What If: 1989 Roberto Duran vs 1991 James Toney

James Toney has been a bloated tub of goo at heavyweight for so long that folks may not realize that he and Roberto Duran were in the same division, middleweights for a brief overlap of their careers. Toney had yet to crack the top rankings when Duran schooled Iran Barkley, but a couple of years later he was in the mix just as Duran started to fade, so what if we match the newly minted middleweight IBF champ Toney against the Duran who tamed a much more ferocious primed IBF champ Iran Barkley than the cyclops version that Toney would go on to butcher later?

Is that even a fair fight though? Sure, Duran was just short of his 38th birthday with near 90 pro bouts, long past the expiration date of a dedicated professional much less that of an unrepentant legendary party beast that Duran was. Fight Doc Ferdie Pacheco talks of seeing him around this time pushing around an incredible 200 lbs, yet only a few months later was down to 160 for a big fight. Duran and Toney both shared a withering arrogance towards other fighters in and outside the ring  and could have easily shared their fat man walking around clothes with each other. These two could have almost been twins separated at birth but for a couple of decades between their births and a few thousand miles of geography, but a closer look reveals stark boxing distinctions.

Fun Times

Fun Times

Duran broke all the rules as easily as he broke other fighters and certainly the Mr T ghetto befouled persona of Toney in the prefight would rouse him beyond the normal call of fight duty. Toney is 17 years younger and 1991 saw him turn 23 in perhaps his best year ever, starting with a knockout over the undefeated #1 Ring rated IBF champ Michael Nunn, followed by a hotly contested split decision over Reggie Johnson, another knockout of Francesco Dell’Aquila before closing with a draw against HOFer Mike McCallum. Toney was not quite yet in traditional prime years of 25-29 years but he was physically touching the years when Duran was a ranked middleweight.

Duran had to undergo a major metamorphosis after disgracing himself before the boxing community in the “No Mas” travesty against Sugar Ray Leonard. He was unable to secure the rubber match and seemed to have lost his ferocity, sleepwalking through bouts at 154 lbs as he slowly learned how to fight bigger, stronger fighters who could take his punches better than lightweights could. Arguably his best fight ever during this time was a close loss to the all time great Marvin Hagler who was behind on the cards going into the championship rounds. It took a highly aggressive surge to secure the win over the now tiring Duran who was becoming a more stationary target for the bigger, stronger Hagler. Marvin spared not one ounce of sympathy for the sneering Duran who had been frustrating Hagler with a new bag of tricks he had had never been exposed to before.

A strangely despondent looking Duran then lost by stunning knockout to Tommy Hearns, but surprisingly recovered well to go on a 6 year tear culminating in the 1989 schooling of the best version of Iran Barkley that ever existed. OK, purists will note the slip up against Hagler half brother Robbie Sims, but that was an out and out Vegas robbery to keep the younger Sims propped up for bigger promotions that he never had the talent to fulfill. Sims lost every significant bout after being “exposed” in the Duran fight, yet Duran was still able to reach new heights with his win over the massively sized Barkley who was oddly enough coming off his own greatest heights with a quick knockout over Duran nemesis Thomas Hearns.  Duran then lost a lopsided decision in the rubber match to Sugar Ray Leonard, a disgraceful opportunistic bout that saw Leonard run the full 12 rounds of his first defense of the disgracefully won WBC supermiddleweight title. Duran could take heart at near age 40 that Leonard was still wary of engaging him directly after their epic 1980 encounter in Montreal, yet still managed to cut Leonard up over both eyes as a reminder of those beat’em up days Leonard never wanted to return to again.

Lights Out Baby

Lights Out Baby

James Toney for all his faults is the antithesis of Leonard. Being a bully at heart going up against a smaller fighter, he’d storm straight into Duran’s wheelhouse which is where he would FAIL! 

Toney was never the polished boxer he was made out to be and in 1991 even less so,  but rather more fully sown with the ageless oats of youthful invincibility. As further example of his lack of boxing prowess, in the heyday of his prime middle to lightheavyweight career he consistently lost to lesser boxers than Duran.  Micheal Nunn, Roy Jones, Montell Griffin, Drake Thadzi, Dave Tibieri and Montell Griffin boxed him silly. Nunn was a top fighter and big notch for Toney’s career, but it was Toney’s all time great chin and unceasing pressure that wore out Nunn that secured that fight, not his boxing ability. The Tibieri fight became the case in point of the corruption of boxing after the derided Toney decision launched a Congressional investigation into boxing.

And speaking of of the Jones classic, this Duran match up would turn out to be a much more action packed version of Roy Jones outclassing Toney at every turn since Duran is a combination puncher compared to the potshotting Jones. Sure, the oddmakers would have made Toney the big favorite as they did Barkley. Toney and Barkley younger, bigger, stronger fighters on an upswing and Duran still not yet redeemed the full measure of respect lost from the No Mas travesty. Any fantasy fight has to respect the realities of the time frames we are matching them in. However, as a time traveler through the assistance of perusing their records and their fights, I would have the advantage over cagey oddsmakers who in spite of their savvy in being able to make a living setting odds, too often get it spectacularly wrong when huge upsets happen.

Well now, there it is, a fight that was logistically and naturally so close, yet so far away as it turned in the day, yet here and now back in the queue loaded up for today. It’s all Duran for me six days a week and twice on Sunday. 

4 responses to “What If: 1989 Roberto Duran vs 1991 James Toney

  1. Nice article, Bobby — thanks.

    How would you see Roberto Duran v Floyd Mayweather Jr going (at 135 or 140)?


  2. — Well, first off Mayweather would never make this bout. He’s a air conditioned small venue pure MGM Grand spoiler/stinker, not a big open stadium spectacle fighter dealing 50K screaming Frenchmen who were all for Duran BTW..

    Little known fact was that Leonard didn’t want to fight him and only did so because Duran was made a mandatory and they agreed to the neutral site of Montreal as the network money began to flow.

    Mayweather goes into a shell when attacked hard. Duran would gut him on the ropes. Mayweather a HOFer but not an all time great talent that Duran and Leonard were. Mayweather would faint dead away if he had to insert himself into their first fight for comparison:


  3. Thanks Bobby.

    I’m no boxing historian, but can’t help feeling boxing fans who think FM is an all time great (‘the’ all time great) have no idea how the fighters he has beat would stack up against fighters the likes of Duran, Leonard, etc. (i.e.) not in the same class.


  4. Pingback: Sugar Ray Leonard - A Boxing Icon - GETREALCOLLECTIBLES.COM

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