June. 2017. It was a happenstance meeting. The kind of thing I’ve come to expect at the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s annual festivities. It was me, my father, and my brother-in-law. We were entering the ballroom of the Oncenter, located in downtown Syracuse, New York, excited to take in the “Banquet of Champions.” We turned the corner and there he was. We almost ran into James “Lights Out” Toney.
“Mr. Toney, can I get a picture with you?”
“Yeah,” Toney replied in his famously gruff voice.
I raised the Iphone in what is commonly known as the “selfie” position, flipped the camera around so that I could assure we were in frame. And, click! The selfie came out blurry. Toney had given me a playful hook to the ribs mid-photo.
“You just took a left hook from James Toney,” his only comment.
The story of my favorite blurry selfie.
He was a world champion at Middleweight (160), Super Middleweight (168), and Cruiserweight (190), also defeating former world champions in the Light Heavyweight (175) and Heavyweight divisions. In 1991 and 2003 he was Ring Magazine’s Fighter of the Year. During the course of his professional career, he racked up 77 big wins, victories against boxing greats such as Michael Nunn, Mike McCallum, Iran Barkley, Vassiliy Jirov, and Evander Holyfield. He is, without question, a future Boxing Hall of Fame inductee. He is, without question, one of my favorite boxers of the past 20 years. Now that my ribs have healed up, I decided it was time to check in with one of boxing’s all-time greats, Grand Rapids, Michigan’s own — James “Lights Out” Toney.
I’m the son of a boxing coach so I love to talk craft. Tell us where you learned that famous James Toney shoulder roll defense.
I learned the shoulder roll from my trainer, Bill Miller. He’s one of the greatest trainers ever. Period. Old School. Ezzard Charles was the first to do it. He perfected it. We sat down and watched tapes of Charles. Watched tapes and dissected them. Charles. Jersey Joe Walcott. Archie Moore. Sugar Ray Robinson. We did our homework on the shoulder roll.
For those who have never boxed, the shoulder roll defense might look easy but my father always found it difficult to teach. I’d imagine there is a steep learning curve with that defensive tactic.
I worked hard to perfect it. When I first started, I got bombed on a few times in the gym. But, I worked at it. Studied Charles. Tried to get in it like he did.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. employs a similar style. Correct? Do you see similarities between what Floyd does and the way you approached the shoulder roll technique?
It ain’t the same. Floyd does the shoulder roll and wants to get out of there. Me, I’m stationary. I ain’t running nowhere. You ever see me run?
That’s right. When I do the shoulder roll, I ain’t going nowhere. I’m going to make you pay for missing. James Toney is in there to catch and counter, make you pay. I’m going to capitalize on those mistakes. Floyd is looking to block or slip and get out.
Aside from the defensive tactics, there are other similarities between you and Money May. Both of you are from Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’d imagine you were pulling for Floyd when his career took off in the late 1990s.
I knew him when he was a kid. I’m proud of him. He did a great job. He had a tremendous career. He’s got his own promotion company, just like I do – James Toney Promotions. I grew up on the same street his family lived on. I’m happy for him. He made a lot of money.
The state of Michigan has certainly produced some fantastic champions. I’m sure that you are proud to be a part of that lineage.
Joe Louis. Sugar Ray Robinson. James Toney. Floyd Mayweather. Tommy “the Hitman” Hearns. Michigan got some of the greatest champions ever. Period. Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest fighter of all time. He’s from my home state. The greatest fighters are from Michigan.
Do you see a bright future for Michigan boxing? Who is up next?
We gonna come back strong. James Toney Promotions going to find that talent and make sure Michigan is in the mix.
Since we are on the topic of Michigan, let’s talk football. I hear that you were a very accomplished high school football player.
Football is my first love. I still watch all the games. I know all the positions and all the plays. I love football. I wanted to be a Raider. That was my team. Western Michigan wanted me. The University of Michigan wanted me to be a fullback. But, I was in the streets too much. The grades held me back. When it didn’t work out, I focused on boxing.
You are an all time great middleweight champion but I also think of you as an all time great trash talker. How important was psychological gamesmanship to your approach to combat?
No. I ain’t no trash talker. I never say nothing. I just fire back. When they talk to me I just fire back. And when I go in, I go hard. I make em’ wish they momma never had them. I get in there and tare their ass up. That’s my style. I like it when they aggressive. I want them to come try to tare my head off.
You never hesitated to talk to your opponents while you were administering those beatings. Ever have an opponent get underneath your skin?
I didn’t like any of them. They sign a contract to fight me. We ain’t friends.
C’mon. There had to be a few guys who you really wanted to whip.
I didn’t like Iran Barkley, at the time when we fought. We had a little situation. I got mad. There was a security guard trying to break us up and I tried to grab his gun. All Hell broke loose. Evander would be a close second. It started at the opening press conference. He said some things about me that I didn’t like. I decided right then I was going to really beat his ass. I was going get his ass. I went in on him.
You did administer quite a beating to Holyfield that night. And then you almost got into it with the commentator after the fight.
In boxing you got all these guys who never boxed before calling fights. In football you mostly have former football players calling the game. In the NBA you have former basketball players. In baseball it’s the same thing. We the only sport that doesn’t do it that way.
As a fan, I’ll never forget that interview. Your quote, I believe, was “if people don’t like James Toney – fuck em.”
I still feel that way today. Straight up. I try to be nice to people but when people come at me the wrong way they going to see that other side.
Yours was a career full of amazing victories but I wonder if there was one specific win that means more to you than the others.
I got two of them. Michael Nunn. That first IBF title. I was a 4-1 underdog. Everybody and their daddy thought I was going to lose that fight. I put his ass out. And, Holyfield. I cleaned his clock. Gave him a beating.
Outside the ropes, I would imagine one of your proudest accomplishments was acting in Michael Mann’s feature film “Ali.” What was it like playing the great Joe Frazier?
It was a great time on the set. Lot of long long days. Lot of retakes. I am proud of Will Smith. He did a great job. He got in the ring and did all his own stunts.
I once read that you actually clocked Will Smith during a sparring session. Any truth to that?
I let it slip. He took it. He got up.
You had Joe Fraizer’s style down perfectly. Would you be interested in acting in a film again?
At first, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t like Fraizer. I heard he said I was too dark to play him. I was like, “you ain’t white.” But, it was a great time. I would do it again. Everything revolves around money. It takes a long time to do movies. That Ali movie was 8 weeks for me. I’m focused on James Toney Promotions. But, if it happens, it happens. I have a sports apparel line coming out soon, so I have other things on going. So, we’ll see.
I think of you as one of boxing’s toughest customers. I’d like to know who was the toughest opponent you faced as a pro?
Easy. Easy answer. Mike “The Body Snatcher” Mccallum. His big ass taught me a lot. That first one was a war. He had that damn name for a reason. I did to him what he was trying to do to me. He showed me the way.
For very different reasons, your PPV Mega-Bout with Roy Jones Jr. was also a difficult task.
I was young and dumb. I should have postponed that fight. But, I went through with it and paid the price. I was a jackass.
You were one of my favorite fighters to watch on television. Who are James Toney’s favorite fighters to watch these days?
Easy. Triple G. I love Triple G. Thurman. I love watching Thurman too. And, Crawford. All of those guys. I’m a Daniel Jacobs fan too. He gave GGG the business. Good fight.
I was at the GGG vs. Jacobs fight at Madison Square Garden. That was quite a fight.
GGG won the fight but I’m telling you Jacbos ain’t going nowhere. I think he should move up to 175. He’s tall enough. He could do good work at 175. He’d be a Light Heavyweight Champion.
Any big fights that you are looking forward to in 2018?
Yeah. I want to see Wilder get in there with AJ. I’m going to watch the GGG and Canelo rematch. For sure. And, I’d love to see Loma get in there with Garcia. That’d be good. And, I hope we get to see Thurman and Spence unify the titles at 147. That’s a tough one to call.
Your final bout as a professional was against “Lightning” Mike Sheppard (a native of West Virginia and family friend) this past summer. Any memories from that final bout?
Mike was tough. I appreciate him coming to fight. But I did my thing.
What’s next? The International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York?
I’m enjoying time with my fiancé. I am enjoying time with my kids. I have James Toney Promotions. I can’t complain. My life is good. I’m looking forward to the Boxing Hall of Fame. It would be tremendous. To be in there with Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter ever. To be in there with Muhammad Ali, the greatest heavyweight of all time. It would be tremendous.
Thanks for your time, champ. See you in Canastota.
No problem. Thank you.
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