James Toney, Artist

I’d followed boxing casually for a few years before I saw James Toney-Vassiliy Jirov, and that titanic cruiserweight fight, more than any, converted me into a hardcore fan of the sport. “It’s amazing that humans can do this,” HBO’s Jim Lampley marveled during the battle. Not only was it a dramatic contest won on a last-second knockdown, not only did the two men dish out and receive amounts of physical punishment that ordinary mortals never could, but mixed into the whole spectacle was the majesty of Toney practicing his unique brand of pugilism. By this point a rotund and relatively immobile fat man, the aging Toney no longer had a choice but to stand right in front of his insanely busy opponent and do what he does best: Slip, block, duck, bob, weave and counter with perfect, swift, accurate shots, all with uncanny timing, reflexes and intelligence. He was truly a master of his craft.

So imagine my delight when, while cruising YouTube for something or the other, I happened across what is considered Toney’s finest performance, a technical knockout of Iran Barkey back when he was a mere 24-year-old super middleweight. I had never seen it before. I’m glad I have now. It’s one of the most artistic performances I’ve ever seen in a boxing ring. I mean that label — “artistic performance” — very literally. There’s a reason boxing is sometimes called “the brutal ballet.” The grace and excellence of technique Toney demonstrated in coolly, professionally picking apart Barkley compares to that of a dancer. And Toney was performing, that’s for sure. In one sequence, he jabs Barkley seven times in a row, all while moving to his left, just to show what he can do. If the aged version of Toney in 2003 was a sight to behold — and certainly, it was part of his appeal as well as his eventual downfall that he did what he did with a giant Buddha belly — then Toney against Barkley is a portrait of the artist as a young man. He was even better then. The first part of the video is above. You can see the rest when you click below on “read more.”

That’s why it’s all the sadder to see Toney heading down the road of another convention of art: the tragedy. Toney hasn’t been all that good since his first fight with Samuel Peter. Twice as a heavyweight, he has been busted for steroid use. He’s still a funny, brash character, but he delivers his one-liners in an almost incomprehensible slur, and no one believes he can do what he threatens anymore. His 82nd fight, in December, demonstrated a severe decline in all the skills that made him special as a young man and allowed him, as an old man, to overcome his girth. In that fight, Toney got a gift decision against Fres Oquendo, of all people. In his 20-year-career, Toney hasn’t suddenly flamed out, the way some fighters do. His tragedy is more subtle: After several lapses and career revivals, he has run out of all nine of his extraordinary boxing lives.

I’m telling you, man. There’s no sport like boxing, for good or ill.

Another unique young weight-hopping performer, Paul Williams — not as sweet a scientist as Toney, to be sure, but like Toney, unlike any who came before him stylistically — will fight this weekend against an aging veteran, middleweight Winky Wright, somewhat parallel to what Toney did when he agreed to fight Barkley. It remains to be seen whether Williams can do what Toney did and answer in the affirmative questions about his consistency and whether he might beat a world-class fighter at a higher weight.

But no matter how increasingly tragic Toney’s career has become, no matter if Williams follows in Toney’s footsteps, you can’t take his Barkley masterpiece away from him. Or, now, from me.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.