Another new staffer joins the Bad Left Hook team this evening, as Leon Cris Gamboa checks in to take a look at James "Lights Out" Toney, who returns to cruiserweight tomorrow to face Denis Lebedev in Russia.
James Toney enters the ring on Friday against Denis Lebedev officially weighing 199 lbs. He comes in 58 pounds lighter than in his last fight against Damon Reed on February of this year (an unimpressive UD victory for Toney). Years ago, a Toney return to cruiserweight would have been exciting, but as is, his weight loss brings barely any buzz. Toney has been in terrible form for a long time. This is my personal timeline of how it stopped being a pleasure to watch Toney in the ring:
TONEY-RAHMAN I: March 18, 2006. Toney officially weighed 237 lbs. He came out fast, anxious to pick up the momentum of his overturned victory over John Ruiz for the WBA belt. He found constant success with a double jab followed by a right to the body. Toney didn't turn over the right, but he landed these flashy arm punches, while his rubber waist got him out of the way of Hasim Rahman's offense. Rahman, his career lethargic since a decision loss to Ruiz in 2003, flurried desperately over his smaller opponent.
In their corners at the end of the first round, Rahman had his trainer Thell Torrance (who previously trained Vasily Jirov against Toney) and his cutman, Ya Ya Cason (what a name). Not credited on HBO graphics is Leonard Ellerbe doing his patented chest rub, wearing latex gloves. In Toney's corner across the ring, Freddie Roach, his hair still a dark brown, told Toney to watch the jab. Toney nodded: yeah, I got this.
In the second round, Toney got in a good overhand right; it clapped against Rahman's left cheek, but Toney's foot positioning was bad. A few Rahman counter taps sent Toney off balance to the ropes. Rahman pushed the momentum, kidney punching the hell out of Toney when his flurries defaulted into a clinch. Toney landed two good punches that round, good material for the replay, but he was getting bullied. Rahman was landing more than Toney. Midway into round 3, Toney still burst with flurries, but he had an open mouth. He wasn't gulping, but he sighed for air. He also started initiating the clinches. He backed away from exchanges, slouching. Before he could reset his stance, Rahman had Toney on the ropes, leaning on him, and they smothered each other in arm punches.
The fight continued like this, and Rahman mugged Toney for a draw. It wasn't a bad action bout, but it was the first time in my tenure as a James Toney fan, beginning with his victory in an amazing fight against Jirov, that I felt disappointed. I let the failed steroid test that took away his victory over Ruiz pass, figuring he could keep his momentum as title-holder even without the actual belt. He'd get another title shot soon. I was still a fan of James Toney and his in-the-pocket style, but his Buddha belly stopped being cute in the Rahman fight. The weight of it sent him off balance after nearly every exchange, and he couldn't stand his ground. Because he was fat. And I joined the choir of fans hoping he would lose weight.
I watched this fight with my mother over the kitchen table, selling it to her as "Yeah, he's fat, but he stopped Evander Holyfield." I still thought that meant something, and she knew Holyfield, of course. I was still high off of his career trajectory then: my personal Fight of the Year 2003 at cruiserweight (over Gatti-Ward III) to a stoppage of Holyfield in his next fight at heavyweight (the corner threw in the towel after a weak knockdown; Holyfield spun around with weak legs onto the canvas, face down). Then he won the title, and lost it to a drug test. I was hiding in the fridge at the end of Toney-Rahman, just looking for something else for my mom and me to eat.
The two Sam Peter losses followed: my bias gave the first fight to Toney. I swore he was robbed. Toney had Peter hurt. In the second loss, Toney was down from a jab. Peter outworked and outboxed him. Peter capped off his victory over Toney by doing the Ali Shuffle before the last bell to cap off a comprehensive victory.
TONEY-RAHMAN II: July 16, 2008. A Wednesday night broadcast on the Fox Sports Network. Toney still looked fat weighing 226 lbs, although he was 11 pounds lighter than when he first fought Rahman at 237 lbs. In the third round, there was an accidental headbutt and a little cut over Rahman's left eye. Toney started bouncing Rahman around the ring with his punches: he had Rahman hurt, it looked like he could have him out. The referee called the fight before the start of the fourth; Rahman claimed he couldn't see due to the cut. Ray Corona called it a TKO victory for Toney. I didn't care when the decision was overturned into a No Contest because the fight was insignificant in the heavyweight picture. Neither had a chance against Wladimir Klitschko, who went lukewarm that year in a over-publicized debacle against Sultan Ibragimov at Madison Square Garden in February, and against (?) Tony Thompson just the weekend before on July 12, 2008.
Klitschko was two years dominant in the heavyweight division, having secured the IBF belt with the destruction of Chris Byrd in a 2006 rematch (the first fight had been a dominant decision win for Wlad). Byrd would go on to be stopped by Povetkin and beat up down at light-heavyweight in an ill-advised career move. Romantic, but a bad decision. The first photo I saw of a light heavyweight Chris Byrd looked photoshopped. He wore a shirt, but his head was a different color from his paler limbs and neck, making him look disconnected.
I became a fan of Byrd sometime after that loss. He starred in a Sports Science episode on FSN, in which he and his wife set out to disprove the myth about sex and boxing. It aired in 2007, when Byrd was still in his heavyweight frame. Scientist tested him as he workedout before having sex with his wife, and then tested again post-sex in a nice hotel room. All parties involved were very gracious. Result: sex doesn't affect performance! In fact, Byrd has heightened testosterone levels, he's enhanced! Regardless of the experiment's scientific credibility, I thought it was great and hilarious, and I became a fan of Byrd outside of the ring. I hoped to see him join other articulate boxers as ringside commentators,
Chris Byrd lost 35 pounds in six months. After he was stopped by Alexander Povetkin on October 2007, he showed up on Friday Night Fights in May 2008 as a light heavyweight and I thought I was seeing something as rare as Bigfoot, in a straw-legged boxer. The resilience and heart that got him up from knockdowns against Klitschko carried him through an extended beating from a smaller man in Shaun George.
Toney is a cruiserweight again, but because of Chris Byrd and Roy Jones, and the consequences of their weight drops at an older ring age, I sense disaster. Toney has more wear and tear than either of them. His thoughts don't seem lucid. Watch the video in Scott's link if you want to feel sad.
With boxers, whenever I hear a tinge of the punch drunk drawl I want to believe its just a manner of speech. Chris Byrd maintains his humor and his health, not to mention the backing of his family (his son was a cornerman for the Povetkin fight), and I feel good about his prospects. I do fear with a little for Roy Jones, but he still has the articulateness to be an entertaining commentator on HBO broadcasts, although the current state of his career is this THING THAT SHALL BE NOT SPOKEN. I listen to Israel Vasquez, Erik Morales, for the drawl, and I don't have to dwell on it. This is my favorite Toney clip; his voice has always been husky.
LEBEDEV-TONEY: November 4, 2011. James Toney is punch-drunk. I think he's going to be bullied, I think he's going to lose, but I don't think he's going to get stopped- he'll be lethargic and terrible, but I think he'll still be tough enough to survive the hard-punching Lebedev who lacks urgency in his fights. I'd love to be wrong about the first two.