Them Bones: The Night James Toney Won His First World Title

James Toney vs Michael Nunn
May 10, 1991, James Toney defeated Michael Nunn via TKO in Davenport Iowa to capture the IBF Middleweight Title.

This piece begins a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. New U.S. edition coming from Hamilcar Publications November 2018.

Nobody expected James Toney, a 20-1 underdog with a low profile but a perpetual scowl, to win. Certainly not Michael Nunn, the glib IBF middleweight champion with a 36-0 record and five successful title defenses under his belt. A flashy stylist in the ring, Nunn was also a master trash-talker. With a street-regal air, Nunn belittled Toney every chance he got. When told that Toney was quoted as saying he preferred violence over sex, Nunn stepped in with a low blow. “If you’ve ever seen James Toney,” Nunn said, “you can see why he feels that way. The man is ugly. Who is going to go out with an ugly man like that?” In 1991, however, his grandiosity seemed out of place. Once thought to be the heir apparent to Sugar Ray Leonard, whose on-again, off-again Seniors Tour appearances had finally come to a violent end a few months earlier at the hands of Terry Norris, Nunn had seen his star flicker, then dim, like a fluorescent tube on the fritz, since he won the IBF middleweight title in 1987.

Despite the undefeated record, despite his standing on P-4-P fantasy lists, despite the championship, Nunn was increasingly being viewed as a disappointment. His recent impressive KO run (which included stoppages of Frank Tate, Juan Roldan, and Sumbu Kalambay) was over and, so it seemed, was his peak. He was booed lustily during a listless majority decision over Iran Barkley in August 1989, a fight that left even his promoter, Bob Arum, dispirited. “Technically, I guess he won,” groused Arum, “but who gives a damn? He’s boring.”

(At ringside for Nunn-Barkley sat Roberto Duran, whose opinion of “Second To” was delivered with typical disdain. “He shows me nothing,” Duran sneered. “when he gets hit with a hard punch, he just wants to run.” Against Toney, however, Nunn, oozing arrogance, would unwisely choose to shoot it out.)

Eight months later, Nunn followed his close call against Barkley by going twelve excruciating rounds with welterweight titlist Marlon Starling, again lulling his way to a majority decision. His last title defense, against the remnants of ex-welterweight kingpin Donald Curry, took place far away from the American sporting mainstream, in Paris, France. Across the Atlantic, at least, Nunn was safe from catcalls and heckling. And now he was headlining the inaugural pay-per-view produced under the nascent TVKO banner against an unknown whom oddsmakers had installed as a proverbial overlay.

Between profane insults, Nunn also needled Toney based on, of all things, geography. “The boxers from Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and places like that always think they are tougher than they are,” Nunn told The Quad-City Times a few days before his dreams would be shattered by an upstart he could never bring himself to respect. “Toney is a typical Detroit fighter. A lot of talk but on Friday night he has to get in the ring with me.” As far as big cities went, Nunn was only half-right. Although Toney lived in Ann Arbor, he also spent blue hours roaming Detroit, where, in the mid-eighties and early nineties, life was weighed on the scales of a triple-beam. In 1989 the erstwhile Motor City, probably as famous then for the apocalyptic infernos of Devil’s Night as it was for the Ford Taurus, ranked second in the nation per capita in homicides. One of those casualties happened to be Johnny “Ace” Smith, a drug dealer who managed Toney early in his career, gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

Until Toney signed for his title shot against Nunn, he was best known for scoring a narrow decision over rugged Merqui Sosa on ESPN. Unlike Nunn, who fought on national television at the tail end of the eighties boom (Nunn first appeared on NBC in 1986, when he gavotted his way to a decision over Carl Jones), Toney was relegated to the Michigan circuit during the waning days of the Detroit boxing renaissance. Toney was not an Olympic Trials finalist; he did not have 176 amateur bouts; nor was he fit to debut at the Showboat Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Instead, his early days as a struggling prizefighter are a pop/pulp time capsule into whistle-stop boxing in the late eighties and early nineties. Galaxy Promotions, Kronk red and gold versus sporting goods duds donned by professional floppers, PASS Network, Tuesday Night Fights, Styrofoam cups overflowing with Budweiser, Zubaz, The Detroit Boat Club, mullets, round card girls in bowties and tuxedo tops, acid-wash jeans, bloodstained terrycloth. Once in a while, under the management of the ill-starred Smith, Toney found himself scuffling in the prizefighting netherworld of Memphis, Tennessee. But when Toney hooked up with former publicist and writer Jackie Kallen, he began a breakneck schedule that led to a championship within two and a half years of turning pro.

Nunn and Toney met on May 10, 1991, at John O’Donnell Stadium, a minor league ballpark (home to the Quad City Angels), right on the banks of the Mississippi River. Before the fight, Nunn further agitated Toney with his weigh-in theatrics. In the future, Toney would become known for his unbridled fury; here, in Davenport, Iowa, was an early glimpse at his simmering rage. After shoving Nunn at the weigh-in, which nearly sparked a free-for-all, Toney erupted. “I’m gonna break your fucking bones!” he shouted. A few minutes after scaling 157 pounds, Toney was hammering against the walls of a stadium hallway, hurling chairs, and bellowing, at the top of his lungs, “I’m going to kill this fucking man!”

In part, his rage could be attributed to street protocols but mostly it was due to his absent father, an abusive ex-clubfighter who abandoned his family when Toney was an infant. “I fight with anger,” Toney told Sports Illustrated in 1992. “My dad, he did my mom wrong. He left us, he beat my mother up all the time. He shot my mom, left her with a mark on her leg. He made my mom work two jobs, and he just left his responsibilities behind. I can never forgive that. Why should I?… I look at my opponent and see my dad, so I have to take him out. I have to kill him.”

Against the backdrop of Rock Island Centennial Bridge—illuminated by sodium lamps lining the arches—the two middleweights traded punches in a fight notable for its bruising pace, something Nunn had avoided for most of his career. But Nunn showed Toney no respect during the buildup and his antipathy carried over into the ring. Indeed, Nunn seemed to underscore his contempt for Toney by fighting aggressively—contrary to his temperament. Against a ramshackle Curry (whose loss to French journeyman Rene Jacquot in 1989 virtually epitomized the concept of a shot fighter), Nunn could pump his rapid-fire combinations without fear. But against Iran Barkley and Marlon Starling, underdogs, yes, but still relatively intact despite their status as veterans, Nunn alternated between juking, jiving, and joking from bell to bell. Toney, on the other hand, received the Curry treatment. “He is getting carried away with his comments,” Nunn said in a media conference call. “I’m going to enjoy punishing this guy. Everybody thinks that since I’m from the country, I can’t fight. I’ve been fighting crocodiles and alligators all my life.”

Faster and rangier than Toney, Nunn opened up an early lead by shooting his southpaw jab and running off pesky combinations. For his part, Toney banged to the body when he could, but he had difficulty closing the distance, and many of his arcing shots whistled past Nunn, some of them by mere fractions of an inch. Little by little, however, Toney began to connect more often. In the fourth round he cut off the ring and forced Nunn to exchange, and halfway through the fifth, he landed a combination that seemed to surprise Nunn, who retreated to the ropes

If Nunn had underestimated Toney, if he had considered “Lights Out” nothing more than a brash novice prior to the opening bell, surely he must have realized his misjudgment by the fifth or sixth round. Although Toney had yet to develop the relaxed style that would vex so many future opponents, he still had a variety of techniques at his disposal. Toney feinted, rode with punches, caught-and-countered, threw decoy shots, used the shoulder roll, dipped to his left to camouflage overhand rights, sidestepped blows, and stood slantwise to make himself a small target. Above all, Toney revealed an uncanny ability to be dangerous from any position at almost any time. Uppercuts in close, straight rights from the perimeter, bodywork during clinches, left hook counters while seemingly in a defensive posture, and quick right hands when an opponent missed a lead.

Even in 1991, this unusual skillset was anachronistic, arcana passed down from the 1940s by Detroit sage Bill Miller, who shared some of his secrets in an interview with The Philadelphia Daily News: “If I turn my body sideways just a little bit, you haven’t got a target anymore, have you? Tuck your chin behind your shoulder, nobody can hit you on the chin, can they? Twist a little bit and bing! If you can teach your fighter to make his man miss, and then to make him pay for missing, he can hardly lose.”

(Another edge Toney had was as elemental as it gets in boxing: hunger. To face Nunn, who long ago had hit Daddy Warbucks status, Toney agreed to a $50,000 purse [plus $15,000 for expenses] and the promise of a three-fight contract with Top Rank if he could pull off the biggest upset since Buster Douglas upended Mike Tyson sixteen months earlier.)

Whether it was because of ego or machismo, Nunn continued patronizing Toney long after it was clear that he was in danger. At the end of the seventh round, Nunn opened up while Toney was trapped against the ropes. During his flurry, which included a few stiff lefts, Nunn could not resist yapping at Toney. His motormouth act was short-lived, however. In the eighth, Toney landed a jarring uppercut and a counter right that shook Nunn. Instead of disengaging, or heeding the exhortations of his trainer Angelo Dundee, who repeatedly requested speed and movement, Nunn opted to fire back. It was a strategy that built points and propelled Nunn to an insurmountable lead on the scorecards, but it also left him vulnerable. While Nunn continued to connect with slapping combinations, Toney was landing individual blows that carried more thump. Nunn was wobbled by a right hand to close the tenth, but Toney, who had boiled down to 157 pounds for his shot at glory, looked exhausted. “My corner said to keep it cool,” he would say after the fight, “keep the pressure on and that I would get to him sooner or later.” But Toney was running out of time; he was also mathematically eliminated from winning a decision. Only a KO would bring him what he wanted, no, needed, more than anything: a chance to cast off the shadows of his past.

When the bell rang to start the eleventh round, Nunn was ahead on the cards by the scores of 99-91, 98-92, and 97-93. He opened the round on his toes, circling, as if to protect his lead. In pursuit, Toney lunged and shot haymakers that were mostly off their mark. Still, Toney was pushing a wobbly Nunn back, pressing the fight, and looking for the finisher. Nearly two minutes into the round, he found it. At center ring, Toney dipped to draw a lead. He ducked under a straight left like a teen bobbing for apples and fired a roundhouse right that missed Nunn by centimeters. In the follow-through, Toney subtly shifted his back foot forward, leaving him in a southpaw stance. When Nunn dropped his hands to throw an uppercut, Toney struck: a rocketing overhand left caught Nunn on the jaw and sent him freefalling to the mat. Nunn, flat on his back, struggled to raise his head from the canvas. Somehow, Nunn managed to beat the count, but he arose on rubbery legs and Toney pounced on his wounded prey. With less than a minute to go in the round, Toney chugged forward and landed an uppercut that sent Nunn reeling and left him draped over the ropes, where Toney bludgeoned him behind the head with a right. Neurons haywire, limbs akimbo, Nunn lurched into a neutral corner, where he took the final crushing blows of his middleweight title reign. Two whistling right hands left Nunn on his knees, wide-eyed and helpless. At last Referee Dennis Nelson stopped the fight.

A drained Toney collapsed into the arms of his cornerman, too weak to celebrate, for the moment. But for an instant, maybe, Toney was done with the bleak past: done with the lost football scholarship to Western Michigan; done running the sunless Ann Arbor streets; done toiling in prelims in Memphis, Tennessee; done with all the empty afternoons spent as a fatherless son. Done, done, done.

James Toney vs. Michael Nunn ROUND 11