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Thursday, October 9, 2003
Toney achieves greatness on own terms

By Max Kellerman
Special to ESPN.com

James "Lights Out" Toney!

That name should lead any hard-core boxing story about last Saturday night's heavyweight showdown between Toney and Evander Holyfield. Yes, Holyfield looked old. Yes, the Toney fight could very well have been his last. Yes, Evander was one of the greatest fighters in the history of boxing and his fistic demise deserves press coverage. But the brilliance of James Toney's performance cannot be overstated and should not be overshadowed.

Toney is an athlete who neither asks permission nor seeks approval. I wrote in last week's column previewing Toney-Holyfield that James "looks fat again," and that "if he has in fact talked himself into the idea that fighting at heavyweight means that he can eat as he pleases ... then he will have already lost before he ever enters the ring."

From the looks of him, Toney ate plenty leading up to the Holyfield fight -- perhaps not just as he pleased, but it did not appear that he deprived himself. Toney's physique of late indicates that he has been lifting weights, but has not been worrying too much about excess in his diet.

But you know, there are special rules for special athletes. Another way to put it is that many rules that apply to most athletes do not always apply to the truly special ones. Allen Iverson can miss practice -- he might be even better were he not to miss, but he is one of the very best basketball players in the world and who on the Philadelphia 76ers can argue with his results? Rickey Henderson forced a trade from the New York Yankees to the Oakland A's in the late 1980's by under-performing, later slid into home plate on a home run (!) when he broke Ty Cobb's career runs record, and played cards in the dugout when he was on the Mets during their playoff demise several years ago. Was Rickey not one of the very greatest baseball players ever?

Babe Ruth's wild behavior off the field likely diminished his greatness. Should we then focus on what Ruth could have been, rather than what he was? Dennis Rodman, David Wells, Lawrence Taylor - the list goes on and on.

James Toney has achieved greatness on his own terms. He does not discipline himself in the way guys like me would like him to, and he obviously does not need to in order to be great. Guys like me do not decide who is great and who is not, we simply observe and then comment (ostensibly) honestly on what we see. And there is no way any observer can legitimately comment on Toney the fighter in less than glowing terms.

"Lights Out" likes to remind everyone that he is a throwback to greats from bygone eras. He compares himself to Ezzard Charles, Charley Burley, Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore. And he fits right in with those guys. Charles was the most naturally gifted and probably the greatest of that bunch from the late 1940's-early 1950's, but he was not as slick or confident as Toney. Moore was a much better puncher, but also not nearly as good defensively.

James Toney is a defensive genius, as confident as any fighter who ever lived, has a cast-iron jaw, and is a solid puncher -- even as a heavyweight -- with either hand. In fact, his fighting at heavy may have improved his punching power, even in a pound-for-pound sense. When Toney was a middle and super middleweight, and even a light heavyweight, the drain to make weight would often seem to sap his strength (see the Dave Tiberi, Roy Jones and Montell Griffin fights). As a heavyweight, Toney's punches landed against Holyfield with real authority -- especially to the body.

Toney is also at least as accurate a puncher as any of his idols. His pinpoint left hand that snaked under Holyfield's right elbow is the punch that really turned the fight at the end of the third round. Not that Holyfield was winning until then. After a solid first round, which I scored for Evander, I thought The Real Deal was outboxed by a little bit in the second and third. But until Toney's surgically accurate hook got under Evander's guard, it was a competitive fight. After that punch, Toney took over. His economy of punches was breathtaking. It was not that he threw few, but landed those he attempted. No, Toney threw a ton and landed almost everything. Holyfield was moving his hands too, and though Toney stood flatfooted and in punching range the entire time, Evander landed virtually nothing.

Even James' record is throwback. At 67-4-2, with 43 knockouts, Toney has faced the likes of Michael Nunn, Iran Barkley, Roy Jones, Mike McCallum (three times), Montell Griffin (twice), Vassily Jirov, Holyfield, Reggie Johnson, Anthony Hembrick (twice), Charles Williams and Merqui Sosa. He beat most of them. He'd beat most heavyweights in the world today, too.

So no more criticism of Toney's physique out of me. No more questioning his training habits. It's time to accept that he is that most interesting of all athletes -- one who is able to achieve greatness totally on his own terms.

Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and the host of the show "Around The Horn."