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Toney Embarks on Quest for History

by Michael DiSanto

It's only happened once in the last 100 years. On Saturday night, James "Lights Out" Toney will attempt to be only the second former middleweight champion in the last century and only the third since the adoption of the Marquess of Queensberry rules, to capture a piece of the World Heavyweight Championship.

If he is successful, an almost certain Hall of Fame career will instantly become a career of legend alongside all-time greats Bob Fitzsimmons and Roy Jones, Jr. - the other two men to accomplish the feat. It is something that Toney (68-4-2, 42 KOs) first envisioned as a kid before he first stepped through the ropes as a highly touted middleweight prospect back in October, 1988. And in only a few short days, he will have the opportunity to make that dream come true.

All that stands between Toney and achieving boxing immortality is John Ruiz, the reigning WBA heavyweight champ. However, Ruiz (45-5-1, 28 KOs) is one of the most difficult fighters to deal with in the heavyweight division.

Of his five career losses, only two were decisive – the 2003 one-sided beating handed out by Jones and a 19-second knockout loss to David Tua nine years ago. The other three losses – two split decisions to Danell Nicholson and Sergei Kobozev more than a decade ago and a controversial unanimous decision loss to Evander Holyfield five years ago – could have easily gone either way. And his last four victories came against some of the best fighters that the division had to offer at the time – Andrew Golota, Hasim Rahman, Fres Oquendo and Kirk Johnson.

There is no doubt, however, that Toney has the skills to walk out of Madison Square Garden as the new champion. Here is what he has to do to make that happen:

Deja Vu

Even though Toney is the WBA mandatory challenger, the champ talks openly about the fact that the former three-division champion is not worthy of a title shot. Such talk is unlike Ruiz, who is known for his willingness to fight anyone, anytime, anywhere. Remember, though, that his most recent loss, which was the second worst of his career, came at the hands of the last man former middleweight champion seeking a piece of the heavyweight title, Jones.

This fight, therefore, must be bring back the foul memories of the Jones loss – a smaller guy who is much faster, an expert counterpuncher and a -200 pre-fight favorite. Toney has to take advantage of that fact by trying to get into his head during fight week and again during the fight. As far as the pre-fight banter, Toney has that covered. He is one of the most disruptive talkers in the game, making every fight an extremely personal affair. Anyone who can turn a bout with Rydell Booker into a grudge match can certainly make things emotionally hot against Ruiz.

But simply angering the champion is not the goal. The aim is to strip Ruiz of his confidence once the bell sounds. To do that, Toney needs to continually remind Ruiz of the Jones loss so that it is fresh in the champ's mind at fight time. Then, once the fight begins, Toney must come out and get Ruiz's respect early, just like Jones did in the second round with a vicious right hand counter, so that he begins to doubt himself.

When Ruiz loses confidence, he stops punching. He becomes a stationary target that someone with Toney's skill and hand speed can pick apart like a sparring opponent. Toney doesn't like to be the aggressor early, so the key in stripping Ruiz's confidence early is really focusing on slipping the lead jab and firing back a counter before Ruiz lunges in for a clinch. If he can do that, Toney can set the tone for the entire night and send Ruiz into the same shell that Jones did three years ago, making John Ruiz experience deja vu in the ring.

Greco-Roman Boxing Relies on Referee

One of the big intangibles impacting the outcome of Ruiz-Toney is the choice of referees. Depending on who is selected, it could have as much impact on the fight as the number of rounds that Toney sparred in camp.

It is no secret that Ruiz shows complete and utter disregard for the rules when he fights. Holding is illegal and excessive holding is grounds for disqualification. When Lennox Lewis defended his WBC heavyweight crown against Henry Akinwande in 1997, referee Mills Lane disqualified Akinwande for doing exactly what Ruiz does in virtually every fight – holding his opponent excessively.

Ruiz is a very skilled fighter – very skilled. But he rarely shows those skills because he is so filled with self-doubt that he refuses to stand and fight his opponent within the boundaries of the rules.

Instead, he prefers to embark on an ugly waltz where he jabs, steps in behind the jab, grabs his opponent with both arms and then walks him to the ropes – sort of Greco-Roman boxing, if you will. It is a stomach-churning style that hurts the champ's marketability, but makes him amazingly difficult to defeat.

When Ruiz faced Jones, referee Jay Nady did not allow Ruiz to clinch and maul his opponent on the inside. He called for breaks early and often and wasted no time threatening Ruiz with point deductions. It completely derailed the champion and played a big part in Ruiz dropping his title that night.

Referee Randy Neumann, on the other hand, allowed Ruiz to grab, hold and wrestle at will in his fights against Rahman and Golota. Ruiz was able to win both matches, even though he faced physically superior athletes with greater skill levels.

If he is able to grab and wrestle with impunity against Toney, it could be a very long, frustrating night for the Detroit-area fighter. But if the referee forces Ruiz to actually fight cleanly, then we could see a repeat of Ruiz-Jones.

Tit for Tat

Again, there is no question that Ruiz will come out looking to engage Toney in a foul-filled waltz. The question, however, is whether the challenger can deal with it.

Toney is a throwback fighter in every sense of the word. He loves a good old-fashioned fight. Hit him low and he will return the favor. Hold excessively and he will start pounding on the cup and hit with the arm that is shielded from the referee’s vision. None of that intimidates or frustrates Toney.

But Ruiz is a different animal. His fouling is so excessive and blatant that it even flustered Holyfield, an all-time great known for his composure. The temptation will be to foul as brazenly as Ruiz. The then-undefeated Kirk Johnson fell into that trap in his July, 2002 fight with Ruiz. Consequently, he was disqualified for low blows.

If the referee allows Ruiz to fight as he has done throughout his career, Toney must not retaliate openly. He must retaliate in stealth mode to avoid point deductions or a disqualification.

Styles Make Fights

From a style perspective, Toney matches up well with Ruiz. In fact, champion's two biggest physical advantages – height and reach – are effectively nullified by Toney's style.

Tall, rangy guys aren't as effective throwing shots at close range. They need some distance to generate power. So, the way to overcome height and reach is to get to the inside and make morph the action into a fight in a phone booth and Toney is a master at doing just that.

Toney works his way to the inside by making his opponents miss with upper body movement and shoulder rolls. Once on the inside, he likes to stand right in the pocket and continue using slips and rolls to avoid incoming fire before blasting back with sharp, accurate counters.

Toney is also somewhat difficult to clinch. Whereas most fighters try to fight off a clinch by flailing their arms or pulling away, Toney simply rolls his upper body and punches. Because he traditionally fights at such a close proximity, he is used to throwing very compact blows, including excellent left hooks to the liver. So, he is very effective at unloading scoring blows from a clinch.

Suffice to say, Toney has an extremely effective style for facing taller fighters, particularly those that lack blazing hand speed and lateral movement. Ruiz likes to fight in a phone booth and that plays right into the challenger's style.


John Ruiz is one of the toughest match-ups in the heavyweight division. If the referee allows him to do his thing with impunity, then he becomes exceedingly difficult to deal with. However, Toney has the right style, mindset and physical gifts to unseat the incumbent. It won't be an easy task, despite the 2-1 betting odds in his favor, but it is a task that he can accomplish nonetheless.

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