By Johnny Walker
Ironically, this column started out as a piece praising heavyweight veteran James “Lights Out” Toney for his classy behavior during his recent trip to Russia for the announcement of his upcoming fight with top cruiserweight contender Denis Lebedev on November 4.
I had started to write that perhaps Toney had turned over a new leaf, that maybe getting out of the USA, where he amazingly has fought all but one of his whopping 84 professional fights, was going to be a very good, even life-affirming choice for James Toney, something that would expand his personal horizons.
As this video
shows, a slimmer, healthier looking James Toney was polite and gracious during this Russian presser, even saying that he was surprised by how “updated” Moscow is, “how futuristic” it seems, “like New York.” Toney smiled often, and his words, which so often seem garbled when he is talking trash back home, were for the most part very clear. He answered questions with good humor, and even a bit of grace.
I was very impressed with this version of Toney. I have been critical of his recent boxing form, and have worried that his speech indicated some very serious concerns regarding pugilistic dementia, but this video gave me pause.
It now seems as if, when he leaves his “Dee-troit ghetto” persona behind (and it’s been awhile since Toney lived in either Detroit or the ghetto), Toney seems almost … normal. The garbled and slurred speech now seems more like part of the act that Toney often defensively lapses into, like a bad habit, when he is interviewed by US journalists. Maybe Toney is just giving the Americans what he thinks they expect from him.
When Toney called the mother of the heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers a “fat German slut” in a recent interview with his omnipresent videographer Elie Seckbach, I was convinced by a boxing scribe colleague whose opinion I respect to let it go, to ignore the vile taunt on the basis of Toney being brain damaged and basically pitiful at this point in time—a beaten man and washed-up boxer who just couldn’t help his appalling behavior.
But now, with the undeniable evidence that Toney can indeed behave himself, and that he *does* know better, I have changed my mind. In Russia, Toney obviously felt it was in his best interest to behave himself, probably a very astute and very “healthy” decision on his part. So if James can do it over in Russia, if he can think and behave in a rational manner over there, there should be no excuses for what he says and does when he’s back in the USA.
Not long after I had begun writing the column praising Toney, another video, again made by Elie Seckbach, crossed my desk, this one made AFTER he had returned from Russia. I was hoping that the “new” James Toney I had seen in the Russian video would still be in evidence. Instead, what we see here is the Toney who has been doing the ghetto tough guy shtick in public for far too long.
In this new video (http://www.esnewsreporting.com/james-toney-not-going-to-watch-klitschko-documentary/), Toney calls the Klitschkos, who he says he longs to fight, “abortions that lived,” in a hateful reference to the recent Klitschko documentary. But it’s what he goes on to state next that is more troubling. Toney then claims that the Klitschkos have American associates like “Johnathon Banks from Detroit, who is kissing [the Klitschkos’] ass, he’s an ass-kisser too, Uncle Tom Jr. “
It is remarks like this that James Toney needs to be called on. Toney likes to deal in a kind of lazy reverse racism: he has made it crystal clear that he resents the fact that the current heavyweight champions are white Europeans, and that he sees a black fighter like Banks, who often works with the Klitschkos as a sparring partner, as a race traitor, an “Uncle Tom.”
It seems that James Toney doesn’t realize that this act has gotten old and tired. Eastern European fighters have proven remarkably impervious to the kind of “ghetto bad-ass” persona that James Toney has traded in for years and years. As a method of intimidation, Toney’s posturing may have worked at one point in time against certain fighters, but that time is passed and gone. Today, the result of this behavior is that James Toney makes himself look foolish and marginalizes himself as a relic of boxing’s past, the exact opposite of the result he badly wants, which is to be seen as relevant in the heavyweight division.
Whether James Toney likes it or not, Eastern European domination of the heavyweight division is a fact of the present, and is unlikely to change in near future. Ironically, even a rah-rah American boxing figure like Teddy Atlas has thrown in his lot with a Russian, Alexander Povetkin. Names like Helenius, Boytsov, Dimitrenko, Ustinov, Wach and Pulev loom on the horizon. The fall of the USSR had many after-effects, and one of them was a big change in the dynamics of boxing’s heavyweight division. An American heavyweight champion may again emerge, but the Europeans are indeed here to stay.
Given the new reality, and the mental make-up of the new breed of heavyweight from Eastern Europe, it would behoove James Toney, if he is going to keep plying his trade in the heavyweight or even cruiserweight division, to alter his own persona. Toney has just proven he can be funny and engaging, and that he can get people to like him, during his recent Russian excursion. Now he needs to stick to that mode and quit trying to appease those who still want him to haul out his vile, street-punk persona, which at age 43 he has—or should have—long outgrown. It’s time for James Toney to act his age, at least outside of the ring. To do so would go a long way toward him being taken more seriously again– especially if he looks good against Lebedev.
But if Toney is going to keep trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the boxing public and yet still insist on being taken seriously as a fighter, he deserves to be called on his vile comments.
He can’t have it both ways.