THE very first time I ever heard of James Toney was after his televised KO of Phillip Morefield in 1990 when he called out myself, Kevin “Killer” Watts and Billy Bridges on national television in the post-fight interview. I remember it so well because I was so shocked that a guy I had never heard of called me out like that. I had been a top-rated amateur and he had never even been to a national tournament. The next night everyone in the gym was buzzing about this cocky kid on TV. The next time I saw him, he was stopping Michael Nunn to become middleweight champion of the world.
In the end, we never fought but James and I sparred many rounds together in the early Nineties. They were some of the best days of my boxing life. He was constantly talking trash and he loved it when you talked trash back at him. It was crazy because we would spar five-minute rounds and it was a great mixture of hard work and technique for their duration. When things got competitive he would step his game up instantly. I remember his punches being very, very accurate. Pinpoint precision and he would mix them up perfectly to the body and head, never just one or two at a time.
Due to his public persona I wasn’t expecting to become friendly with James during training camp. I was just expecting to spar but we really hit it off. I have never had more fun in any training camp than I did when I was with him in the Poconos in the summer of 1993 and again in 1994. Whenever I see him, those training camp memories still dominate the conversation.
The sparring was so serious, I would wonder sometimes if we were still friends but once the gloves came off and we got back to the house or the hotel it was mayhem and practical jokes. You would have to sleep with one eye open because it could be midnight or five in the morning and you still never knew what could happen.
My very first morning with him in the Poconos in 1993 I woke up to him and his friend Jimmy Griggs pouring water all over me. After I retaliated against him later that day he returned that night and they held me down while James shaved my head with a pair of electric clippers. He was notorious for shaving heads.
Another time at the Fernwood Resort in the Poconos I remember him chasing matchmaker Ron Katz through the filled-to-capacity dining room with a huge Super Soaker squirt gun. Ron was running as fast as he could, weaving in and out of tables and chairs, and all these families on vacation are looking and pointing, trying to figure out who these lunatics are and why they are running through the dining room with a huge water gun. It was like that every day for five weeks, right up until the fight.
A joker he might have been but make no mistake, James Toney was a very special fighter. He would happily fight anyone in the world. His chin, skills and his mentality made him a true throwback.
James Toney may have actually been an underachiever which sounds kind of crazy when talking about a three-time world champion who defeated the likes of Nunn, Mike McCallum, Iran Barkley, Tim Littles, Vassily Jirov, Prince Charles Williams and Evander Holyfield. When he was in shape and focused, he was a marvel to watch, someone who you tell young fighters to study in order to see how it is all supposed to be done.
But when he struggled with weight and discipline he had tough fights, even losses, with people he likely would have outclassed had he have been focused.
But, bottom line, his triumphs and successes far outweighed any defeats and disappointments. If James Toney isn’t a guaranteed unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer then they should tear that building down and never induct anyone into it ever again.