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Articles of 2005

James Toney Was Something Special

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If it were not so sad, it would almost be funny. There’s big John Ruiz, the Rodney Dangerfield of heavyweight champions, wondering why he has to lower himself to defend his WBA championship against James Toney. “Other than talk so much, tell me what the guy has done?” he asks, which is pretty cheeky for a glorified club fighter who would have been fighting 8-rounders at Sunnyside Gardens back in the 40s and 50s. The closest Ruiz would have got to Madison Square Garden then would have been in a cheap seat beside the organ in the balcony. No matter; this is about Toney, whom I met after some dummy invited him to Michael Nunn’s local unveiling in Davenport, Iowa 14 years ago. After our first half hour together, I knew he worshipped his mother, hated his long-absent father, and thought a Whopper, fries and a large Pepsi was a gourmet meal. He snarled a lot, but he also laughed a lot. Seven months later, after watching him destroy Nunn and more than hold his own against the veteran Mike McCallum, it did not take a genius to know he was something special.

Davenport, Iowa, May 1991—Michael Nunn should have never invited James Nathaniel Toney, an ex-street thug, to his homecoming dance last Friday night. You know them tough kids: always snarling, talking about beating up people, looking mean. It was supposed to have been a happy event, a welcome home hero sort of thing. Then Tough Toney went and hit Nunn in the mouth at the riverside ballpark and spoiled everything. Mugged him right out of his IBF middleweight championship.

Other than Toney, it was a hell of a guest list. About 10,000 folks jammed into the tiny baseball stadium on the northern bank of the Mississippi River. Millions more watched on TVKO. Shucks, the last time the undefeated Nunn fought, he had been with them French people in Paris. Now he was back in Mark Twain country, where Twain wrote of the sunsets: “I have never seen any on either side of the ocean that equaled them.” Twain never wrote about the sunrises. Never got up early enough.

Buffalo Bill came from here. So did Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz great that played the cornet at Davenport High. Another legendary local was Biddie McGee; she ran a whorehouse in the Bucktown at the turn of the century.

Cary Grant died here, in a third floor suite at the Blackhawk Hotel on East 3rd St. But like Toney, he was an outsider. So were the hundreds of Confederate soldiers who lie buried on Arsenal Island in the middle of the river's brief curve westward. They never made it out of a hellish prisoner of war camp. Sara Bernhardt stopped by once to give a performance of Fedora at the Burtis Opera House. Old Sara, she did the play in French and then cut the final scene so she could catch the last train out of town.

Somebody in Davenport should have cut Toney's last act. Kid is hard; he carried a gun while selling crack at Huron High in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was also the star quarterback. “That was a long time ago,” said Toney, who just turned 22. “I didn't need the money. It was peer pressure. I just went along with the crowd.”

Boxing and his mother, Sherry, turned him around. A single mother, 39, Sherry earned a degree in education at the University of Michigan, then a masters in communication and theater from Eastern Michigan University. Now she owns a successful wholesale bakery. “I've only got one idol: Mom,” says Toney. “She taught me that if you want something, you have to work hard.”

Working hard, Toney turned pro in 1988, He had a brief setback after winning his first eight fights: his manager, a drug dealer, was gunned down in front of a Detroit bar. A pretty 45 year old Jewish publicist/entertainment writer with a passion for boxing, Jackie Kallen, filled the void. After 10 years as Tommy Hearns publicist, Kallen had just started her own organization, Galaxy Boxing.

Under Kallen and trainer Bill Miller, Toney terrorized the middleweight division. The young fighter has a pit bull philosophy: “Nothing fancy. I looked at the other guy and I have to kill him.”

He fought every month, sometimes twice. By March of this year, he had won 25 fights, 18 by knockout. His official nickname is “Lights Out.” The only blemish was a draw with Sanderline Williams, whom he later beat. Then promoter Bob Arum called and offered a fight with Nunn. Arum offered $50,000 plus $15,000 for expenses. Should Toney win, Arum offered $1 million contract for his next three fights. Until then, Toney's biggest purse had been $12,000. Kallen worried that they might be moving too quickly.

“Take the fight,” said Tough Toney. “I will beat the son of a bitch.”

“Don't swear,” said his mother.

Toney arrived in Davenport full of fury. For 16 weeks he had ignored his favorite foods, eating salubriously while abstaining from pizza, fast-food hamburgers, and French fries. “All that good health food,” he said with a rare grin. He had trained in Detroit, well, sort of. To keep him away from Burger King, Kallen rented him a house just outside of city, in Redford. “The place is full of rednecks and bikers,” Kallen said, laughing. “I figured he'd be too afraid to go out.”

“I wasn't afraid,” Toney growled. Then he laughed. “The second day I was there, as I was coming home from the gym, the guy living next door saw me. He yelled: ‘Hey, boy, come on over, I'm going to burn a cross.' I couldn't believe it.”

Toney entered the ring from the third base side wearing your basic movie villain black; his guns were holstered in red leather. To honor Kallen, he wears a Star of David on his trunks. Nunn came in from the home team dugout, tall, handsome, smiling, and wearing Gene Autry white. Only their eyes were the same: ice cubes. Nunn only masquerades as an angel; he grew up as a gang enforcer on the hard streets a few blocks from the Class A Midwest League stadium.

Although there were 24 knockouts in his first 36 fights, Nunn is a pure boxer, with Fred Astaire legs and high-speed hands, a poet in a world of violence. Toney expected him to run. “He's going to find out its no damn disco,” growled the IBF's number five challenger. “I'll pressure him until he has to fight.”

Nunn moved, but not as much as expected. Mostly he fronted Toney, fending off his attacks with a hard jab, jarring him with combinations. For five rounds the champion fought brilliantly.

After the fifth round, Toney told Miller: “He's tiring. I can hear him breathing like a freight train. I'm going to step up the pressure.”

Going into the eighth round, Nunn was ahead on one judge's card by three points, by five on another, and by seven on the third. “You're losing it, son. You're losing it,” Miller told Toney in the corner. “You've got to press him even more.””Don't worry about it,” Toney said. “He's not going the distance.”

Coming out for the eighth, Nunn appeared tired. He began to tarry too long in front of Toney, who found him repeatedly with jolting right hands. “Jab and move,” trainer Angelo Dundee screamed from the corner. “Get out of there, move.” Nunn yelled back: “He's not hurting me.”

Toney opened the 11th round with five hard punches, all misses. The last wild swing carried him face first across the ropes. Undaunted, he turned and whacked Nunn with a right to the head. Shaken, Nunn moved away. Then a moment later, stupidly, the champion dropped his hands. He never saw the left hook that snapped his head violently sideway and dropped him on his back.

A collective moan swept through the stadium; the last train was leaving town and Toney wasn't on it.

Rising unsteadily at nine, Nunn assured referee Denny Nelson: “I'm alright.” He said it twice; he was wrong both times. Only pure courage kept him on his feet. Like a Doberman chasing raw meat, Toney charged. A right uppercut turned Nunn around, a looping right to the back of the neck draped him across the ropes. As Nunn turned back toward the ring, two right hands to the head drilled him to his knees. Nelson stopped the fight as a white towel flew into the ring from Nunn's corner.

Rain fell on the homecoming parade. The wheels dropped off the floats. The high school band made a wrong turn and disappeared up a side street. In the distance, a train whistle wailed its anguish. Uncaring, the Mississippi River ran south. Nunn sighed. “I got lazy,” he said.

                                                             * * *                                                         

Atlantic City, December 1991—The young face was empty of expression, an assassin's mask carved in cold Parian marble. Only the eyes, dark chips ablaze with fire, showed the untamed fury still burning fiercely within James Toney, the IBF middleweight champion. “You blind bastard,” he snarled down at Milton Chwasky, bespectacled attorney of Mike McCallum, the recently defrocked WBA champion who had just weathered 12 ferocious rounds to escape with a draw last Friday night in Atlantic City.

At the post fight press conference, Chwasky had made the mistake of offering that while it had been a great fight, he thought his fighter had won. Lawyers are supposed to say that. Growling, Toney leaped up and started for the startled 51 year old boxing attorney. Two of his people and a Trump Plaza security guard struggled hard to hold him back. “Let me go. I want to hit him,” Toney yelled.

After Jackie Kallum, Toney's manager, had negotiated a precarious peace, someone suggested that a Toney McCallum rematch was in order. “Let's do it right now,” Toney fired at McCallum, seated nearby. McCallum smiled uneasily. From the audience, Julian Jackson, the WBC middleweight champion, suggested that Toney might consider fighting him.

Would a starved Doberman attack raw meat?  “I won't make you wait,” snapped Toney, rising. “Get up here. We'll fight now.”

“I'd rather fight McCallum first,” parried Jackson, whom McCallum had knocked out in two rounds in a 1986 WBA junior middleweight title fight. Toney's lips curled in derision.

And so, 24 year old James Toney continued his proxy search for James Toney Sr., the father who beat and shot his wife, Sherry, and then deserted her when their son was less than a year old. “Someday I will find him, and I know he lives in Cleveland,” vows the champion, “and this time he won't get away.” In the meantime, professional stand-ins such as McCallum must fill the void so Toney can legally expend his smoldering rage.

Fortunately for McCallum, he has one of the five great chins in the world; the other four are on Mt. Rushmore. For 36 minutes the undefeated Toney, with 20 knockouts in 29 fights, crashed right hand rockets against that unyielding jaw, and his 35 year old challenger never wavered. “I want his blood,” Toney had said before the fight. “I want to kill him.”

What the relentless youngster got was a lesson in courage and finesse from a cagey 35 year old veteran who had held a WBA championship from 1984 until he recently relieved of his middleweight title by the Panamanian set of boxing's alphabet mobsters. The WBA had demanded that McCallum defend his title against Steve Collins, the mandatory challenger he had defeated in 1990.

“After his last title fight, Mike fought two non title fights for $10,000 each and we had to give the WBA people half of that,” said Chwasky. “Then they wanted $30,000 from this purse plus a $35,000 exception fee for letting him fight Toney. We were going to go along with that. Then  they came back and demanded we give one of their partners, Barney Eastwood, Collins' manager, another $50,000 for stepping aside. That's when we said no.”

For fighting Toney, McCallum's purse was $500,000, $50,000 more than the IBF champion's. Out of McCallum's purse, the “non profit” WBA's booty would have been $115,000. Instead, Chwasky took his case to Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner sports, who backed his fight with the WBA. Abraham said TVKO would still pay McCallum his full purse even if the WBA stripped him.

 “I really believe these organizations are on their way out,” said Abraham following the fight. “This was a Gillette Friday Night fight of the 40s, a great fight, and none of those organizations was around then. Our pay per view buy rate tonight wasn't lowered one bit by the absence of the WBA's blessing.”

Promoter Bob Arum turned the screw deeper. For this fight, Arum unveiled the Marvelous Marvin Hagler middleweight championship trophy, a $1,000 sterling silver cup which he hopes will eventually give the world only one 160 pound champion. Hagler, now a movie star in Italy who did color for the TVKO broadcast, was a great middleweight champion in the 1980s.

“I want to see a cup like this for every division,” said Arum. “Let's get back to sanity; one champion for every division, the way it should be. You know who won this fight tonight, the extortionists in Panama who took Mike's title. Now he has no championship. So the banditos are celebrating.”

No matter. McCallum, out of Brooklyn by way of Jamaica, gained more recognition from his heroic draw than ever he did from all his 42 victories in 43 fights. One of boxing's best kept secrets, in recent years, the quiet puncher was forced to carry his world class talents overseas, to places like Pesaro, Italy and Nogent Sur Marn, France.

In the United States, only the odds makers knew him, and they made him a 5 2 favorite over the gentle lady baker's fiery son from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “What do those idiots know,” snapped Toney, who limited himself to eating a club sandwich on Thanksgiving Day in Newark, where he trained, to raise the heat of his anger another notch. “One more thing McCallum has to pay for,” he promised.

As expected, Toney came out like a tornado, his hard punches amazingly fast but frenzied. McCallum turned him away early with wisdom: sliding side to side, circling just beyond danger, spinning his young opponent into moment's of frustration, using his jab to set up well placed shots to the head, which at times only caused Toney to grin.

Late in the second round, Toney caught McCallum with a double hook to the head, dropping him for a count of three. Referee Steve Smoger moved in quickly and ruled it a slip. From seat eight, row one it appeared like McCallum had tripped over Toney's left hand. Smoger's decision would later cost Toney the fight. A knockdown would have given Toney the round 10 8, which later would have changed judge Robert Cox's finally tally from a 114 114 draw to 115 114 and a split decision for the IBF champion.

Judge Gary Merritt scored it 116 112 for Toney. Judge Tom Kaczamarek, who should have marked his card in Braille, thought McCallum won 115 113.

Slowly Toney's youth and the rage of his attack began to wear down the older veteran, which only caused him to pause and fire back. Toney would crash a stunning right against McCallum's head, and while everyone waited for him to fall, he would step in and hammer Toney in return. Then they would repeat the violent scenario. They became single minded warriors locked in mortal combat, each trying to break the will of the other. Neither backed up even an inch.

The teacher was too good. As Toney fought, he learned, and by the tenth round the wild hunter had become a controlled executioner. After fighting himself to the point of near exhaustion, he reached deep to find an amazing reserve, while McCallum, his strength flagging badly, survived the last three rounds on pride and grit alone.

In the last round, each made one last desperate attempt to win by a knockout, but neither could summon the necessary muscle. Too weary to duck, they took turns hammering each other until the final bell. Sagging back into the ropes, McCallum, who had suffered one final furious assault, threw one last tired hook. It missed.

Now the only question was what to do with the Hagler Cup, which after the draw was announced appeared destined to go back to Arum's storeroom. “Aw,” said Hagler at ringside, “I thought Toney won. Give it to him.”

Arum did.

(Special to TheSweetScience.com from the Pat Putnam Classic Series. Portions of this article originally appeared in Sports Illustrated.)

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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