This past Saturday, 46-year-old boxing legend James ‘Lights Out’ Toney lost a 10-round decision to journeyman Charles Ellis in St. Charles, Missouri. This drops the former champ’s record to 72-10 with 46 KOs by, which based on numbers alone, is still an impressive showing, but consider that in recent years both the losses and deterioration in competition have risen accordingly, and the numbers matter less. It might also be worth considering that Ellis holds a 10-3 record, has fought nobody of note up until Saturday, and is himself 40-years old. Perhaps this is the inevitable ten-count to the career of ‘Lights Out’.
MMA fans may only recognize Toney’s name from the abysmal showing he had in the cage against Randy Couture, as he was probably one of the least ideal candidates to represent the Sweet Science in the ongoing (and quite frankly, pointless) debate of Boxing vs. MMA. In Toney’s defense, the matchup came at a time where he was in the twilight years of his boxing career, his last significant opponent being Hasim Rahman (or maybe you could say Fres Oquendo) a couple years before the showdown with Couture. But all of this should not overshadow the fact that James Toney was, and forever will be, one of the great figures in the sport of boxing.
Judging from his physique, one might never guess that Toney was once the middleweight champion of the world, but he did indeed capture the title from Michael Nunn by devastating knockout back in 1991. Toney went on to stay undefeated until meeting then pound-for-pound king Roy Jones Jr. in his prime, losing a wide decision to what many attributed to Toney being weight-drained for the fight. The speculation holds water as the fight against Jones was his last at super-middleweight, and he wavered at light heavyweight until finally making a splash back into the networks in a wildly entertaining bout against Vassiliy Jirov for the IBF Cruiserweight title. Toney defied critics six months later by dominating and knocking out the warrior-legend Evander Holyfield in his heavyweight debut, which is also the fight where Toney comically told off interviewer Jim Grey by knocking the microphone out of his hand and saying, “I don’t like you. Why you walking up on me dawg? I don’t like you, I don’t like you!”
Perhaps the only thing more entertaining about Toney’s display of skills inside the ring is his mouth during pre and post-fight interviews. Amongst my favorites are:
“My birthday was Monday, now I finally get to go home and enjoy it with some Burger King. Here I come baby! Burger King! Burger King!”
“If I’m the poster boy for steroids, steroids is going out of business.”
“It can be Randy (Couture), David (Haye) or the bitchsko sisters.”
“The only freak show I got is between my legs.”
“How you gonna win a fight when you lookin’ like a goddamn monster? Lookin’ like Larry Holmes n shit.”
But now the way Toney talks is downright troubling. While he’s always had a slight slur in his speech, the inaudibility of his words now come as a distinct sign of taking too many punches to the head. His reflexes have also worn down, he moves and punches less, and if he keeps gaining weight the way he has been, all of that will just get worse.
Many vices contribute the fall of any fighter’s career. The normal culprits are drugs, sex and alcohol. But for James Toney, it was diet. At first many wondered if his venture into the heavyweight division was a result of pugilistic aspirations, or if he suffered from an eating disorder. Considering all factors, it was more likely the latter. This was apparent when he showed up looking like a bowling ball to contest for the WBA Heavyweight crown against John Ruiz in 2005 (a fight that Toney won but was later declared a NC for Toney testing positive for steroids). Since then, Toney has had inconsistent showings against questionable opposition. The only thing that has been consistent is his rise in weight. Toney tipped the scales at 231 pounds against Ellis, 14-pounds heavier than his fight previous. While not a career high weight, it’s still not necessarily a good look.
But James Toney is one of the last old-school fighters still competing in modern times. He’s one of the only fighters I’ve seen effectively use the Philly Shell defense, and has an elusive moxie that ranks with the likes of Bernard Hopkins, Pernell Whitaker and Floyd Mayweather Jr. What I know less about is his character outside the ring. There aren’t many stories floating around about his great humanitarian acts, but he was entertaining as hell and the man could fight. It’s fighters like him keep the sport of boxing moving forward, but there’s also a time where that torch needs to be passed along. For James Toney, now is about that time.
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