It’s tough to be a fan of the sweet science if you’re below the age of 40.
The generation before us had it easy. Most can tell you exactly where they were when Ali fought George Foreman, or how they went somewhere to see the “Thriller in Manila” on closed circuit. Most can recall Roberto Duran saying “no mas” to end his fight with Sugar Ray Leonard.
The youth of today don’t have it quite so easy. Boxing is increasingly more fragmented with its divisions and belts. While Manny Pacquiao has done a premier job in establishing himself as the pound for pound champ, his resume could possibly lack that one great war that everyone will remember.
One night in April of 2003 stands out above all others in this writer’s mind.
James Toney-Vassiliy Jirov had a lot working against it as far becoming a memorable night. It was fought in a tiny casino in Connecticut, not at the Mandalay Bay or MGM Grand. It was shown on HBO, rather than pay-per-view, and was promoted accordingly.
The biggest detractor to the fight might have been the fact that it was a cruiserweight bout. Who was concerned with that division, anyway? There hadn’t been too many fights of note at that weight since Holyfield-Qawi, over 15 years prior to this title match. Virgil Hill held a cruiserweight belt for awhile, and was drawing Social Security checks at the same time.
If you let those factors keep you from watching Toney-Jirov, you missed an all time great. There are truly few nights in the ring that represent the pinnacle of each fighter’s respective careers. This was one of them.
Toney was on his way back to the top. For the moment, he had conquered his weight-control demons and was in flawless shape. Jirov was simply at the top of his game. He’d never been beaten or even sat down prior to stepping in the ring.
Styles make fights. Toney was the consummate professional, a true throwback to the days of defensive boxing. He stayed in the face of the ultra-aggressive Kazakh all night, confident in his ability to roll and counter. He absorbed damage, but not to the degree that Jirov did.
The sheer number of punches landed in the fight by both fighters made it nearly impossible to score. Toney was confident he had it won on the cards going into the 12th, but so was Jirov. What happened next was the round of the year.
Both fighters opened up in the early part of the frame. Jirov appeared to catch Toney early as Toney slipped back across the ring. Thinking he had gained the advantage, Jirov poured it on. It was premature. “Lights Out” still had some gas in the tank. It turned out to be just a bit more than Jirov had left.
Toney stayed near the ropes and continued to counter. With less than 30 seconds in the fight, he finally landed the money shot, a left hook to the body that caused Jirov to drop his hands. The combo that followed led to the knockdown and signature on Toney’s thrilling win.
Toney went on to stop an eroding Evander Holyfield later that in 2003 and was named Ring Magazine’s “Fighter of the Year.” It was the war and decision against Jirov that made up the lions share of that award.
While Toney’s fights at heavyweight were often excellent, he was never again able to put together run that brought him to the peak of the cruiserweight division. He soundly beat a slow and boring John Ruiz for the WBA strap, but was later disqualified and suspended. An out of shape “Lights Out” drew in his other major title shot against Hasim Rahman.
Jirov sustained a ton of damage in the fight. You could see the results in his next big bout, against heavyweight up-and-comer Joe Mesi. Jirov was standing at the end, and managed to knock Mesi down a few times, but the aggression had left him.
The scars of what Toney had done made him fearful to press the bigger man. The delayed knockout against Michael Moorer was no different. As young as he was and as said as it was, Jirov was a shot fighter.
HBO may never bring back their “Legendary Nights” series. If they do, they should take a long, hard look at this title bout. The resurrection of a fallen champ and the pinnacle of a great young star’s run took place in a tiny hall in New England. Crossroads sometimes occur at the top of a mountain.
Where were you when that fight took place?