Some would argue that James Toney’s first victory over Mike McCallum, which also happened to be his final defense of his middleweight title, is, all things considered, his greatest performance. Whether you agree or not, you’d likely have to rank it top five, right up there with his dazzling wins over Michael Nunn, Iran Barkley, Vassiliy Jirov and Evander Holyfield.
When Toney and McCallum clashed the previous December, it matched the headstrong but gifted champion, then just 23, against the masterful boxer-puncher McCallum, a veteran of 43 fights and a dozen years his opponent’s senior. Between them, they had a record of 70-1-1, with McCallum having dropped a close decision to Sumbu Kalambay three years prior and Toney having drawn with Sanderline Williams in 1990.
The stage was set for a time-honoured battle: the feared young puncher, recently crowned, versus the long-in-the-tooth bullfighter, who some believed knew more about “The Sweet Science” than Toney would ever learn. One thing was certain: Bob Arum had a great deal of confidence in his young charge to match him with McCallum, a supreme boxer many a marquee name had swerved. The Jamaican was also on a hot streak: he’d outpointed Herol Graham and Steve Collins, sensationally sparked-out Michael Watson, and recently gained sweet revenge over Kalambay. But Toney oozed confidence of his own, having dethroned Nunn in May, turned back the challenge of Reggie Johnson in June, and blasted outgunned Italian Francesco Dell’Aquila in October.
That first encounter produced memorable fireworks, with the cerebral McCallum boxing to orders early and containing Toney, only for the Ann Arbor man to roar back and stagger “The Body Snatcher” in the final round. The judges called it a draw, but whoever you favoured, you could not dispute it had been a fine exhibition of boxing: absorbing, highly technical and not without late drama. Hence the rematch nine months later.
In the intervening period McCallum had fought just once, claiming a decision over journeyman Fermin Chirino at super middleweight, but Toney’s paymasters – no doubt keen to keep him out of Burger King – put him in the ring three times between February and May. The first of those bouts had resulted in a famously disputed split decision over Dave Tiberi, during which a sluggish Toney looked quite unlike the laser-focused champion who’d confronted McCallum just months earlier.
Thus, for Toney vs McCallum II, both had to prove not only that they were the other’s superior, but that they remained legit attractions. But “Lights Out” betrayed no signs of nerves pre-contest, telling the press he would give his rival “… no respect. He’ll get so tired of getting his butt whipped, he’ll quit.” McCallum, meanwhile, epitomized the quiet but unshakable confidence of a fighter who felt he had deserved the win the first time around. Still, at 35, he had to know this could be his last roll of the dice.
The pair traded jabs early in the opener, with Toney, clad in gold, looking sharp and aggressive. The champion also unloaded a handful of snappy combinations targeted at the midsection, though McCallum landed a piston-like jab and double left hook with a minute remaining. The second followed a similar pattern to the first, the younger man exhibiting quicker hands and more dynamism, with McCallum preferring to busily poke away with his jab, but “The Body Snatcher” also dug a couple of eye-catching body shots under Toney’s elbows.
As a battle, the rematch caught fire in the third: Toney unleashing a looping overhand right, planting his feet and going for the knockout. The old sage didn’t ignore the gauntlet and discharged a few hard hooks in response, though he soon returned to operating behind his trusty jab. Toney seemed more switched-on than in their first meeting, slipping, rolling and catching ammo on the gloves, but McCallum still landed enough solid jabs to make an impression and keep him honest.
Fierce, competitive exchanges characterised the fight’s middle section, and every time you felt James had landed a game-changing blow, Mike responded with his own two-fisted salvo. A combination of the champ’s famously lazy style – exploding with heavy counters and clusters then sleepwalking for 30 or 40 seconds, throwing little while blocking, calculating and admiring his work – made for close rounds, particularly given McCallum’s age-defying activity level, consistency and eye-catching body shots.
Still, it had been a fast-paced match and that surely favoured the 24-year-old Toney as they came down the stretch. Something else favouring Toney was Joe Cortez’s wholly indefensible decision to dock a point from McCallum in the eighth, for hitting and holding. The injustice forced the Jamaican to work tirelessly to overturn the deficit, and his work rate paid dividends as he drove Toney onto the back-foot for the first time.
The ninth saw Toney execute a powerful lead left hook, followed quickly by another cleaner shot as McCallum backed into the ropes. Commentating for HBO, George Foreman called it the best punch of the fight but whether true or not, the iron-jawed Body Snatcher was going nowhere; a moment later he pummeled his man’s ribs with a four-punch flurry. It was, like many of the stanzas here, a round that could have swung either way.
The championship rounds typically illuminate a fighter’s greatness, though here we had we had not one, but two masterful operators: the older man coming to the end of his best days, the other – though we didn’t yet know it – hovering close to his natural peak. Toney started the tenth on his toes, fitfully pumping the jab and loading up his right. McCallum, dog-tired, mostly skirted the fringes of the ring, flicking out his own jab, though with less authority now. Still, as the round continued, the wily old fox took advantage of Toney’s resting phases to win some close-quarters exchanges.
McCallum’s 80-year-old trainer Eddie Futch knew it was tight, telling his charge after this round, “It’s very close, Mike. You’ve got to get the next round … You gotta have this one and the next one.”
The penultimate round, though hardly clearcut, arguably belonged to Toney, the champ landing a booming right midway through, a left hook/right uppercut combination with a minute left, and stalking the weary but defiant challenger throughout. In the final round both left it all in the ring, throwing combinations, loading up, pressing hard. Neither, it seemed, could dismantle the other, and for the second time in a year it would be left to the judges to separate two gallant warriors.
Surprisingly — indeed, somewhat ridiculously — two of them scored it widely in Toney’s favour, posting tallies of 117-110 and 118-110, these cards rendering a third, and much more sensible 114-114 tally, redundant. Scoring for HBO, Harold Lederman agreed with the verdict but had it much closer at 115-112. And just like that, Toney’s middleweight days were over.
Toney was full of praise for McCallum in the years afterwards. “Mike McCallum is the best guy I’ve fought,” he told Donald McRae, as documented in McRae’s brilliant book, Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing. “He was trickier than Roy Jones; he hit harder than Jones.”
And “Lights Out” reiterated the sentiment when speaking to The Ring in 2009. “McCallum was a master boxer who wasn’t afraid to stand his ground. Before him I was just runnin’ in on everyone, but he made me slow down and think for the first time.” Toney also credited McCallum as having the best defence, best jab and best boxing brain of all his opponents.
Despite the salty taste left by the decisions in both fights, McCallum returned the compliment when interviewed by The Ring himself, naming Toney as the best overall fighter he faced: “He was someone who could do it all, fight inside or outside, work offence and defence at the same time – just like me when I was younger.”
Toney and McCallum met again, five years later and some 20 pounds heavier, and just like The Godfather III the third instalment didn’t quite live up to its predecessors. As a postscript, McCallum was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003, the same year Toney won ‘Fighter of the Year’ – his second such honour – for his heroics against Jirov and Holyfield. And when he becomes eligible, “Lights Out” will no doubt follow his old foe to Canastota. — Ronnie McCluskey