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Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Respecting James Toney

James Toney
You don't have to like James Toney's personality or work ethic, but give him his due.

Talk to enough people in the fight game and you'll quickly realize that James Toney is regarded as an abrasive, difficult, egocentric pain in the butt who can consistently find new ways to make your day regrettable. Professionally, he has consistently squandered his natural gifts, debuting at 157 pounds and eating his way to 237 pounds by the 2000s. In 2005, he tested positive for steroids, erasing a win over John Ruiz. If your kid had a James Toney poster hanging on his wall, you'd paint over it.

But this isn't about Toney's character flaws or his disappointing sloth in what could have been a dynamic boxing legacy. On Saturday, he did what no heavyweight champion of the world has dared to do: get into a real fight.

Boxing is the most superficial of all major sports. Whereas most fans in football, baseball and hockey accept that even the best teams wind up with uneven records, perfection -- or the illusion of it -- is demanded in prizefighting. Rocky Marciano is revered for retiring at 49-0, even though a sizable chunk of his opponents had no business being in the ring with him. A loss or three late in a fighter's career can call into question his entire professional output. It's why many boxers and their management avoid dangerous fights. Risk aversion is part of the DNA of their sport.

So imagine the attitude of the boxer who is confronted by the possibility of engaging in a contest that prohibits virtually no form of attack and in which the chance of defeat or superficial injury is greatly increased.

No one with a reputation to protect has ever even seriously considered it. Ralph Gracie stood up to Roy Jones Jr. at a news conference in 1995 and offered him a million dollars for every minute Jones could survive in the ring with him. Lennox Lewis was approached by Vince McMahon to fight Brock Lesnar in 2002, even entertaining the idea of using rules that would benefit the puncher. It didn't go anywhere. Even Mike Tyson, a man who seemed to be annoyed by the civility of his sport, wanted nothing to do with getting kicked in the head. Toney is the only boxer who gave it a shot.

Did he want to cash a check? Sure he did: He hasn't seen pay-per-view revenue since a 1994 fight with Jones. Did he want attention? Most of Toney's bouts have been quiet affairs. But in the end, none of that should be enticement enough to play a dangerous game you don't really understand unless you're possessed by the notion that you can win.

In many ways, Toney resembled the early and unfortunate entrants of the UFC who were convinced their abilities were a match for the wrestlers. Even after Royce Gracie and Mark Coleman had demonstrated the futility of fighters with a single striking discipline challenging mixed martial artists, guys like Moti Horenstein and Keith Hackney gamely trudged in to try to validate their training. It was either all about ego or the complete absence of it: They weren't afraid of looking bad. (A good thing, because some of them walked out looking as if they had eaten the business end of an SUV.)

Toney worked up such a frenzy that he even had some people believing a boxer in five-ounce gloves had some kind of death touch, a silly notion in a sport where kickboxers can generate enough heat to split your brain into quarters. He brought the mystique back to MMA, in that you were pretty sure Couture had the edge but weren't positive Toney didn't have some kind of unknown skill that would shatter him. To make that happen, Toney had to have at least a little interest in the broader legacy of martial arts. He was the one guy who made the scientific method of fighting a bigger story than his own image. Financially motivated or not, that takes tremendous guts.

I sometimes imagine the hysteria that would have surrounded someone like Tyson or Mayweather taking a year or two to learn at least some rudimentary mixed-style skills and then competing in MMA for no other reason than testing himself. I wonder whether he would have had the humility to accept a loss if it came and evinced a sense of history propelling him to even attempt it in the first place.

They didn't -- and won't. What makes me respect James Toney is the suspicion that even if he were in his prime and sitting on top of a gold mine, he'd still have the hubris to get into a cage. That's a fighter.