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He ain't heavy, but Toney's ready

NEW YORK -- To be honest, a point came when James Toney thought he'd never get here. Never get to Mecca on Fight Night. Never get to the Garden.

It takes a lot to get to boxing's truly angry man but when the nearly 37-year-old Toney's biceps and triceps rolled up his arm in the first round of his last venture into the ring seven months ago like a worn-out shade, it was the last straw. Not even he could not continue to ignore a body seemingly deserting him, piece by broken piece.

He had just labored for 10 months to recover from the torn Achilles' tendon he'd suffered while training for a fight with Jameel McCline only months after he'd stopped four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield with a thunderous body attack that left Holyfield on one knee as his cornermen rushed to save him from a beating that was already well underway.

After successfully rehabbing his Achilles' when many critics said he would never do the work required to make himself whole, Toney's biceps snapped in the first round of a fight with Rydell Booker last September. He fought on regardless, stopping the outmatched and outwitted Booker easily but now he faced another long stretch of surgery and rehab.

"Your mind plays tricks on you when you're first hurt and trying to recover," the former middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight champion said this week, only days before he will try to play tricks on both the mind and body of World Boxing Association heavyweight champion John Ruiz at Madison Square Garden. "With those injuries, yes, I won't sit here and lie to you. I thought it was over."

Such thoughts quickly passed and Toney went back to doing what he does best -- boxing and talking. As he labored to get his body back into working order, he pursued every heavyweight champion out there, of which there are too many. He kept saying he would destroy World Boxing Council titleholder Vitali Klitschko even though he's nearly a foot taller than Toney. He said he would chase International Boxing Federation champion Chris Byrd out of the ring. He said don't even bother him about World Boxing Organization champion Lamon Brewster, whose skills paled in comparison to Toney's. As for Ruiz, Toney promised to rid the boxing world of a guy whose style is so displeasing that it has overshadowed the fact he's beaten more top contenders than anyone in the sport over the last four years.

Yet it took Klitschko injuring his thigh to open up a date and a place for Toney to finally get his chance, Saturday night in an HBO-televised fight against Ruiz in which the smaller man is favored and has promised to deliver on the promise of those odds.

In the few days since he's arrived in Manhattan, Toney has threatened Ruiz's bombastic manager, Norman Stone, repeatedly. He has promised to "embarrass" the two-time champion and has said if Ruiz tries to use the jab-and-grab holding style that has made him a pariah among promoters and television executives he will "butcher him up."

"When he comes forward and tries to hug he's going to get a bad case of whiplash," Toney said recently.

That Toney is a talker is undeniable but he has backed up most of his talk throughout a 17-year career in which he's posted a record of 68-4-2 with 43 knockouts. All of his losses (to Roy Jones, Jr., Montell Griffin, and Drake Thadzi) have resulted as much from his own hubris, refusal to train adequately, and depression after his personal life fell apart as to any failings in his boxing style. In recent years he has successfully battled not only ever-larger opponents but also an expanding waistline to maneuver himself into position to become only the third middleweight champion in history to win the heavyweight title.

To do that he must find some way to solve Ruiz's perplexing style, one that involves more than just holding and wrestling despite what his critics may say. It also involves a solid jab, strong right hand, and 235 pounds of heavyweight wrestling his opponent's arms around until they feel like lead. When they can't raise them any more, Ruiz lowers the BOOM and moves on. It is why he's lost only two of his eight world title fights and is the reigning WBA champion for the second time despite the consternation and confusion that causes his critics.

Toney knows all this but could care less about it because he believes he possesses what Ruiz does not. He possesses skills. Boxing skills from a long-gone era. Slick mastery of slipping, feinting, parrying, rolling of the shoulders, and punching to the body on the inside. Though a small man at 5 feet 9 inches, Toney likes to fight from an area known in boxing as "the pocket," a place close to his opponent where most fighters are reluctant to tread for danger and unconsciousness can lurk there for the unwise or the unwary.

Toney likes it inside though, and in fact defeated Holyfield by getting there and refusing to leave. It is where he intends to fight Ruiz as well and where, he fervently believes, his time will finally come.

"I been telling you since I was a middleweight that one day I'd be heavyweight champion," said Toney. ''April 30 is that day. I been boxing with heavyweights in the gym since Pinklon Thomas was champion. None of them can hurt me. I'm bulletproof.

"You feel a big difference in power against a heavyweight but I'm not scared to get hit because if I get hit hard you get hit back twice. I know he thinks I'm just a middleweight coming to fight him but I'm not worried about anything he can do. When Ruiz fought [Kirk] Johnson there was 17 clinches a round. That's amateur fighting. I won't let this guy hold me. That's not going to happen. He tries to hold me, he's going to get hit. He tries to hit me, he's going to get hit more."

Hit enough, James Toney believes, that when dawn comes on Sunday the sun will shine on a new heavyweight champion. A nearly 37-year-old one with a scarred body, a sharp mind, and unflappable belief in one thing. Himself.

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