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With Premium on Unleashed Fury, Boxing Has Given James Toney . . . : License to Rage

November 16, 1994|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps only in boxing is uncontrollable rage something to be nurtured rather than reported to the proper authorities.

James Toney is, by all appearances, a two-fisted time bomb, unfit for circulation in the mainstream.

Bill Miller, the fighter's 74-year-old trainer, acknowledges that the anger that makes Toney unbeatable in the ring makes him frightening outside it.

"I tell him a lot of times, 'Young man, if there wasn't any game like boxing, you would self-destruct,' " Miller says. "You can't take that type of mental attitude out in the business world every day."

Where would Toney be if not for boxing?

"Dead," Miller says without hesitation. "Out there today, these kids carry pistols. They shoot each other. Who's going to fight him fair? I tell him all the time, 'James, all the tough guys are dead.' "

Jackie Kallen, Toney's 48-year-old manager, knows her hell-bent champion will someday have to walk the streets as Joe Citizen.

It scares her.

"If the plumber shows up late, you can't just come up and slam him to the ground," she says. "You have to deal with people."

So far, though, rage has paid Toney nice dividends. There is time later for therapy to purge his demons, to psychoanalyze how a man's father might come to shoot his mother six times while cradling a baby--James--in her arms.

The prescription so far has been to harness Toney's raw energy and pent-up anger and then unleash it with calculated detonations between the ropes every few months, cash a paycheck, then line up the next victim.

Toney, you might say, is Jackie Kallen's Manhattan Project.

"It's helped me 46 times," Toney says.

Toney is 44-0-2, is considered one of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters and is poised to defend his International Boxing Federation super middleweight title against Roy Jones Jr. on Friday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where people are walking on eggshells.

Toney, 26, is the modern-day Jake LaMotta, the original Raging Bull who is Toney's inspiration. Toney rehearses his part daily in West Hollywood at Mickey Rourke's Outlaw Gym.

One recent day, the fighter stopped training cold and cleared the room with thunderous authority.

"Get the . . . out!!" he yelled from the ring. "I just don't give a . . . You all understand English? I just don't give a . . . ."

Toney minions, well conditioned to his outbursts, executed the order.

This, apparently, is standard operating procedure before a fight. Anything can set Toney off and sometimes it is as simple as Toney's seeing a person in the gym he does not like.

"You have to let him simmer down," Kallen says. "If you put your hand in boiling water, you're going to get burned. There's nothing anyone can say to control him. You can't. You learn. It's like a red alert, like a tornado warning. You hear it and get out of the way."

It is all part of the process. But it's never comfortable.

"It's the only place where it's appropriate," Kallen says of Toney's behavior. "If he was an assassin, I could see him going out and going, boom-boom, walking away and going to eat a hot dog. Literally. I'm used to it. I'm willing to work with it. I don't say I condone it. It's not about accepting it, it's about the fact that this is what he is."

Kallen knows the wild mood swings are not normal. Toney, at one moment, can be unabashedly sweet, playful as a kitten, lavishing Kallen with diamond rings, pink teddy bears, $100 sweaters.

The next, she's running for the storm shelter.

Believe it or not, this is a kinder, gentler Toney, a Peace Corps volunteer compared to the person Kallen met when she and the boxer first crossed paths.

That was 1989, Detroit. Kallen, a former entertainment columnist before she became Tommy Hearns' publicist in 1978, walked in on a sparring session at about the time Toney was trying to break Tom Dempsey's field goal record with a spit bucket.

"I said, 'Who is that? And what's wrong with him?' " Kallen recalls. "Someone said 'That's James Toney. He's crazy.' I thought, 'Hmm, that's interesting.' "

Toney, from Ann Arbor, Mich., was a street thug who, at 16, had already shot a man and exchanged dope for dollars. Toney's first manager, known as Johnny Ace, had a crack cocaine distribution business going on the side until he was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

"I had just talked to him, right?" Toney says. "A half-hour later, he got blown away."

Everyone kept leaving Toney. He never knew his father, also James and also a fighter. Only recently did Toney learn that when he was 3 months old, his father shot his mother, Sherri, while she was holding James.

Sherri survived and lived to become one of her son's inspirations. Toney's father later went to prison on a rape charge. He is expected to be released soon.

Toney has not tied a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree. In fact, his family won't tell him when James Sr. is getting out.

" . . . my dad," Toney said. "I'm glad he's not around me now because my butt would be where he is, in prison. Because I'd have to kill him."

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