Rahman vs. Toney: Does It Matter Who Wins?

By Karl E. H. Seigfried
March 15, 2006

On Saturday, March 18, James “Lights Out” Toney will challenge Hasim “The Rock” Rahman for the WBC World Heavyweight Championship in a fight that will have a completely insignificant impact on the heavyweight division. It has been a truism for quite a while now that the former glamour division is a weight class in search of a hero, and this fight between a wildly inconsistent 33-year-old and a 37-year-old former middleweight doesn’t solve any of the division’s problems.

Last August, Rahman came to Chicago to fight Monte Barrett for the so-called WBC Interim Heavyweight Championship. Promoter Don King had petitioned the sanctioning body to create the pseudo-title after Rahman’s real title shot at then-champ Vitali Klitschko was postponed a third time due to the Ukrainian’s various injuries. This stroke of business genius helped out all involved: the WBC received a sanctioning fee for a fictional title fight, Rahman changed from a mandatory challenger (with a 25% cut of the scheduled Klitschko bout) to an interim champion (with a 35% claim on the take), and the fight in Chicago could be promoted as a World Heavyweight Title Fight instead of a Keep Busy Tune-Up. In total defiance of logic, the match was also talked up as being a final eliminator for the honor of challenging Klitschko. Since Rahman had been scheduled to fight Klitschko for months, the only effect this fight could possibly have on the heavyweight scene would be if Barrett won and took Rahman’s place.

Rahman won the Interim Championship after twelve rounds of walking around the ring as the audience booed loudly and continuously. Neither Rahman nor Barrett, old friends who have been known to bring their families together for holidays, could find it within himself to put the hurt on his kids’ “uncle”. The fight was not the glorious showcase for Rahman that had obviously been planned to raise interest in the often-rescheduled challenge to Klitschko, but it all became quickly moot, anyway. In November, after a knee injury following a back injury following a thigh injury, Vitali Klitschko announced his retirement from boxing and vacated his WBC title and his position as the Ring Magazine World Heavyweight Champion. The very next day, the WBC powers gave the championship to Rahman. This whole process strangely echoes the Ken Norton story. In 1977, Norton won a split decision over Jimmy Young in a WBC Heavyweight Title Eliminator and became the number one contender and mandatory challenger to champion Leon Spinks. The champ, however, chose to fight (and beat) Muhammad Ali; before he could do so, the WBC stripped his belt and handed it to Norton. In Norton’s very next fight, Larry Holmes took the belt away with a split decision of his own, leaving Norton the only man in history to hold a heavyweight title without ever winning a title fight.

James Toney started his professional career in 1988 at 160; in his last fight, versus Dominic Guinn in October, he weighed 235. When not busy eating all the food that fueled that long-term and massive gain in weight, he has found time to win IBF titles at middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight. He has only had four fights in the heavyweight division, but, in that time, managed to hold the WBA Heavyweight Title for eleven days, until the organization returned it to John Ruiz when Toney tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. Toney has recently pointed out that the fight with Rahman is a unification match of sorts, since he currently holds the IBA title which he won in a vacancy-filling match with Rydell Booker in 2004. Unfortunately for “Lights Out,” no one in the boxing press or boxing public seems to care about this particular alphabet strap, and many sources don’t even list it in Toney’s record. At least, thankfully, we don’t have to worry about another Rahman/Barrett-style love fest; Rahman insured mutual enmity by slapping and scratching Toney in a tussle at the WBC awards ceremony in Mexico last December. Toney hasn’t said anything particularly nasty at subsequent press events, but trainer Freddy Roach has insisted that Toney has been simmering and saving up his anger to unleash upon Rahman come fight-time.

Let’s say Rahman wins the fight. He gets to notch the first defense of the WBC title into his belt. He’s already ranked second by The Ring, and a win over Toney (currently ranked right behind him at number three) wouldn’t be enough to move him up into Chris Byrd’s number one spot. He could, however, move up from number three to take Toney’s two-spot in the British magazine Boxing Monthly—not exactly the most earth-shattering shake-up of a division’s contenders. There is very little talk right now of a unification match with one of the other heavyweight titleholders, and it makes little sense that a bout with Toney would make the situation much different. It would take a truly spectacular and convincing win by Rahman to whet the boxing world’s appetite for an immediate unification match, and even that might not be enough. Look at the case of Lamon Brewster. Last May, he completely blew out perennial challenger Andrew Golota in a fifty-three-second defense of his WBO title, and the only fight he’s had since then was against fringe contender Luan Krasniqi in Germany. It’s hard to imagine Rahman suddenly becoming either a big PPV draw or someone who the fans start clamoring be given a shot at the other titles.

Let’s say, conversely, that Toney wins the fight. He annexes the WBC belt and is one-fourth owner of a title split among the various sanctioning bodies but is no closer to being an undisputed champion than Byrd, Brewster, or Nicolay Valuev. Toney could move up one spot in the Ring rankings, but he’d still be number two to Byrd. He would find himself in exactly the same situation as a victorious Rahman. Even if he could somehow negotiate a match with one of the other titleholders, there are three of them out there. They all have their own list of sanctioned mandatories to contend with, and the likelihood of a truly unified Heavyweight Champion of the whole wide world arriving on the scene seems a long way off. At age 37, does Toney have enough gas left in his tank to wait around that long?

This could be a great fight. It might even be fun to watch. An analysis of fight styles, strengths, and weaknesses could make up an entire other discussion. In the end, however, the actual fight result won’t make any difference to a division begging for something, anything, to happen. HBO is marketing the match with the tagline, “The Big Boys Are Back.” That’s just wishful thinking. This is the same old business that’s been going on for years.

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