Hometown decision? Toney said it wouldn’t come to that and it didn’t; he won on an 11th-round technical knockout. Toney successfully defended the title six times, beating Mike McCallum twice and Reggie Johnson once.
Toney might have been winning his battles in the ring, but the battle of the bulge was another matter. No longer able to get down to 160 pounds, he moved up to 168 and beat Iran Barkley in 1993 for the IBF super-middleweight title.
That put him on a collision course with a fighter who could define his career: Roy Jones. If Toney could defeat Jones, his place among the sport’s elite would be assured.
But first, Toney would have to beat the demons within him. They beat him. Only six weeks before his 1994 fight against Jones, the undisciplined Toney was 44 pounds overweight.
“I didn’t train at all,” he conceded.
He said he had to lose the last 18 pounds in the 48 hours before the weigh-in.
Jones would have been favored to beat Toney anyway, but Toney killed any chance he might have had. Despite the drastic weight loss, Toney went 12 rounds with Jones, losing on a decision.
That wasn’t the worst of it. Angered by his defeat, he took out his frustration on those around him. He was accused of threatening to kill his manager, Jackie Kallen, although Toney denies it and he was never charged.
But the downward spiral continued.
He tried marriage but was no more responsible about that then he was about boxing.
“I got married in Las Vegas on a Sunday,” he said. “By Monday night, I was in a strip club.”
Three months after the Jones fight, Toney, up to 175 pounds, fought Montell Griffin for the IBF light-heavyweight crown. Again, Toney lost. Again, by decision.
The more weight Toney put on, the lower he sank.
He hit bottom on May 14, 1997. Toney was in Ledyard, Conn., to fight somebody named Drake Thadzi for something called the International Boxing Organization light-heavyweight title. Thadzi was 29-8-1, the kind of journeyman Toney could have beaten without breaking a sweat in his prime.
Unfortunately for Toney, he didn’t break much of a sweat in training and couldn’t make weight for the fight. Thadzi agreed to fight the blown-up Toney only after the promoters added $15,000 to Thadzi’s purse.
Then Thadzi beat Toney on a decision.
Toney, once considered a worthy opponent for Jones, had lost to Drake Thadzi?
Why go on?
Toney didn’t. He fought one more time a month later, beating Steve Little by decision, and then hung up his gloves.
And that’s how his career might have ended, had he not met Angie Corulli.
She became his fiance and soon became alarmed as Toney ballooned to 275 pounds. One night, Toney was breathing so hard in his sleep, Angie feared he was having a heart attack. He wasn’t, but she decided enough was enough. She begged him to return to the gym, not to box, but to live.
Toney, having moved to the San Fernando Valley, reluctantly went to a gym in Van Nuys.
“The first week, I was so out of shape that it was hell,” he said. “My back hurt because I wasn’t used to exercising.”
But as the flab began to come off, the competitive juices began flowing and the confidence returned.
On March 7, 1999, Toney, fighting as a 203-pound heavyweight, returned to the ring and beat Terry Porter on an eighth-round TKO.
Toney has won 11 straight in his comeback. With promoter Dan Goossen backing him, Toney knew he was all the way back in April when he beat Vassiliy Jirov on a decision for the IBF cruiserweight title. Tonight, there’s Holyfield, and the possibility of an even bigger highlight.
Toney might lose tonight, though he’d never admit it, but he figures he has already won in the game of life.
“I’m done with those earlier days.” he said, “I was just young and dumb.”