Last month the largest ever induction ceremony for the International Boxing Hall of Fame took place in Canastota, New York, with three classes being enshrined, from 2020, 2021, and 2022. Among those inducted, you had some of the most notable names of the last 30-plus years, including Roy Jones Jr., Miguel Cotto, Andre Ward, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Wladimir Klitschko, Bernard Hopkins, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Shane Mosley. Within that vast array of great fighters, Michigan's James “Lights Out” Toney (77-10-3, 47 KOs) joined the pantheon.
His career spanned almost 30 years, from 1988 through 2017. The master craftsman fought in four different decades. With over 90 professional fights on his record, James Toney is the type of pugilist who quite possibly will never appear in the sport again.
Toney won major world titles in three weight classes ranging from middleweight to cruiserweight, including fighting in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions facing a wide variety of opponents. Throughout his career, James Toney stepped in the ring with fighters such as Michael Nunn, Iran Barkley, Reggie Johnson, Montell Griffin, Vassiliy Jirov, Evander Holyfield, John Ruiz, and Samuel Peter.
One of the legitimate criticisms of boxing today is that fighters don't step in the ring often enough.
Toney's level of activity in the 1990s was as old school as can be; he stepped to the ring an average of six times from 1990 to 1996. Toney entered the squared circle six times in 1991, five times in 1992, seven in 1993, five in 1994, six in 1995, and five in 1996. It wasn't until 1997 that James Toney slowed down to three fights in one year.
“I represent boxing,” says Toney. “I represent the old school. That's me.”
The state of Michigan is where some of the most legendary names in the history of the sport hail from, including Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Thomas Hearns. A foundation of fundamentals paved Toney's old-school mentality. The Michigan native's primary trainer throughout his prime was Bill Miller, who fed James Toney with film sessions of technical masters such as Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Henry Armstrong.
With the exception of possibly Floyd Mayweather Jr., over the last 30 years, no fighter has looked as relaxed and natural in the ring. In a decade with fighters like Roy Jones Jr. and Pernell Whitaker, arguably Toney had the most multifaceted skillset.
Inside fighting in the current era frequently consists of holding, clinching, grabbing, tying up a foe. Toney's inside game was second to none, using feints, parrying, upper-body movement, counter, and combination punching. The shoulder-roll defense was used at great lengths by James Toney, a technique that very few have mastered which allowed him to stay defensively responsible while in the trenches with his opponents.
“I have great skills,” said Toney. “I can fight anybody, anywhere, anytime. I have done it in the past. I am on a different level than everybody else in the game of boxing. Nobody taught me how to fight. I was a born fighter.
“Every else was taught. That is the difference. I would rather show them than talk about it.”
For the length of his career, James Toney had a plethora of memorable performances ranging from middleweight to heavyweight.
Here are some of his finest showings and accomplishments in a Hall-of-Fame career:
Tim “The Doctor of Style” Littles (27-3, 18 KOs) on March 5, 1994, at the Olympic Auditorium – Los Angeles, CA; IBF Super Middleweight Title on the line
Records At The Time: Littles (Age 29) – (24-0, 15 KOs), Toney (Age 25) – (41-0-2, 27 KOs)
Result: Toney TKO4 Littles
On the same card as a double co-main event to Oscar De La Hoya's first world title victory against Jimmi Bredahl for the WBO 130-pound title, James Toney made the second defense of his IBF super middleweight championship.
Toney's level of activity during this period can't be overstated. After winning the IBF 168-pound title from Iran Barkley in February 1993, he would fight five non-title fights before making his first defense against Tony Thornton in October 1993. Toney would fight another non-title fight before facing his IBF number-one contender Tim Littles.
Undefeated at the time, Littles came in with a similar game plan as Iran Barkley, attacking Toney from the start. Always ready for a fight, Toney obliged Littles, who found out that the Bill Miller student wasn't going to be intimidated by someone throwing a barrage of punches.
By the third round, James Toney had figured out his opponent, dropping him for a knockdown. However, drama ensued as a nasty cut over Toney's left eye threatened the fight to be stopped. Unsure if the referee ruled the cut to be caused by a punch or a head butt, Toney had no choice but to make sure he got the stoppage the next round.
In the fourth, Toney ended the fight, scoring two more knockdowns.
Toney's super middleweight title reign has many of his most well-known bouts, and the fight with Littles is a forgotten gem that showcased his skill set and determination to come out with a victory no matter the circumstance.
Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield (44-10-2, 29 KOs) on October 04, 2003 at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino
Records at the time: Holyfield, age 40 – (38-6-2, 25 KOs); Toney, age 35 – (66-4-2, 42 KOs)
Result: Toney TKO9 Holyfield
Toney's first foray into the heavyweight division proved to be his most memorable and arguably his premier performance in the weight class. Toney-Holyfield would be part of an action-filled day of battles, headlining a Showtime pay-per-view with the first fight between Joel Casamayor and the late Diego Corrales on the undercard.
One of Toney's goals when he first began boxing was to become the heavyweight champion. Few former middleweight champions have won titles at heavyweight, with the two most well-known being Roy Jones Jr. and Bob Fitzsimmons. Earlier that year, Jones defeated John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title and possibly motivated Toney to finally make the leap to the division after spending years at cruiserweight.
Despite Holyfield's age and his losing a one-sided decision to Chris Byrd in his previous bout, the former undisputed heavyweight champion was the favorite heading into the match with James Toney.
And in the first round, Holyfield showed that he still had some fight in him, pushing the Michigan fighter against the ropes while unloading left hooks. It was about as good of a round that the aging fighter could hope for. However, Toney, from that point forward, would dominate the fight, using his ability to switch from offense to defense to great effect.
Toney's quicker hands were the difference maker in a majority of rounds, but in the sixth, the former middleweight champion was starting to beat up Holyfield. The fight came to an end in the ninth round after James Toney scored a knockdown, forcing Holyfield's corner to throw in the towel.
Unfortunately, for Toney, this would be the highest peak he would reach at heavyweight. Injuries to his achilles tendon and left arm would keep him less active. A victory over John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title in April 2005 was overturned to a no decision due to Toney testing positive for a banned substance. Following the Ruiz incident, Toney would have a draw with Hasim Rahman for the WBC heavyweight title and he then lost a controversial decision to Samuel Peter in a title eliminator.
“It was always my dream to be heavyweight champ,” Toney stated to Ring Magazine. “I'm proud that 18 years after I turned pro at 157 pounds, I fought the No. 1 contender, Sam Peter, and I know I beat him. F*ck the judges!”
TOP FIVE FINEST JAMES TONEY SHOWINGS
“Prince” Charles Williams (37-7-3, 28 KOs) on July 29, 1994 at MGM Grand Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada; IBF Super Middleweight title on the line
Records at the time: Williams, age 32, (36-5-2, 27 KOs); Toney, age 25-(43-0-2, 28 KOs)
Result: Toney KO12 Williams
Toney's third defense of his super middleweight title before facing Roy Jones Jr. in a mega fight came against former light heavyweight champion “Prince” Charles Williams. The card was also co-headlined with Oscar De La Hoya, who stopped Jorge Paez for the WBO lightweight title.
A career-long light heavyweight, Williams would be moving down in weight to challenge for Toney's IBF title. Williams won the IBF light heavyweight title in 1987, making eight defenses of his championship before losing to Henry Maske in 1993.
The bout was an inside fight from the start, with Williams smothering James Toney. The crowd in attendance could be labeled as one of the most idiotic in the sport's history as they booed both combatants even when both men were throwing a large volume of punches in a phone booth-style fight.
Although Williams had the hindsight of seeing Iran Barkley and Tim Littles fail in attacking Toney head-on, the former light heavyweight champion utilized the same strategy.
Once again, Toney's technical prowess was on full display, using his vast arsenal to stay a step ahead of Williams at all times. By the championship rounds, it seemed that the pace set by Williams had backfired, with Toney increasing his punishment.
In one of the more memorable sequences of his career, James Toney came out in the 12th round as if he were behind on the judge's scorecards. He landed a right hand that slumped Williams backward, scoring one of his definitive knockouts.
“Everything Bill Miller taught me over the years worked in the fight,” said Toney to Ring Magazine. “I was taught to weaken my foes and then take advantage of them. I would slip and counter in the first half, just touch them with accurate punches, and then land the power down the stretch.”
Mike “Body Snatcher” McCallum (49-5-1, 36 KOs) on December 13, 1991/August 29, 1992; IBF Middleweight Title on the line
Fight 1: Trump Plaza, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Fight 2: Reno Sports Convention Center, Reno, Nevada
Records at the time, Fight 1: McCallum, age 35 – (42-1, 34 KOs); Toney, age 23 – (28-0-1, 22 KOs). Fight 2: McCallum, age 35 – (43-1-1, 34 KOs); Toney, age 23 – (31-0-2, 23 KOs)
Results: Fight 1- Split Draw 114-114, 115-113 McCallum, and 116-112 Toney
Fight 2- Majority Decision 117-110 twice for Toney and 114-114
Putting two of the three bouts between James Toney and Mike McCallum here may be cheating, but both fights are arguably boxing at its best. Two fighters at the sport's highest skill level in highly competitive action bouts that are technical masterpieces.
McCallum is rated as one of the greatest junior middleweights in boxing history and is the first Jamaican world champion. His only loss before facing Toney came at the hands of Sumbu Kalambay in 1988, which he would avenge in early 1991.
The first bout between the two was initially set to be a unification match for Toney's IBF middleweight title and McCallum's WBA middleweight title. (Click here to watch Toney-McCallum 1.) The Jamaican technician was stripped of his title when the WBA wanted McCallum to defend his title against Steve Collins, a fighter he defeated a year earlier.
Similar to the bouts between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez in the 2000s, the James Toney-McCallum fights have a plethora of swing rounds and momentum shifts that can leave boxing fans with a wide array of scorecards.
The first encounter in 1991 was a more action-filled contest with both men fighting on even terms exchanging jabs and counter punches. Any mistake made by either fighter came at a price, and closing in on the championship rounds, the veteran McCallum gained a lead on the scorecards.
Always there to motivate his fighter, Toney's trainer at the time, Bill Miller, let him know that he had to dig deep to keep his championship.
“The old man wants your belt!” Miller said to James Toney in between the 10th and 11th rounds.
Toney's stand in the championship rounds saw him land several left hooks that stunned McCallum but never put down the former junior middleweight champion. Ultimately and deservedly, the fight was scored a split draw.
Whether you thought James Toney won or lost his fights against McCallum, he went through a learning process against the Jamaican veteran that was to his benefit.
While not as action-packed as the first encounter, the second fight between Toney and McCallum is still a technical marvel. Toney improved his infighting ability, becoming more accurate in close quarters, and McCallum increased his activity level.
The second bout may have been a more difficult fight to score in many respects than the first. The increase of volume by McCallum was challenging to separate from Toney's accuracy.
Compubox isn't a substitute for scoring a fight, but the numbers for the first fight highlight how tightly contested the match was, with only three punches separating the two technicians. McCallum landed 343 out of 890 punches with an advantage in jabs, and James Toney landed 340 out of 823 punches, landing more power punches.
The second fight, however, is more confusing when observing the Compubox numbers. The Jamaican two-division champion landed 332 out of 849 punches compared to Toney's 232 out of 714 punches. Despite the disparity in numbers, the judges awarded Toney a majority decision victory favoring what must have been viewed as the harder punches.
Regardless of the scorecards rendered by the judges, the fights Toney had with McCallum are some of the best the 1990s had to offer and are vital viewing for any fighter attempting to improve his fundamentals.
Iran “The Blade” Barkley (43-19-1, 27 KOs) on February 13, 1993 at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada; IBF Super Middleweight title on the line
Records at the time: Barkley, age 32 – (30-7, 18 KOs); Toney, age 24 – (33-0-2, 22 KOs)
Result: Toney RTD9 Barkley
Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad. Floyd Mayweather vs. Diego Corrales. Manny Pacquiao vs. Marco Antonio Barrera. These are some of the most celebrated performances over the last 30 years. James Toney's showing against Iran Barkley is as good as any of them.
Barkley, a three-division champion best known for his victories over the legendary Thomas Hearns, was having a career resurgence heading into the match with James Toney.
Following his dramatic third-round come-from-behind stoppage of Hearns in 1988, Barkley lost three fights in a row. The first to Roberto Duran in the 1989 fight of the year, a majority decision loss to Michael Nunn, and a first-round technical knockout to Nigel Benn.
In 1992, Barkley moved up to super middleweight and won the IBF title with a second-round stoppage of Darrin Von Horn. The Bronx, New York fighter would gain another victory over Hearns to capture the WBA light heavyweight title. At the end of the year, he was given the Ring Magazine comeback of the year award.
Toney, a former high school football player who loved to eat, relished no longer having to make the 160-pound middleweight limit, allowing him to compete at his full potential.
There was some bad blood between the two fighters at the press conferences, with Barkley even bringing a blade, but inside the ring is where James Toney separated himself.
There isn't much that can be stated other than this was Toney's master class of inside fighting. He mixed counter and combination punching, dominating Barkley for every minute of each round. An extended version of Floyd Mayweather's destruction of Arturo Gatti may be the most apt comparison one can make to Toney's beat down of Barkley.
At this time, Toney and Pernell Whitaker were competing for the number one pound-for-pound position. For many fans and pundits, this fight put Toney ahead for the time being.
The fight was stopped after nine rounds garnering Toney his second world title. The Compubox numbers were also astonishing, with Toney landing 401 out of 616 punches at a 65 percent connect rate.
James Toney is among the few fighters to land over 400 punches in a fight on multiple occasions. He did so against Tony Thornton, Charles Williams, and his third fight with Mike McCallum (in 1997, at cruiserweight).
Vassiliy “The Tiger” Jirov (38-3-1, 32 KOs) on April 26, 2003 at Foxwoods Resort, Mashantucket, CT; IBF Cruiserweight title on the line
Records at the time: Jirov, age 29 – (31-0, 27 KOs); Toney, age 34 – (65-4-2, 42 KOs)
Result: Toney UD12 Jirov; 117-109 twice and 116-110
2003 was a monumental year for James Toney. Not only would he win the Ring Magazine and Boxing Writers Association of America's (BWAA) fighter of the year award, but his fight with Vassiliy Jirov for the IBF cruiserweight title would win the BWAA's fight of the year.
After years in the boxing doldrums following losses to Roy Jones Jr. and two controversial defeats to Montell Griffin, Toney went into relative obscurity. A loss at light heavyweight to Drake Thazdi in 1997 sent Toney into a one-year hiatus, staying out of the ring for the entirety of 1998.
The following year he returned to the cruiserweight division and worked his way back into title contention, earning a title shot after stopping Jason Robinson in a title eliminator in 2002.
During this frame of his career, James Toney became known for his sparring gym wars at the Wild Card gym, furthering his legendary status and fueling his comeback. Specifically, his sparring session with Australia's Danny Green circulated throughout the internet.
Standing in Toney's way of another world title was Kazakhstan's Vassiliy Jirov. A 1996 Olympic gold medalist and winner of the Val Barker Trophy for Outstanding Boxer at those games, Jirov was looking to defend his title for the seventh time. Previously Jirov scored five stoppages in his six previous defenses.
Jirov's strategy was to put pressure on James Toney and outwork him. Unlike Iran Barkley and Charles Williams before him, Jirov found more success winning close rounds by outworking the former super middleweight champion. Toney may have been older, but his technical skills remained intact, landing the harder and cleaner punches in most exchanges.
Most of the rounds were close enough that they could have gone to either man. Toney's trainer at the time, Freddie Roach, knew that the fight was hanging in the balance and that he couldn't allow his fighter to have rounds stolen from him.
“Championship of the world right here this rounds,” said Roach to James Toney before the 12th and final round. “You gotta put this guy on his ass. I'm serious now, ok?”
With the fight on the line, Toney took advantage of Jirov's aggression and sent the Kazakhstani down with seconds to go in the round. The 12th round may best be remembered for the late Emanuel Steward's reaction on commentary–“Jirov is hurt…oh my God, look at this!– alongside Jim Lampley, who reverted to being a fan hanging on to every punch. (Editor Note: Steward exhales almost in post-coital fashion after the final bell.)
Fortunately, Toney's knockdown on the judges' scorecards proved unnecessary, with all three judges awarding him a wider-than-expected unanimous decision.
In boxing history, other than Muhammad Ali, no fighter has gone 12 years in between winning the fighter of the year award. Toney won the award in 1991 and 2003. Ali won the award in 1963 and 1978; however, in between, he won the award numerous times throughout the 1970s.
Winning the award almost 30 pounds heavier and over ten years apart speaks not only to Toney’s longevity but also to his greatness.
Michael “Second to” Nunn (58-4, 38 KOs) on May 10, 1991 at John O'Donnell Stadium, in Davenport, Iowa; IBF Middleweight title on the line
Records at the time: Nunn, age 28 – (36-0, 24 KOs); Toney, age 22 (25-0-1, 18 KOs)
Result: Toney TKO11 Nunn
Boxing is full of remarkable victories that have elevated a fighter's historical value. These include Roberto Duran's victory over Sugar Ray Leonard in June 1980, Wilfred Benitez becoming the youngest champion in history at 17 by defeating Antonio Cervantes in 1976, and Joe Frazier's win over Muhammad Ali in the Fight of the Century in 1971.
Few victories in the 1990s compare to James Toney's stunning stoppage of Michael Nunn in May of 1991. To put into perspective, Nunn was a six-foot-plus southpaw with victories over Juan Roldan, Iran Barkley, Marlon Starling, Donald Curry, and Sumbu Kalambay. The win over Kalambay was a one-punch knockout that won the 1989 knockout of the year.
Trained by the legendary Angelo Dundee, with five defenses of his middleweight title under his belt, Nunn entered the fight against James Toney as a 20 to 1 favorite. The fight was also held in Nunn's hometown of Davenport, Iowa. Needless to say, Toney was supposed to be another standard title defense for the top five pound-for-pound fighter. You might choke when you hear Len Berman, on blow by blow, ask color man Joe Goossen about those doubters who had referred to Toney as “one dimensional.”
Throughout the first five rounds, the odds played out as envisioned, with Nunn out landing Toney, keeping him at a distance with his jab. Toney kept himself competitive and in the fight by focusing an attack on the body, landing his fair share in each stanza. The eighth round is where the fight took a 180 degree turn, with Toney finally able to hurt Nunn with right hands setting up what was to come.
After two more great rounds from James Toney, where he became increasingly successful in his attack, the Michigan fighter finally got to Nunn, dropping him with an overhand left. Both men were exhausted, but Nunn found a way to get up before the 10-count. It was too late; Toney had him finished, sending Nunn reeling into the ropes face first and then dropping him with a right hand forcing the referee to stop the fight.
Sports Illustrated's Pat Putnam churned out some solid copy as he gave Toney heavy props, writing, “The kid is hard. At Huron High in Ann Arbor, Mich., he was a star quarterback and a gun-toting crack seller. ‘That was a long time ago,' says Toney, who is 22. ‘I didn't need the money. It was peer pressure. I went along with the crowd.”'
Putnam also tipped his cap to manager Jackie Kallen, a shrewd deal-maker and soother of souls:
James Toney became a successful amateur fighter and turned pro in 1988. He had a brief setback after winning his first seven bouts: His manager, Johnny Smith, a drug dealer, was shot dead in front of a Detroit bar. Jackie Kallen, a 45-year-old publicist-entertainment writer with a passion for boxing, filled the void.
At the time of the stoppage, Toney was down on all three judge's scorecards with scores of 97-93, 98-92, and 99-91. This historic victory set Toney on the path to the Hall of Fame as one of the best fighters to wear a pair of gloves.
Toney was indeed one of a kind and as old school as he claimed. The first defense of his IBF title came just one month later, in June 1991, against the number one contender Reggie Johnson.
There were few fighters as natural and talented as James Toney. The biggest struggle Toney faced wasn't his opponents, but his level of discipline outside of the ring.
“The only man that could truly beat me was me,” Toney told Ring Magazine.
It's difficult to judge James Toney as fighting the battle within yourself is usually the most significant obstacle anybody faces, no matter the profession. It's a part of the human condition.
With over 90 fights and an insatiable appetite for staying busy in the ring, there will never be another fighter like James “Lights Out” Toney. His fighting spirit was one of a kind and he stands out in a golden era of the sweet science the likes of which will not again be seen.