James Toney: The Natural

Fighting comes to Toney as naturally as a shoulder-roll followed by a counter right-cross, yet Toney’s venture into MMA has been greeted with cynicism and scorn

James ToneyThink fighter, think James 'Lights Out' Toney. Although the specifics pigeonhole Toney as a professional boxer, Toney's always been more of a fighter than anything or anyone else. While fighting peers train or learn tough, Toney just is. Some fake it, Toney does it. Fighting comes to Toney as naturally as a shoulder-roll followed by a counter right-cross and nobody, across the entire combat sports spectrum, appears at one with their sport like Toney and boxing. Some men are known as 'The Natural', but Toney truly is just that.

The cold, hard facts don’t lie. Depending on how you value the ridiculous amount of world titles attached to boxing, Toney has been a world champion at least four times and at most ten in a 21-year professional career. He’s campaigned as a middleweight, super-middleweight, light-heavyweight, cruiserweight, super-cruiserweight and heavyweight and has won some form of world title in each division. He holds victories over Mike McCallum, Michael Nunn, Iran Barkley, Charles Williams, Vassiliy Jirov and Evander Holyfield.

The Grand Rapids-native has never been stopped, only thrice been dropped (never heavily) and hardly ever been hurt. His six career defeats have either arrived at the fists of a fellow all-time great (Roy Jones, Jr.) or at times when Toney was lazy, unmotivated and lacklustre (the rest). The 1994 loss to Jones remains the only unanimously clear-cut defeat on Toney’s incredible 83-bout resume.

Yet despite the rich history, the classic victories and multiple world titles, Toney’s venture into the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the sport of mixed martial arts has been greeted with cynicism and scorn in some quarters. One can only assume the reaction is due to a combination of Toney’s grating trash-talk, his advanced 41 years and an extremely late entry into a sport which has transcended from a come-and-have-a-go spectacle to something which produces the best all-round athletes on the face of the Earth. This isn’t something you fake or enter half-heartedly.

With 83 professional fights to his name, one also imagines Toney is aware of these facts and is better positioned than anyone else to define the concept of fighting. After all, he’s made a living from using his fists for the best part of two decades.

AGE

With 83 bouts under his belt, age is perhaps the biggest problem facing Toney’s pursuit of credibility in a new sport. At 41 years of age, Toney's hardly in the prime of his athletic life and, though experience counts for a lot, the boxing great is far removed from some of his most legendary ring nights. Moreover, despite Toney's knack of regenerating at heavier weights – remember his cruiserweight comeback? - it may prove difficult doing similarly in a brand new sport.

However, unlike other boxing greats that have crashed and burned as they hit the final chapter, Toney has never shown any explicit sign of regressing too much. He’s never revealed any new weaknesses through the course of age. He still isn’t getting stopped, he’s still competently fighting in an unnatural weight division and he’s still able to make fighters miss at ease and then make them pay.

Toney has still been Toney – albeit a slowed-down, super-sized version – for the past few years. He’s clearly not the same fighter he was as a middleweight, in size and appetite, yet remains a serviceable impersonation of that fighter and is perhaps the best 41-year-old boxer in the world right now, whatever that means.

STYLE

Toney’s style isn’t one that particularly suffers from age, either. Despite his love of a close-quarter battle, the American uses expert timing, an impenetrable shell-like defence and pinpoint counter-punching to preserve his own lifelines and then dish out punishment of his own.

While you may clip the often-static Toney with one shot, it’s nigh on impossible to catch him with combinations. He still slips and rides punches better than any other boxer in the world and remains one of the most relaxed and natural fighters to have ever laced on a pair of red gloves.

Yet it’s this oft-copied, never-imitated style that may ultimately cause Toney problems when he steps inside the Octagon. While hailed as a defensive wizard within the confines of the boxing ring, Toney’s unique selling point is his ability to stand in one spot, tuck up, shoulder-roll and make his opponents look like blind men swatting flies.

Able to get away with this in the boxing ring, Toney’s lack of mobility and innate desire to man it out with an opponent could prove problematic in his new domain. Unlike boxers, mixed martial artists won’t be looking to tee off punches on Toney’s always-moving head. No, they’ll aim kicks and takedowns below his waistline – the part that doesn’t move - and Toney’s defensive reputation may be deemed redundant. No matter how impressive your defensive smarts are, static is not an advised motion inside the Octagon.

A NATURAL

Toney’s not a mover, he’s a groover. He likes to feel as though he’s in a fight. There’s a reason why his sparring sessions at Los Angeles’ Wild Card gym are so notorious. This is a man that likes nothing more than stepping into the ring, locking his feet in place and duking it out with another man. All the while, he motivates both himself and his opponent by slinging verbal mud at anyone and everyone’s mother and sister.

He commands respect everywhere he goes simply by what he does in the ring, not by pleasant compliments, gestures, broad smiles or friendly handshakes. Toney can hate everyone he meets and get away with it, simply because he’s been fighting longer, harder and better than anybody else.

Even when finally crossing the line into mixed martial arts, Toney’s sheer fighting history and instincts deserve respect. Sure, he’s taking the risk of going from one sport to something entirely different – related only by one small aspect – but Toney is a man who can look after himself, if nothing else. One figures when the day finally does come to hang up the gloves – whether 10-ounce or 4-ounce – Toney will still find some other fighting outlet to pursue. This is all he knows and all he was ever programmed to do.

EXPERIENCE

Taken as the pure concept of fighting, Toney is already one of the most experienced and decorated to ever do it. Legends of mixed martial arts are rightly celebrated for their classic wars and incredible feats of longevity, but Toney – although competing in a different sport – has outlasted all of them. Toney was the guy mixed martial artists were watching on television before their own sport blossomed in the mid-1990s.

Of course this isn’t purely the sport of fighting. Mixed martial arts has now developed into one of the most multi-faceted and complex sports in the world and anyone approaching it needs to treat each of the individual aspects with the respect they deserve. It’s clear that at 41, Toney isn’t entering mixed martial arts with either a wealth of time or versatility on his side.

PUNCHING

The one skill Toney does boast, however, is boxing ability in abundance and the kind of punch power and, more importantly, technique, never before witnessed in mixed martial arts. Whether he’s able to make his gifted hands tell in a completely different sport is, of course, just one of many intangibles surrounding his debut appearance, but Toney clearly possesses the power, speed and technique to cause damage.

While mixed martial artists learn the ability to punch, sometimes late in their fighting lives, Toney was born with it. He doesn’t think about throwing punches, he just does it. That, in short, is the difference between someone who has been training boxing for 25 months and 25 years. One look at any Toney fight, or sparring session for that matter, reveals a man utterly comfortable and at one with the idea of throwing punches at short-range, stood directly in front of an opponent. Toney does things instinctively with his hands that can’t be taught or developed. He is, simply, a natural at the art of punching.

Alongside his punching, Toney also boasts a massive heart and one of the greatest chins ever nailed in a fighting sport. His sense of timing, punch accuracy and natural instincts will ensure he lands plenty of eye-catching counter-punches of his own, and his granite jaw should, one assume, also hold up under plenty coming the opposite way.

THE UNKNOWN

Whether his legs and mid-section can withstand the same punishment remains to be seen, as does Toney’s reaction to being put in multiple uncomfortable and foreign positions while inside the Octagon. That much is a given. Toney has seen everything there is to see inside the boxing ring, yet he’s effectively blind to the sport of mixed martial arts.

However, unlike other 30 and 40-somethings who have recently boarded the MMA ship, ‘Lights Out’ isn’t rubbing away at his face to harden the skin’s ability to handle punches or worrying about the first time he gets tagged. Toney is made to do this – fight – in one form or another.

Not only that, Toney instantly becomes the greatest boxer to ever enter the sport of mixed martial arts and, given that boxing is one of the many facets of the sport, this at the very least gives him a starting point and a shot. It is no different than when, for example, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion or a celebrated collegiate wrestling champion makes the move into mixed martial arts. Despite boasting excellence in one department, the athlete must then attempt to bridge the gaps in the rest of their mixed martial arts game. Toney is no different.

A stubborn, old-school case like Toney may enter mixed martial arts and point-blank refuse to entertain the idea of evolving. He’ll be the first to admit he’s not some hungry, unknown 20-something wrestler straight out of college and pursuing a professional avenue to make money. Toney has made both his money and his name already and enters the sport at a time when his enthusiasm levels and tolerance to learning something new may conceivably be teetering at zero. If that were to be the case, Toney’s cameo wander into the sport wouldn’t exactly work out rosy.

A CHALLENGE

Conversely, there’s also the chance that Toney becomes reinvigorated by a fresh challenge at this late stage in an exhaustive fighting career. He has lobbied hard for a shot at boxing’s world heavyweight title, but to no avail. Very few boxers would be willing to step into the ring with Toney, even at this late stage, for anything less than a world title and a high six-figure purse.

As this natural showman drifts towards the final act in his storied boxing career, suddenly a new challenge arrives in mixed martial arts and Toney is given the opportunity to become a star all over again.

An avoided outcast in boxing's heavyweight division, Toney now enters foreign territory to be greeted by sceptics who care only about his future, not his past. Whether or not he’s prepared to start over again at 41 remains to be seen, but Toney’s willingness to be forgotten in order to prove himself all over again must at least be commended.

Switching back the spotlight on his legendary boxing career, here are five of Toney’s best ever ring performances:

FIVE TO WATCH:

Michael Nunn – May 1991, IBF world middleweight title
Toney struggles to pin down the fleet-footed southpaw Nunn in the early going, falls behind on the cards and then uncorks a Hail Mary left-hook on Nunn’s jaw in the eleventh round. Moving quicker than he’d ever done before or after, Toney set about finishing Nunn with anything he could land and did, winning his first of many world titles in the process.

Mike McCallum – August 1992, IBF world middleweight title defence
The slimline version of Toney waged two wars with McCallum as a middleweight and then completed the trilogy, bizarrely, as a cruiserweight. Each of the three fights were close and, following a drawn first bout, Toney received the benefit of any doubt in the rematch, snatching a decision from the crafty and clever McCallum following 12 stellar rounds of artistry.

Iran Barkley – February 1993, IBF world super-middleweight title
Toney arguably never looked better than when covering up, shielding his chin, slipping, sliding and wailing away with slashing counter-punches to the disfigured face of too-tough-for-his-own-good Iran Barkley. A virtuoso display that landed Toney his second world title, the nine-round mauling of Barkley remains one of the most punch-perfect displays of the modern era.

Vassiliy Jirov – April 2003, IBF world cruiserweight title
Vintage Toney returns, this time as a cruiserweight, to school and outpoint the unbeaten Jirov over 12 rounds. The long-time IBF cruiserweight king had no answer to Toney’s cunning and slick defensive skills and was eventually dropped and beaten up by the former middleweight champion.

Evander Holyfield – October 2003, non-title heavyweight
Heavyweight Toney emerges and shocks the world by chopping down and stopping Evander Holyfield in nine frighteningly one-sided rounds. Maintaining mobility and hand speed despite moving through the weights, Toney added a late classic to a career chock-full of dazzling performances.
 

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