New York, April 30—When Michael Buffer finally announced the scores and boomed, “And new…!” a fiftyish gentleman sitting next to me looked toward the heavens and exclaimed, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
In lifting the WBA strap from John Ruiz via unanimous decision—scores were 116-111 twice and 115-112—James Toney earned his forth championship in four weight classes, and officially became a major player in the heavyweight division. He also did the sport a big favor in ridding it of perhaps the most detested titleholder ever.
Most of the fans at the Garden, like the fellow sitting beside me, were serious about their boxing; FightBeat spotted no celebrities, just a lot of diehards. Who else would pay for a fight with such low expectations, and an uninspiring undercard? Loving boxing is often an exercise in masochism.
My neighbor to my right spoke for most of us, when he explained why he was happy. “First, no more ugly-ass John Ruiz and that crackpot manager/trainer of his Norman Stone.” (One’s masochism has its limits, of course.) “Second, I love James Toney—always have. Third, maybe, just maybe, we’ll get some good match-ups now.” Toney vs. WBC beltholder Vitali Klitschko was what he was referring to, but he wouldn’t mind seeing Toney vs. IBF titleholder Chris Byrd first—as long as an attempt is made to unify the belts and produce a real heavyweight champion.
In the opening round, Toney sized up Ruiz and calculated what adjustments he would make. The former middleweight champion connected with two separate counterpunches—a right uppercut and a straight right—demonstrating superior hand speed and timing. In the 2nd round, Toney measured and poked Ruiz with his jab and came over the top with a looping right hand. Ruiz took the punch on his left ear, as he reflexively crouches to his right when he sees that punch coming. (Toney filed that tendency in his Einstein boxing brain for later use.) Later in the round, the rugged Ruiz came back with a hard three-punch combo to Toney’s body. Toney, who practices psychological and physical warfare in equal parts, chose to take the punches; not only is he slippery, he’s durable.
Toney didn’t do much work in the 3rd frame, and once again let Ruiz get off some good body shots. But he backed Ruiz up when he wanted to and took the shots well…it was the 230 pounder’s way of saying, “I’m a big boy now, too.” The 4th round was a good round for Toney. He didn’t break any CompuBox records, to be sure, but he caught Ruiz flush with right hand counters on three separate occasions; following the last shot, he immediately raked Ruiz’s midsection with a short left hook—a precursor of things to come.
Ruiz could not avoid these blows, and for the remainder of the fight never made the proper adjustments for Toney’s quick, well-timed counters. After absorbing these blows, Ruiz looked to tie up. The crowd met this intelligent maneuver with contempt, booing vehemently. In fairness to Ruiz, he clutched much less than usual and tried to keep the action in center-ring. At the close of the 4th round, a frustrated Ruiz barreled towards a backpedaling Toney, and missed wildly on a left hook, a lunging jab, and a loaded right hand. Toney slipped that last punch by moving his head to the left while simultaneously sticking out his right hand, which Ruiz walked right into. There was no force on the shot but its seamless execution was yet another reminder of what a Hall of Famer can do to an ordinary fighter, regardless of the latter’s advantage in size or strength. (See Duran-Barkley if you need more convincing.) A warmed-up Toney was now so tapped into The Force, he could have fought wearing a blindfold à la Luke Skywalker. The Ann Arbor native stuck out his big green mouthpiece at Ruiz, in lieu of a pink tongue, and bobbed backwards to his corner.
In the 5th round, Ruiz jabbed Toney hard on the cheek, and he responded with a long arcing right with Michael Nunn’s name on it. It clipped Ruiz on the jaw and had him backing up. Toney ran at him and threw a leaping left hook, which appeared to land and shake up “The Quiet Man.” (When I reviewed a tape of the fight at home, I saw that the hook never touch Ruiz.) No much happened in the 6th frame. In the opening seconds of the 7th round, Toney knocked down Ruiz with a quick left-right. Referee Steve Smoger gave Ruiz an 8-count, and Ruiz argued that Toney had stepped on his foot. (Once again, the virtue of watching a fight on TV/tape made itself apparent. Toney did, indeed, step on his opponent’s foot. I don’t know if it was intentional but they don’t call Toney “old school” for nothing.) Even without the dubious knockdown, it was a big round for Toney. His counter right hands couldn’t miss, he connected on a variety of jabs, and he was picking up the pace—he was having fun.
In the following round, the two combatants were trading jabs when Ruiz’s leg twisted funny (not as a result of a punch) and he lurched into the ropes. When Ruiz got up, referee Smoger wiped off his gloves and said, “This one was a slip.” A relaxed Toney—he was taking the round off—landed another good right over the top and some jabs that found their mark. At the sound of the bell, and for a couple seconds after it, the fighters exchanged hard shots. Ruiz threw the last one, a rough rabbit punch he received a warning for. Even doing little, I found myself giving the round to Toney; his cocky swagger is that persuasive.
After the 9th round, in which a relaxed Toney did just enough to outbox Ruiz, getting off nice jabs and the occasional hard clean punch, cornerman Norman “Stoney” Stone told Ruiz he had done “Nice work.” (Disclaimer: caught this nugget on tape, too.) This was bad, inaccurate advice. What Ruiz should have been told was that he needed a knockdown by any means necessary…not get compliments on the boxing clinic he was putting on. But such is the Stone/Ruiz mental make up, that they would convince themselves they were winning the fight—they stormed out of the ring when they lost the clear-cut decision. (I’ve since read that ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael scored the bout 115-113 for Ruiz. The well-regarded scribe must have eaten some bad peas that night.)
Midway through the 10th round, Ruiz landed his best punch of the night. It was his oft-discussed yet underestimated sneaky right hand. Toney took it square on the chin but immediately countered with a short right to the body. Ruiz then threw a left hook, which Toney ducked under. That’s when the shot registered on Toney’s legs; for a couple seconds they did a funny dance. It struck me as unnatural to see Toney in this vulnerable state, however brief it was. (The HBO commentators didn’t seem to catch it.) Whether Toney had fully recovered from the shot or was just playing possum was hard to tell, but he soon waved Ruiz forward with his glove. Toney appears truly indignant when a fighter has the temerity to catch him with a meaningful shot. With a minute left in the round now, Ruiz was too spent to follow up with anything that could hurt the scowling man in front of him; he could only throw one anemic punch at a time.
A reinvigorated Toney, though, had plenty more to dish out. He jabbed Ruiz to the face and banged a thudding right hook to the body you could hear in the nosebleed section. Ruiz’s side was red and splotchy, and the toll of the last 30 minutes in the ring with “Lights Out” told from his hairline down. This is when Toney’s handiwork usually begins to show, and why the ever-calm ring technician is the most dangerous late-round heavyweight in the world. Imagine if he had come in at a trim 220? A late TKO stoppage would’ve been a forgone conclusion.
During the last 40 seconds of the round while the fighters hugged on the ropes, Ruiz dug deep and landed his best body shot of the night. Between this punch and the sneaky right hand he connected with earlier, the round was arguably his. However, Toney then backed Ruiz up with a vintage, crisp left hook to Ruiz’s midsection, followed by a head-snapping right hook that sprayed sweat into the ring-lit atmosphere. Another left hook and a right over the top landed by Toney, and now the round could go either way.
It must be said that a distracting occurrence had been taking place over the last couple of rounds, but had reached disastrous proportions in the 10th round. Toney, who wears his cup and shorts lower than any other boxer in recorded history, was beginning to sport some ass cleavage, plumber’s butt, call it what you will. His trunks were riding dangerously low, and neither the ref nor Toney’s corner seemed to notice. (When someone has a paunch, as Toney does, he has two options: he can either wear his shorts/pants/bath towel high above his beltline, thus obscuring his girth, or well below it, allowing the unbridled belly to overflow. Toney practices the latter.) Thankfully, the ref pulled Toney’s trunks up as the 11th round commenced.
Toney picked up where he left off. More of those clean, sweeping right hands that found Ruiz’s mug like heat-seeking missiles, and accurate jabs. Ruiz looked weary to the point of collapse. Before the 12th began, trainer Freddie Roach told his charge, “This is the championship of the world, son. Let’s go!” (Yeah, I caught this moment on TV, too, and I got a frog in my throat. Maybe it was the impassioned way Roach said “son” to a man who is not even ten years his junior.) Across the ring, Stoney was slapping an exhausted Ruiz, doing his best Burgess Meredith impression (maybe he knew they weren’t up, after all?). Before the bell sounded, Toney stared coldly at Ruiz. His expression said many things: I got more than you; I’ve forgotten more boxing than you’ll ever know; and I’m leaving with that belt around my 42’’ waist.
The last round was sloppy and ugly with no significant punches landed. Surprisingly, it was Ruiz who held his hands in the air at the conclusion of the bout, and as the scores were being read. “Is he kidding,” my new friend sitting next to me said. Toney, on the other hand, walked back to his corner with an inscrutable look fixed on his face—not even a hint of a smile. His corner was just as hard to read as they cut off his gloves and gave him water. When the scores were read, Toney knelt down in prayer, like he was asking God for a gift. When the decision was read, Toney collapsed to the canvas. The cameras revealed a naked, joyous emotion in the new titlist that we haven’t seen in him since he stopped Michael Nunn for the middleweight title nearly 14 years ago.
Note: FightBeat scored the bout 118-112 in favor of Toney. Rounds 2, 6 and 12 were scored even; Ruiz won the 3 and 10; rounds 1, 4-5, 7-9 (the 7th was a 10-8 round, in spite of the bad call) and 11 went to Toney.