For Toney, life does imitate the movies Female manager discovers champion

December 12, 1991|By Alan Goldstein

In "The Main Event," Hollywood used the plot of a female entrepreneur guiding the career of a professional fighter for comedy, with Barbra Streisand winning a unanimous decision over Ryan O'Neal.

In real life, a fight publicist named Jackie Kallen discovered an obscure boxer named James Toney in a Detroit gym, became his manager and directed him to the middleweight championship.

Life imitates art, but with a happier ending for Toney, who defends his International Boxing Federation title against Mike McCallum of New York at the Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Center tomorrow night.

In the 1950s, when the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Willie Pep, Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta were filling arenas, managers took their fighters to rustic training camps to avoid the temptations of the big city, particularly female companionship.

But Toney, who won the IBF crown last May with a stunning 11th-round knockout of previously unbeaten Michael Nunn in the former champion's hometown of Davenport, Iowa, is strictly a ladies' man.

"It was my mother [Sherri Toney] who dragged me to the gym in the first place," said Toney, who was more interested in playing football and was offered a scholarship to Western Michigan.

"Growing up in Ann Arbor, I spent a lot of time on the streets, getting in trouble. I did some stupid things because of peer pressure. My mother wanted me to do something with my life. Try something, and stick with it."

Once he got a taste of boxing, Toney was hooked. A promising amateur who won several state titles, he somehow slipped through the fingers of Emanuel Steward, the manager and trainer of Detroit's Kronk Gym, which has produced a number of champions, most notably Thomas Hearns.

"James didn't want to be part of a boxing stable," said Kallen. "He wanted his own identity.

"At the time, I was working as a reporter for the Oakland [Mich.] PTC Press and doing publicity for Steward and Hearns," Kallen said. "One day, I just happened to be watching some fighters work out at the Livonia gym, and when I saw Toney and how hard he punched, I couldn't believe my eyes.

"He had that same intensity and deadly stare of Hearns. He didn't care who he sparred with and had the attitude, 'No one can touch me.' I said to myself, 'Where has this guy been hiding?' "

Kallen soon approached Toney about the possibility of managing his career.

"We sat down with his mother, and our relationship just sort of evolved," Kallen said. "I told him I thought he had the makings of a champion and offered him a battle plan."

Kallen told Toney that he would stay active, fighting at least once a month, against better opponents each time.

"To build a champion, you can't have him fighting stiffs just to pad his record," she said. "With James, there were no shortcuts."

Toney, 25, was unbeaten until he fought a draw with Sanderline Williams in July 1990. Three months later, he decisioned Williams and became a candidate for the vacant IBF junior middleweight title.

"Bob Arum's crowd at Top Rank Inc., controlled Merqui Sosa," said Kallen. "They didn't think Toney could beat him. But Toney knocked him down early in the fight and won an easy decision.

"And no one gave us a chance against Nunn. He had his whole family cheering for him in Davenport. But Toney is amazing the way he blocks out distractions. Nunn ran and ran, but Toney started to catch him in the seventh round, and when he nailed him in the 11th, they could have counted to 1,000."

McCallum (42-1), recently stripped of his World Boxing Association title, is a tougher test.

But Kallen said: "This is the fight that will establish James as a great fighter. He's younger, stronger and hungrier than McCallum."

Toney won't dispute this claim.

"My two moms are always right," he said with a laugh.

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