- BOXING - James Toney Turns it Around

Tuesday, June 3
James Toney Turns it Around

I must really love boxing. Last Monday I braved three freeways in pouring rain just to watch James Toney spar at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood in preparation for his Saturday showdown with cruiserweight champ Vassiliy Jirov.

I know, I know, you folks in the Midwest and East Coast are saying so what? What's a little rain, Dougie? But you don't know how these L.A. drivers get when there's a downpour. An L.A. driver is like a nervous kid sparring for the first time, they tend to spaz a bit behind the wheel. OK, I feel that y'all ain't buyin' it. The truth is, after almost 10 years of living here, I've become a weather wuss.

I'm the kind of guy Toney regularly used to sniff out and toss out of the Outlaw and Wild Card boxing gyms before he went to work. Toney can't stand little pencil-neck wussies like me. And although he doesn't throw people out of the gym with the regularity that he used to, he still talks a lot of smack. Especially if he thinks you can't take it.

"Every city I used to spar in, I would run people out of their own gyms," Toney said after sparring nine brutal and one-sided rounds with Terry Porter, a tough journeyman southpaw that he stopped in eight rounds back in '99, sparking a nine-fight win streak in the cruiserweight division that has led him to a shot at the IBF 190-pound title. "If I didn't beat them out of the gym, then I cursed them out of the gym.

"I still don't play. If you're a manager and you think you have the next big thing in boxing, the next prospect or whatever, you know, the next 'Golden Boy', don't put him the ring with me 'cause I will hurt his body, then I will hurt his feelings. I will make him cry. If you're a heavyweight, don't get in the ring with me. I'll break you down and talk about yo momma. I will make you cry."

Toney says he'll make Jirov's family cry, after he makes the 6-foot-2 cruiserweight champ run around the ring in fear this Saturday at the Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.

"I don't care about Chris Byrd! Don't talk to me about Roy Jones! I'm only thinkin' about Vassiliy Jirov!" Toney proclaimed. "It's gonna be hard stayin' civilized once I get to Foxwoods. I'll be lookin' for Jirov and his trainer Tommy Brooks. I'll whup they asses on sight. They think this is a game."

He's still got the bark of his younger years. Does he still have the bite?

Boxing fans who remember Toney when he was out-boxing the best middleweights -- from Reggie Johnson to Mike McCallum -- and breaking down the best 168 pounders -- from Iran Barkley to Tim Littles -- will see if the former two-division champ can recapture the mix of skill and grit that made him so special more than 10 years ago when his bout with Jirov is showcased on HBO's Boxing After Dark, the program where real fighters get down.

Toney, 34 years old with a 65-4-2 (42) record, says he'll be the one to say who's a real fighter and who's not. Not HBO. Not ESPN. Not Fox Sports Net. And certainly not

"I'm sick of reporters!" Toney yelled in-between the sixth and seventh rounds of his sparring session with Porter, glaring at this little reporter who was sitting Indian style on the message table pushed up against the small ring, quietly taking notes. "I hate reporters! Especially ones with glasses! Especially ones from MaxBoxing! What's up!? Yeah, I'm talking to you! You think you tough 'cause you have a pen and paper in your hands!? You think you safe?"

Ding-ding. Toney went back to work, pounding Porter's sides without mercy. A nervous Dougie was saved by the bell. For the rest of the workout, Porter was the object of Toney's scorn. In the late rounds of their session, Toney added a verbal assault to his quick and accurate four- and five-punch combinations.

Porter is nothing if not tough. Although the journeyman looks as though he could make 168 pounds, he is a regular "opponent" for up-coming fighters in boxing's glamour division. He's been in with every heavyweight prospect from Ike Ibeabuchi to Samuel Peter. Big strong men. So, he's used to physical punishment. But boxing also takes a tremendous emotional toll on a fighter, and Toney is acutely aware of this.

"I talk s__t to fighters because it fires me up, but I also want to see where they heart is at," Toney said after hitting the shower after another good day of hard work. "I'll talk about they momma and I don't care if she alive or dead. I tell them how ugly they momma is. I don't care. I wanna see if they can take it."

Many fighters cannot. After a few rounds of constant smack talk from Toney, the fighting spirit seemed to drain from Porter's lanky body. He tried to talk back, but he just didn't have the words or the wit to contend with Toney's constant barbs. Porter's head was down and he dragged his feet as he trudged back to his corner after the seventh round. He wanted to quit. Toney, sensing this, stopped talking. Toney needs work, and Porter -- straining his body to the limit -- gave him two more quality rounds before packing it in. Toney has the utmost respect for Porter now. The only place he'll talk trash about him now is in the ring, when they spar.

If you can take Toney's abuse, both verbal and physical in the ring, then you're a real fighter as far as he's concerned. You can call yourself an East Coast fighter. Although he's been out here in L.A. longer than I have, he holds on to his Michigan roots with a tight grip. He claims to be a Detroit fighter, even though he's from Grand Rapids ‹ in fact, he supposedly hails from the same neighborhood block that spawned Tony Tucker and the talented Mayweather clan.

"Whatever," says Toney. "I ain't from here and I don't like it here. F__k L.A.

"Aw, come on," I tell him. "You love this weather."

"No I don't," he said. "I ain't scared of snow like y'all. Brothas are soft out here."

Yeah. He's right. I know I've gotten soft, at least as far as the weather's concerned. I declined to drive to Big Bear for Oscar De La Hoya's media get-together the day following my interview with Toney because of a little snow. That's sad, considering that I grew up in Ohio and Missouri and experienced some harsh winters with a lot of snowfall in the '70s and '80s. I used to drive from Ohio, where I attended college, up Northeast to Boston or down West to Missouri through snowstorms with no problem. Hell, half the time I was hung over. Well, these days I want to stay indoors if it's a little cloudy outside.

Toney's not surprised.

"People weak out here. That's why they don't have real fighters out here," Toney said. "They don't want to work. Me, I love all kinds of work. I'll spar little guys for speed and reflexes, and I'll spar big-ass heavyweights. I don't care. I go to work Kronk style! They don't want to work out here. Not with me, anyway."

Former lightweight and welterweight champ Shane Mosley was sparring at Wild Card almost every day the last two weeks before Toney and his crew would arrive for their workout. However, one of those days Toney happened to show up early, catching one of California native's sessions with a young prospect named Buddy Tyson. Toney yelled at Mosley during one of their rounds, and asked if the brand-new junior middleweight would spar a few rounds with him, so he could work on his defense. Mosley declined. That made Toney mad.

"Both of y'all are a couple of p_____," he bellowed from ringside, "a couple of West Coast p______! Get the damn tampons outta your mouths!"

James Toney is not very PC, folks. (If you are an easily offended boxing fan, please stop reading this column now, and don't bother with part II, either.) Toney doesn't like people who are easily offended.

"Hey, I was only kidding," Toney said. "Damn! Even my wife told me that men are too sensitive out here. I was joking with him!"

"James, most people don't joke the way you do," said Toney's longtime publicist Debbie Caplan. "For God's sake, James, you threw Shane into the scale after he was done sparring."

"Hey, I'm rough," Toney said, shrugging his beefy but rounded shoulders, "that's me. If you can't take it you need to get out of my gym."

Contrary to what Toney thinks, the Wild Card Boxing Club does not belong him. It is owned by his trainer Freddie Roach who has been in Toney's corner for more than seven years now, since the fighter's third bout with hall-of-famer Mike McCallum.

The two first met at Mickey Rourke's Outlaw Gym, a crazy place that the actor opened on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood when he was trying his hand at professional boxing in the early '90s. It was at this gym, where Toney began to show signs of spinning out of control, even though he was still the undefeated, reigning 168-pound champion.

Veteran fight scribe Michael Katz, then with the New York Daily News, flew out to watch Toney train before the fighter's bout with former light heavyweight titlist Charles Williams. Toney was fine with Katz's presence, in fact he was secretly flattered that the dean of boxing writers would fly from New York to L.A. just to see him, but when little bearded man with the neckbrace kept bugging him about his impending fight with Roy Jones, the thug came out of the fighter.

"'Don't talk to me about Roy Jones!' I told him, 'F__k Roy Jones!'," Toney recalled. "But he kept right on talking about Roy and that made me mad."

Toney got out of the ring and ripped off Katz's neckbrace, ignoring the older man's pleas for him to stop.

"I took that thing off his neck and held it up and told everybody in the gym 'Look at this stanky, black-ass neckbrace that probably hasn't been washed in three years!'," Toney said with mix of shame and amusement as he thought back on the incident.

Katz wasn't the only journalist Toney banished from "his" gym. On the first day Caplan worked with Toney she brought in the heavyweights of the West Coast -- the L.A. Time's Alan Malamud, broadcaster Rich Marotta, the Long Beach Press-Telegram's Doug Krikorian, Michael Rosenthal of the L.A. Daily News and Carlos Arias of the Orange County Register among others. Caplan stepped out of the gym for a quick cigarette break and the next thing she knew Toney had tossed them all out.

"I apologized to them later," said Toney, flashing a sheepish grin.

And of course there are too many stories to print about Toney butting heads with other fighters, just ask anyone who's ever sparred with him. Even guys who weren't sparring with him were not safe. Toney once began to accost Johnny McClain, then a cruiserweight contender who is now a Las Vegas-based promoter married to Laila Ali, while the boxer sparred with another fighter. McClain, who's got a pretty smart mouth himself, began yelling back at Toney, who promptly jumped in the ring and threatened to "bare-knuckle" beat down the fighter. Toney rushed McClain who got Toney in a headlock and then tried to kick him in the groin. Dirty stuff, but it got Toney off of him and out of the ring. However, now Toney was raving mad and threatening to go to his car and grab a gun.

The McClain incident occurred a few years after Toney lost back-to-back fights to Jones and Montell Griffin. These were dark days for Toney.

He was losing fights to tough-but-one-dimensional guys like Drake Thazdi and struggling to make the weight limit for almost every fight that he had. His old promoters at Top Rank would schedule a fight for the WBU or the IBO light heavyweight title and Toney would call their offices a week before the fight and yell and curse at them because he couldn't make 175 pounds. No problem, James, they would say. We'll make it for the organization's cruiserweight title. What the heck, right? Those were fringe organizations whose belts were vacant anyway. But then Toney wouldn't make the 190-pound limit at the weighin. At the end of '97 Top Rank finally let Toney go, having tried everything they could to get his career back on track after his loss to Jones.

Today, Toney doesn't blame Bob Arum or Bruce Trampler or ex-manager Jackie Kallen or his mother for his downward spiral.

"I blame myself for those bad days, I blame myself for my downfall," Toney says now. "I don't know what it was. I just wasn't interested in boxing any more. I wasn't interested in Roy Jones, even though that was supposed be my biggest fight. I didn't care. I was sick before that fight from making the weight. I entered the ring sick and I didn't care. He still couldn't knock me out."

The mid-'90s wasn't the best of time for Roach, either, who didn't have the huge roster of championship fighters that he now trains. Roach would sometimes sleep at the Outlaw Gym.

Toney woke Roach up the morning of the first day they were to work together and the two formed a bond that lasts today.

"I threw a chair through one of the walls of the gym," Toney said. "I don't even remember why. Someone had pissed me off. I was running rats and roaches out of the gym back then, too. Freddie came out of his room with his eyes all squinty, saying 'Well the hell is going on out there!?' So I started cursing him out. He came right back at me 'I'll kick your mother f__king ass!' I liked that. I knew he didn't play."

No, Roach may be small and quiet, but you don't want to make him mad. Though his fighting days are long gone, he's still a fighter at heart and he's all business in the gym. The problem at that time, in the mid-to-late '90s, was that Toney was not all business. After a lackluster decision win over the late Steve Littles at cruiserweight in June of '97, Toney allowed his weight to balloon to more than 270 pounds. He partied. He drank. He smoked cigars. He wrote bad checks. He pissed a lot of people off.

Toney didn't fight from mid '97 to early '99. But he did one thing right, he met his future fiancé, Angie, and she -- along with their children -- motivated Toney's comeback.

The turnaround in Toney's career began in March of '99, against Terry Porter, then an 11-3-2 (6) prospect. Porter took everything Toney, who weighed 203 pounds, had to offer before succumbing in the eighth round of their scheduled 10.

"I knew then that if we ever needed sparring for a southpaw, we would call Terry," said Toney's co-manager and conditioner John Arthur. "Porter's as tough as they come and that's what James needs to get him in shape."

Last Monday at the Wild Card, Porter was able to go one more round with Toney than he had in their fight, nine of a proposed 10. And like the real fight, it took a lot of out of him.

Since that fight, Porter has become a full-fledged professional opponent, going 2-13-1 in this last 16 bouts against undefeated young heavyweights like Cedric Boswell and former champs like Michael Moore. Toney, on the other hand, slowly got his weight under control and his skills in order as he stepped up his competition to cruiserweight contenders, beating Adolpho Washington, Ramon Garbey, Terry McGroom, Saul Montana, Sione Asipeli and Jason Robinson en route to a 9-0 run that was often televised on ESPN or Fox Sports Net.

But Jirov, the 31-0 (27) IBF champ who also won the gold medal at the '96 Olympic Games, is heads and shoulders above the men Toney has recently defeated. Toney is going too need to have the kind of sharp reflexes and conditioning he showed versus McCallum and Barkley to beat the big man from Kazakhstan.

From the looks of his sparring -- the 23 rounds I observed on Monday and Tuesday -- Toney's on point. He's ready. And there's nothing like sitting in on a James Toney sparring session. They make for wild times at the Wild Card.

Be sure to read part two of this Southern California Notebook, as I introduce Team Toney, chronicle his sparring sessions and take a look at the bizarre surroundings of the Wild Card gym and Hollywood, California.


Jirov's message: I talk by fist