RANDY GORDON, then the Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, was making the long drive home from Atlantic City to Long Island after watching the IBF middleweight title fight between champion James Toney and challenger Dave Tiberi.
“Ringside, I had it for Toney, but I said, man, this is close,” recalled Gordon. “This is gonna explode, and this was without even knowing, and it did.”
Thirty years later, the details of the February 8, 1992 bout have largely forgotten by fight fans, but the reverberations of Toney’s split decision win are still felt in the boxing world, one that was shaken by a verdict that prompted a United States Senate Subcomittee to investigate the sport and ultimately was the catalyst for the passing of the Muhammad Ali Act in 2000.
As for the principals, James Toney was recently announced as a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022. Meanwhile, Dave Tiberi lives with his family in his native Delaware, a successful businessman and community leader who walked away from the sport after the disputed loss.
No big money rematch. No comeback. No sad stories of a fighter who stuck around too long. And no regrets.
“Did I miss it, yes,” said Tiberi. “But the way I looked at it was that God had a bigger plan than I did.”
For much of his life before the biggest fight of his career, Tiberi’s plan was to become a world champion. One of 14 children, Tiberi and his six older brothers all shared the same dream of glory in the ring, and from the age of five he pursued it.
“We’d go to Philly, we’d go to New York, we’d travel all over and be on amateur cards,” he said. “It was something as a kid you looked forward to.”
Tiberi took his talents to the pro game in 1985, steadily working his way up the ranks, winning most, losing some, tying a couple. He was a good fighter, a real pro, but no one outside of his inner circle believed he had what it took to beat the unbeaten Toney, whose resumé over the previous nine months saw him defeat Michael Nunn for the middleweight crown, successfully defend it with wins over Reggie Johnson and Francesco Dell’Aquila, and then fight to a draw with Mike McCallum. Tiberi was just another step towards superstardom, but the challenger, who passed on fights against Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Durán, wasn’t fazed.
“It was easy for me to turn down Leonard and Durán because they were on their way out and I was able to take a fight at 25 that I was peaking at the perfect time for,” he said.
If it seems like hubris for Tiberi to believe he could beat a close-to-prime form Toney, consider who he had in his training camp for the fight.
“My camp was Bernard Hopkins, Prince Charles Williams and Steve Little,” he said. “Prince Charles was light-heavyweight [IBF] champion at the time.”
“Welcome to Philadelphia.”
In the gym, Tiberi, his star-studded squad and trainer Marty Feldman put together the plan that was going to shock the world.
“Bernard studied tapes on James Toney and he had James Toney down to a T to get me ready for that fight,” said Tiberi. “Then they used Prince Charles as a light-heavyweight to push me around because James had pretty heavy hands. Steve Little, of course, he later upset Michael Nunn, and he was using hand speed. And I remember before the fight, Marty Feldman, my trainer said, ‘You know what you ought to do, Dave? You’ve got a rock solid chin. We’re gonna change your whole fight style. You’re gonna back him up, you’re gonna bully James Toney. You’re gonna beat him at his own game.’”
It sounded good on paper. In reality, it was tough at first as Tiberi attempted to alter his game.
“It was very hard to do that fight plan against Bernard Hopkins because I had to change my style and early in camp I was getting caught and getting frustrated,” he said. “But by the third, fourth week in camp, we were predicting to stop James Toney in five or six rounds. He was used to sitting and resting, and he wasn’t gonna get any rest.”
On fight night, Tiberi lived up to all his intentions, immediately getting into the champion’s face and pressing the action. But when Toney rocked the challenger late in the opening round, it appeared that the fight was going according to plan. Tiberi agrees, but only that it was his plan, not Toney’s.
“When he hit me in the first round with that big left hook, that was a pivotal point because I didn’t go down,” he said. “He had all that stamina and when he hit me with it, it didn’t even stun me. It put a cold feeling down my back, but it didn’t stun me at all. Marty said, ‘Stay down low, don’t get up high on him.’ That was the one time I pulled up and he caught me. The rest of the fight I kept my chin glued to my chest and just stayed underneath his punches and continued fighting a tactical, street-style fight.”
It worked. Tiberi would pressure Toney and dig to the body relentlessly, only to have a “Lights Out” rally late in rounds. Three decades later, it’s clear that the controversial decision and its aftermath made people forget what a great, high-level fight it was. And despite a questionable point deduction from referee Robert Palmer in round six and an odd changing of Tiberi’s gloves after the fifth frame (“I had two gloves removed, no one knows why they were ripped, no one knows where they are, so there were a lot of things like that that were disappointing”), most believed that the nationally-televised bout was going to go Tiberi’s way.
New Jersey judge Frank Brunette saw it 117-111 for Tiberi, but he was overruled by Bill Lerch’s 115-112 and Frank Garza’s 115-112 for Toney.
“I knew by the end of the fight, it was gonna be a close fight,” said Gordon. “When you’re around so many decisions, you know what you’re watching, and I said, this is gonna be a split decision. Not even a question in my mind. Back then I was totally into who was judging. There was Frank Brunette from the Jersey area, Frank Garza, and I said if this thing is close, I bet you in some of these close rounds – and there were many close rounds – he’d lean towards Toney, which was no surprise in my book. Frank Garza is one of the best, but we are human. And he had to go home to Michigan, and it was close enough and competitive enough.”
ABC commentator Alex Wallau didn’t agree, calling it “one of the most disgusting decisions I’ve ever seen.” Senator William Roth, ironically of Delaware, called for an investigation into the sport. Tiberi and Gordon, among others, testified in the summer of 1992, with some revelations about the fight coming as a shock to the man who believed he deserved to be world champion.
“During the hearings and investigation, we found out that the two judges that awarded James Toney the fight (Lerch and Garza) were not licensed in New Jersey for that fight,” said Tiberi. “And the referee, prior to that fight, was considered green and incompetent to do a championship fight. They put him in the fight, he deducted a point from me, which was costly, without a warning. I remember when I was on the senate floor, one of the senators, said to (New Jersey State Athletic Commissioner) Larry Hazzard, ‘How could two judges score the fight so identically the same and so identically wrong?’ That was interesting. But judge Frank Brunette, who is well respected, he scored the fight 117-111.”
Meanwhile, the public demanded a rematch and Tiberi, who reportedly made $26,000 for the first bout, was offered up to $500,000 and a pay-per-view cut to meet Toney again. He just had one request.
“When I was on the senate floor, I said because all the rules were broken, if New Jersey has me come back in through the IBF as the middleweight champion and him as the opponent, I will sign to fight him tomorrow,” Tiberi recalled. “Either you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem and I feel like there’s a problem here. It’s really one of the hardest decisions, if not the hardest decision, I’ve made in my life.”
Dave Tiberi never fought James Toney again. He never fought anyone again. It was a decision that still baffles, but Gordon wasn’t surprised that Tiberi left and never returned. “If it didn’t happen five years earlier to a guy by the name of Marvin Hagler, I wouldn’t have thought he could do it,” Gordon said. “But Hagler got so frustrated in a fight he was certain he won and they gave it to the favorite, Sugar Ray Leonard, who did the same thing (as Toney) – he stole rounds that might have been close, he knew they were close and then opened it up in the final 30 seconds. And he won the rounds. I had Sugar Ray Leonard winning that fight by a hair. But Hagler walked away, and many people were saying, how could he walk away? But he was so frustrated that he walked away. And when I heard Dave Tiberi say that’s it, I’m done, people were saying, he’ll be back because he’s got some big stuff in front of him. I said, I don’t know. Marvin Hagler did it and I think that Tiberi’s gonna do the same thing. And he did. So it didn’t surprise me at all. I give him all the credit in the world for standing up for his beliefs.”
Tiberi wasn’t rich by any means at the time. He was in his mid-20s, at the top of his game and with a wife and baby to provide for. But some things meant more to him than money, and it was how he would explain his decision to those who asked.
“I’d say, ‘Let me put you in the same situation. You’re at DuPont, you’re ready for a raise and a promotion and then you know that everything they’re doing is against you not to be able to get what you deserve. You’re not gonna get your raise. They’d say, yeah, but you were gonna get the money. Yeah, but I wasn’t gonna get what I already earned. And that’s what was very hard for me. I never felt that they wanted to address what the problem was, and that bothered me a lot. Did my wife and I need the money? We definitely did. We were a young couple, but she stood by me as I worked hard for this; she was my biggest supporter.”
Eight years after the last fight of his career, Tiberi saw the Ali Act passed.
“I knew whatever I was gonna do, I was gonna be successful,” he said. “But I felt like when I was at the hearing, it became bigger than that. It became bigger than a James Toney match. This is for the sport of boxing now. The generations of fighters after us, we’ve got to address. If we’re gonna let things like this go, then we really need to start evaluating if we need a national commission. We need to start evaluating what type of health and safety rules are in place because when I was on the senate floor, it was very hard for me to watch the pain many fighters go through after their careers. That’s when it became much bigger for me. Then the bill got passed and the bill was going to look at making sure we’re more serious about health and safety. To me, that was a victory for the sport of boxing.”
And a victory for Tiberi, who did what so many boxers can’t do, and that’s leave the sport when their gut tells them it’s time to go. That’s not to say he’s Superman, because he did have to fight back the urge to return at times.
“With that Italian blood in me, you always have that itch,” he laughs. “But I just remember one day throwing sweatpants and a sweatshirt on like I usually did to get that motivation, and I did not feel that burn that gets you excited. Did I miss it? Yeah. I was four percent body fat and I was in the best shape I could be in.”
I tell him that now he’s just showing off. He laughs, pointing out that in his mid-50s, he’s still around 170-175 pounds. Tiberi still sees his former training partner Hopkins now and again, and when the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame inductions come around later this year, he may see fellow inductee Toney, who admitted in 2009 that Tiberi did deserve the decision in their fight.
“I knew I won the fight,” said Tiberi. “But I appreciate his honesty. Sometimes as fighters, the last thing we want to do is say that we were defeated. But you know when you win and you know when you lose. And I don’t take anything away from James Toney. He’s no doubt going to go down as one of the best fighters in history.”
So what would a rematch have looked like?
“No disrespect, but five out of five times I would beat him,” he said. “My stamina was incredible, I could always take a shot and, at the same time, I wasn’t afraid to change styles to back somebody up.”
Thirty years later, Tiberi is still a fighter. That will never change, and it’s obvious that with his work over the years as a promoter, trainer and advocate for the sport, his love for boxing won’t change, either.
“I have so many great friends in the sport,” he said. “From all over the world they call me and talk, and I love it. It’s in my DNA. I put my first pair of boxing gloves on probably when I was five years old. So boxing’s a big part of the Tiberi family, and a discrepancy that happened in a fight, I can’t blame the whole sport for the character flaws of some certain individuals. My prayer is that through that, we can really look at making boxing a better sport when it comes to infrastructure and rules. And I’m not gonna change my love for boxing.”