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Chasing James ‘Lights Out’ Toney

James Toney
Action Images/REUTERS Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus
In November 2017, lifelong James Toney fan Terry Dooley eventually pinned down his hero for an in-depth interview

“I LOVE Britain and the British fans because of the way you guys appreciate boxing and create an atmosphere, but I still don’t like Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn – I regret not getting to whip their asses,” stated James Toney, 77-10-3 (47), with typical bluntness when Boxing News caught up with him in Bristol on a crisp November afternoon.

“Lights Out” was in town for an exhibition bout, he had his feet up on a table, a cigar smouldered in a nearby ashtray and he was polishing off a coffee. In person there is something disarmingly gentle, almost shy, about the 49-year-old. He was long removed from the snarling, trash-talking presence I had grown up watching and who sits above Marvin Hagler atop the list of my all-time favourite fighters.

Talking to Toney, his voice and body damaged from a sport he enlivened, my mind kept drifting to the Squeeze song, Labelled with Love. A tune that begins with the bittersweet nostalgia of the past then ends where it began, with the narrator now chastened by the ravages of age. It was released in 1981; a decade later Toney won his first world title and embarked on the long and winding road.

Indeed, a broad smile played out across his features when I revealed that I had sneaked downstairs on a school night to watch the highlights of his win over Michael Nunn in 1991 and had used my paper round money to order tapes of his fights.

Roll on a few years and I had been able to take in some of his outings on Sky. As time and technology moved on, an online stream allowed me to watch with bated breath as he tangled with the huge Sam Peter in 2006 and 2007 (two decision defeats, the first one a contentious one). I had even managed to download the infamous Danny Batchelder bout (w pts 10), which legend has it had been filmed using a camcorder that had been stashed in an empty tampon box then uploaded to the World Boxing Video Archive.

“Once in a while, I do look back at my fights and think: ‘Damn! I was a bad dude,’” exclaimed Toney as we reminisced, in particular noting that remarkable year in ‘91 when he fought Merqui Sosa (w pts 12), Alberto Gonzalez (w rsf 5), Nunn (w rsf 11 to win the IBF middleweight title), Reggie Johnson (w pts 12), Francesco Dell’Aquila (w rsf 4) and Mike McCallum (d pts 12).

“I fought all the time. I was just trying to make a name, to let people know I was the baddest motherf**ker out there. Everyone wants to be a rapper, a movie star or a TV star today, they want to be known for something else and not for being a fighter.”

As the former middleweight, super-middleweight and cruiserweight world titlist talked about some of his key fights, time ebbed and flowed away from us. Once we reached the half-hour mark and his cigar had long since burned out, he looked into the distance and his voice trailed away midway through an answer, usually a cue to bring the discussion to an end.

“You know what, we should go to my room,” he said, adding that we could talk in comfort. When we got there, he picked up where he left off, recalling the way he set “Prince” Charles Williams up for a final-round knockout that lives long in the memory. His last official fight took place against Mike Sheppard, a farcical sixth-round knockout win in Michigan in May that was streamed online – yes, I paid for it – and there are currently no plans for any more. How and when a fighter walks away is something we obsess over. Fighters are the reverse of the protagonist in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Instead of their likeness ageing behind closed doors, they age publicly and, in some cases, brutally, all the while holding on to an inner image of themselves which is timeless, and unaged. We can see time encroaching on our heroes, and it fills us with both sadness and anger. Maybe in part due to the fact that if we follow a career from the start we don’t just see the fighter’s age, we see a mirrored reflection of the fact that we have also “declined into the vale of years.” Given half a chance – and a licence, and there is always one of those knocking about somewhere – Toney would probably take the plunge again, arguing that he will decide when he is a completely done deal.

“It is up to the fighter to decide if they are going to quit or continue because only they know,” he said.

However, cooler heads are prevailing, with manager and trainer John Arthur facilitating Toney’s move into TV via bounty hunting. They have created a sizzle reel and are exploring the option of turning the former into a reality star. “It is time for James to transition from boxing inside the ring to promoting and TV work, because he is a camera-friendly guy and a scene-stealer,” stated “Pops”, a man who strikes as a rare example of someone who has his fighter’s best interests at heart. At this point, I was forced to confess that my knowledge of the profession stems from the 1980s classic buddy movie Midnight Run.

“My man Robert De Niro,” said Toney. “That is one of my favourite films!”

Still, it must be odd to move into a new profession after spending so long as a boxer, not to mention the effect it must have on anyone he tracks down who knows a bit about the sport. “I’ve been recognised a few times,” he confirmed. “They go: ‘Oh s**t, it’s the champ!’ I say: ‘I don’t care, you going to jail now, baby.’

Born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Toney came through the ranks before the nearby city of Detroit fell into its seemingly terminal decline, when it was still an industrial as well as a boxing hotbed. Heated sparring sessions had left him bruised and bemused, underlining the need to adopt a more methodical approach to his craft.

James Toney

“Detroit has always been a fight town,” he recalled. “Tommy [Hearns] was the man, the real s**t, but we’ve recently had Michael Moorer, Duane Thomas and Lindell Holmes. I learned from Lindell, he was tough. I learned from getting beaten up every day then coming back to the gym. I love sparring. The more rounds you spar the better you get. I ran, shadowboxed and sparred. That’s what the old fighters used to do, guys like [Ezzard] Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott and [Muhammad] Ali. If you do those things it will come to you regardless.

“At first, I was just trying to knock everyone out. Then I sparred some guys and that s**t wasn’t working, so I thought: ‘I need to adapt.’ I went home, put tapes in my VHS of guys like Charles, [Archie] Moore, [Sandy] Saddler and all those names. It was like I was back in high school. I was studying again.”

Toney thought for a second then told me that you cannot always judge a book by its cover, especially in boxing. “If you are going to be a fighter you need to be serious,” he added. “You can get in with a guy who looks like Pee-wee Herman and discover that this motherf**ker can fight.”

A talented athlete in his college days, Toney had relied on his physical prowess early in his career, before veteran trainer Bill Miller added finesse, and access to even more video recordings. Miller had learned a lot of lessons under the legendary Whitey Bimstein and brought them all to bear on Toney, who has also trained under Freddie Roach and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.

“I owe Bill a lot,” Toney said. “When we first started gelling together, Bill would say: ‘OK, here is how it works, first thing you will do is come and stay with me.’ I thought: ‘For real?!’ Him and his wife had that old people ointment smell around the house.

“The first two nights, he had me up running in the morning. Well, he said the morning, but he didn’t tell me the time, so when 5.30am came he was knocking on my door to wake me up. I told him he’d said we were going to run in the morning and he said: ‘It is 5.30, this is the morning.’ It was cold as hell, too.

“Bill dropped me off away from the house then would tell me to run right back. After that first week, I thought he was crazy and he had put me in jail. Bill had the biggest fight collection too, every tape of fighters you’d never even heard of, like Battling Siki and Eder Jofre. He told me that I’d study them all, that I might not get what they were doing right away but I should try to do it myself. Bill was like soft jazz as a person, but it was an ass-whupping for me at first.

James Toney

“The reason I don’t train fighters myself is that I’m a hothead,” answered Toney when asked if he will eventually move into coaching. “If a kid won’t train, I won’t kiss his ass or chase him. I’m not a babysitter. People want to be fighters because they see [Floyd] Mayweather earning big money. They don’t understand that he trains and works hard. Gennady Golovkin works hard, so does Daniel Jacobs. That’s what makes a fighter. You got 18, 19-year-old kids at home and this is them: seven o’clock [feigns snoring], 10 o’clock [snores], 12 o’clock [snores] – f**k that, get your ass out of bed.”

The phrase ‘old-school boxer’ is often bandied about to describe someone who can actually box – a boxer, as they were once simply known – without an over-reliance on physical gifts. Toney believes that there are few of them about these days.

“When I met Tommy [Hearns], I nearly cried,” he said. “I had idolised him and tried to fight like him, and then I got my own style. Not everyone can fight like Tommy, not everyone can fight like James Toney – we were too original to copy. People try. People say Floyd is closest to me, yet he doesn’t do the things I’d do. I’d stay close, in the pocket, and try to hit you back. I don’t run from punches.

“And who is that kid who beat Manny [Pacquiao]? Jeff Horn? I’m sorry, but he can’t even spell the word ‘fight’. I don’t think Manny trained hard enough and should stop him if they rematch.”

Former rival and potential foe Bernard Hopkins has also been named as a fighter who has stylistic echoes of a peak Toney, a comparison that raised a bit of the old ire when I mentioned it.

“I’d have knocked Hopkins out, he was a simple, easy fighter to figure out,” blasted Toney. “The only reason y’all consider him a great fighter is because he held and headbutted his way to titles and defences of titles.”

As our talk wound down, Toney reiterated his belief that there has been a decline within modern boxing, yet he also stressed that it is and always will be the ultimate, and purest, sporting pursuit: “Boxing is still top dog. People might follow [American] football or baseball, but everyone wants to see a big fight and that is what makes boxing the greatest sport in the world, hands down. Boxing is the ultimate test.”

And Toney had been the ultimate fighter. Flawed, like so many of them are, yet his flaws are what made him so compelling, his bouts of indiscipline outside the ring leaving so many gaps for speculation as to what could have been if he had not constantly battled against the bulge and moved up in weight earlier in his career.

An invite had been extended to the following night’s exhibition and was politely declined. As I sat on the train back to Manchester I had a
brief moment where I wondered if I had made the wrong decision by turning down my sole chance to watch him perform in the flesh.

Ultimately, though, I decided that it was the right decision. I had met the man, the legend, and that was enough for me.

The fighter lives on through tapes, DVDs and downloads, all of which document the ups and downs, the good and bad, and have furnished so many happy memories and moments. They will remain enshrined in my mind, bottled away and labelled with love.

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