Powerful and evasive inside the ring; explosive but certain outside of it, James “Lights Out” Toney has 29 years of fights won against all odds and at every turn.
A risk taker and game changer who came up in the ‘90s in one of boxing’s greatest middleweight classes, James was not always the favorite because of his defensive style of fighting. But he didn’t care. He knew he would win and didn’t brag but instead showed his prowess and skill stopping fighters while enduring one of the most grueling fight schedules seen in any weight class.
I didn’t cover all of James’ fights nor did I know that I was watching a fighter who would withstand the test of time and go as far as he did into boxing record books.
Back then, Kronk Gym was king and with the myriad of fighters from around the world coming in to train there were many fighters to watch.
James had signed with Jackie Kallen. Emanuel Steward signed fighters known for speedy KOs. James had a helluva jaw but the defensive style of fighting wasn’t as popular with fans who demanded quick KOs.
James was a classic defensive fighter but tacticians like James weren’t as valued or recognized for their skill as they are today. Most fans didn’t have the patience to watch James pick his opponents apart round by round, grinding them down. But I saw in his style what I’d seen in the many fight films of boxing greats.
Today, James is known as one of the best defensive fighters in boxing history troubling fighters in five weight classes with his defensive tacts.
Punching still when juried champs were exhausted, James had a training regimen like no other. His ability to endure three solid training sessions daily built a resistance and resilience that no trainers have been able to emulate even today.
James stayed in the gym sparring 12-15 rounds daily and loved it. James was running early in the morning through Detroit’s Chene Park when most fighters were just rising.
For those who remember Vic Tanny, James would end his day there on the treadmill, Stairmaster and weights—tactics not taken by many fighters in the ‘90s and 2000s. But doing things differently and taking a strategy not used by fighters around Detroit and the U.S. is what made James Toney thrive.
Everyone loves a knockout, but they also love a champion who wins consistently. As of this post, James, 49, is 77-10-3 (47 KOs) and one of only two active fighters still fighting since I first began covering boxing in 1987. (WBO NABO Lightweight Champion Ray Beltran, 36, is the other active fighter.)
James’ career is remarkable and I caught up with him in September for the first time since the early 2000s. It’s hard to imagine all that Toney has achieved and that he’s still fighting. But he is and he’s as sharp as ever.
Critics may frown on James continuing in the most brutal of sports, but James keeps pulling off the wins in what’s today is the world’s richest sport.
Boxing is the pinnacle of purses as of 2015 surpassing NASCAR when Manny Pacquiao fought Floyd Mayweather for financial gains of over $500 million.
And after all, isn’t that what boxing is all about? Entertainment for diehard fans who want to see their gladiators walk into the ring as challengers and step out of the ring as world champions?
Boxing today is different because there are multiple world and international boxing organizations. When I actively covered fighters there was the WBA, WBC, the IBF, and the newcomer was the WBO, in 1988.
I’ll only be covering here the part of James’ career that I watched as a boxing reporter for multiple publications from 1988 to 2004. James’ awards are too many to chronicle here, but this is a peek into one of the greatest fighters I’ve written about.
I consider James an icon because in my era, he is the only fighter besides Muhammad Ali who has NEVER been knocked out. The list includes others that many boxing aficionados may know including Muhammad Ali. But James is included in this group of less than a dozen other fighters.
James Toney has won World Championship Titles in five weight classes:
- Super Middleweight
- Light Heavyweight
James turned pro in 1988 after a 33-2 (32 KOs) amateur record. Detroit was at its boxing peak and the fight game filled with middleweight champions in the twilight of their careers including Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, and Iran Barkley.
Newcomers in the middleweight division provided one of boxing history’s best classes featuring James Toney, Julian Jackson, Pernell Whitaker, Nigel Benn, Greg Haugen, Michael Nunn, Gerald McClellan, Reggie Johnson, and Olympian Roy Jones.
The first time I saw James fight was on a card at The Premier Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan. I was The Michigan Chronicle Sports Editor and I remember Steve McCrory was on the card, but that James’ fourth round TKO was the highlight of the night.
I had originally gone out to see a heavyweight named Tommy Morrison who claimed to be John Wayne’s nephew.
The next time I saw James it was ringside at Kronk Gym. He called me out. It was 1990. I was The Detroit News boxing columnist and I’d been invited down to the gym by Emanuel Steward to watch a private sparring session between Gerald McClellan and James Toney.
James hollered to me, “you need to stop writing about him (Gerald McClellan) and start writing about me.” I looked over and James wasn’t smiling. He was intense. He was angry and he was serious.
James crawled through the ropes and earned my attention instantly. He stood up to and frustrated McClellan with a style that reminded me of Willie Pep: wholly defensive.
Interestingly, it was Toney’s trainer Bill Miller who had given me a videotape of Pep a few years earlier. Miller was a veteran Kronk trainer who shared insights on his favorite fighters and films to learn the styles that made champions great.
But James “Lights Out” Toney was fighting like no one had vs. McClellan. Toney didn’t flinch. He didn’t get knocked out or remotely hurt as most McClellan opponents had. He was executing what Miller had discussed with me. but James was a naturally defensive fighter who stood out by having the best jaw I’d ever seen. To date, no fighter, has a jaw like James Toney.