James “Lights Out” Toney and his Diehard Fans: True Faith or Delusion?


By Johnny Walker

If, like me, you are prone to perusing the seething cauldrons of hate and resentment known as Internet boxing forums in order to catch up on the latest boxing scuttlebutt, you may have noticed in the last week or so that James “Lights Out” Toney’s diehard fan contingent has been very much in evidence.

This still sizable group has been busy spreading the word (or should I say The Word?): for them, Toney’s upcoming opponent, top Russian cruiserweight Denis Lebedev, is a bum, a one-dimensional clown who barely scraped by against the totally shot Roy Jones Jr., and who will now be mere cannon fodder for the great, unstoppable, 43-year-old “IBA heavyweight champion” when he deigns to drop down to 200 pounds for their scheduled fight on November 4 in chilly Moscow.

What is amazing when it comes to the Toney fan brigade is their ability to block out reality in much the same way as ardent David Haye fans ignored the facts of their man’s heavyweight career before he was shut down by Wladimir Klitschko. If one looked at Haye’s actual less than stellar performances since leaving the cruiserweight division to become a heavyweight, he came away with a far different picture than the one often being promoted in the boxing media (with the help of Haye’s non-stop motor-mouth).

Similarly, James Toney was once a great fighter in the lower weight divisions, but his career since becoming a heavyweight has been mediocre to say the least, a fact that has been obscured by hype from both certain media outlets (Fighthype.com and Elie Seckbach, take a bow), and from the increasingly mush-mouthed but nevertheless verbose Toney himself.

Toney’s die-hard supporters really should ask themselves just what the man has done from the time of his second fight with Samuel Peter, in January of 2007, until now, that justifies their idea that he is going to mop the floor with Lebedev.

Over that time span, Toney has scored a split-decision win over someone named Danny Batchelder in a fight that many booing fans in attendance thought he had lost; had a rematch with Hasim Rahman ultimately ruled a no contest after Rahman decided early on that he didn’t want to fight upon suffering a small cut near his eye; won another split decision over Fres Oquendo in a televised fight that this writer and many others had Oquendo winning handily; got badly hurt in the first round of a fight against the woeful Matt Greer before coming back to stop Greer in the second round; and waddled at 257 pounds (his highest weight ever) through a sleeper UD win over the ironically-named “Dangerous” Damon Reed in a glorified sparring contest.

And let’s not forget (though many of Toney’s fans have) the UFC farce in Boston that Toney engaged in, where he got blown out by veteran Randy Couture and made boxing look bad in the world press at a time when the sport could least afford it.

Next to fighters like Batchelder, Greer and Reed, Denis Lebedev looks like Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko rolled into one.

In contrast to the optimism of the Toney fan base, an objective look at the situation reveals troubling signs of desperation for Toney, who is rumored to have trouble with the tax man, as he goes into this bout with Lebedev.

First, Toney was ready earlier this year to try another MMA misadventure, setting up a bout with Ken Shamrock that thankfully has since fallen apart. Also note that after years of refusing to address the issue of his ballooning weight, Toney is now suddenly trying to rapidly drop 57 pounds to make the 200-pound cruiserweight limit. And after fighting all of but one of his 84 fights in the USA, Toney, who has a fear of flying, has now agreed to a fight in Russia. It really seems that Toney is desperate enough right now that he’d fight a bear in the ring in Siberia if such a bout would bring in a decent payday.

And then there is the ongoing issue of his health: Toney has of late appeared in numerous Seckbach-produced video clips looking glassy-eyed, and often drooling while slurring his words. There seems little doubt that over his long career, the accumulation of blows to the head (and Toney is legendary for his marathon sparring sessions, only adding to the toll) has left Toney with some brain damage, some clear signs of “pugilistic dementia.” And if Toney is indeed in such a precarious state with his health, there is great danger in his meeting up with a hard puncher like the 32-year-old Lebedev, who in his last fight scored a brutal KO win over another American veteran, Roy Jones Jr.

One hard shot from Lebedev could leave Toney in a very bad way for the rest of his life.

But don’t tell that to Toney’s diehard fans. For them, no matter the evidence to the contrary, he is the still the same “Lights Out” Toney from his brutal 2003 win over Vassily Jirov. And while their fervent belief in Toney is in some ways admirable, these fans’ willingness to encourage his delusional declarations of still being the greatest fighter on the planet (only James Toney could or would boast about being the “IBA heavyweight champion of the world” without being laughed out of the room) is also party responsible for Toney’s current sad situation.

And make no mistake, no matter what happens next week when Toney and Lebedev face off in the ring, it is a very sad situation for James “Lights Out” Toney.

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