Sunday, March 31, 2013

The First Time: Award-winning author Donald McRae & going to Tulsa to hangout with James Toney

Donald McRae is the writer of my favorite boxing book of all-time, Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing, which traces his journey through the sport from his earliest days through the mid-1990s. I've been lucky enough to trade correspondence with McRae ever since I turned the last page of that book. In my opinion, there is no journalist out there that does a better job of getting their subjects to open up, and McRae was able to capture some really personal moments with some of the sport's biggest stars. 

The following story is the full-length version of what Don sent me when I inquired about him contributing to a monthly piece I'm debuting at RingTV called "The First Time". The idea behind the column is to take a different subject every month, and ask various boxing people about their first memories related to that. For this first column, I asked people about their first trips abroad for a fight. In the RingTV story here, I excerpted Don's story and have linked it over here, where you can read the full body of his recollection, which I highly recommend you do. I'd like to thank Don for this contribution, it was far and beyond what I expected given his always busy schedule. Without further to do, here is Donald McRae's trip to Tulsa to meet James "Lights Out" Toney.

MY FIRST BOXING TRIP OVERSEAS: Almost twenty years ago Donald McRae, author of Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing, flew from London to Tulsa – to hang out with James Toney 

Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the company of James ‘Lights Out’ Toney, was the exotic destination for my first proper boxing trip to America. It would be a journey, for me, like no other either before or since then.

I had interviewed many fighters, and met them in locations as different as New York and Soweto, London and Las Vegas, but they were always encounters tacked on to other assignments. In October 1993, I flew from London with just the merest chill of trepidation. I had heard all kinds of stories about Toney, from his crack-dealing and gun-toting past to his scalding temper, but I loved watching him fight. He was the canniest defensive fighter I had seen in years. I was also intrigued by Toney because he was managed by a middle-aged Jewish woman called Jackie Kallen.

Jackie told me that she would set it up so that I hung out with Lights Out as much as I liked in steamy old Tulsa. I wondered if the then unbeaten ‘Lights Out’, in the simmering flesh, would be quite so accommodating as he prepared to defend his IBF super-middleweight world title against Tony Thornton. 

Soon after I arrived in downtown Tulsa, I ambled over to the Doubletree Hotel. I made it just in time for the press conference which was hosted by Bob Arum. The last time I had seen Toney on television, just over a week before, he had been hooked up to a UK chat show so that he could personally diss Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn. “I hate the British,” he snarled impressively. “Y’all know shit about boxing! You’re losers! Bums too! Eubank, Benn, the lot o’ you. I’m tellin’ all o’ you who live in Britain, if you know what’s good for you, don’t come near me no more! I’m mad as hell.”

I was South African but I lived in London. That thought crawled through my head when, just after Toney had poured ridicule over Thornton, he walked straight over to me. “What’cha want?” he snarled as he held his baby girl, Jasmine. “Where you from?”

My options were clouded. White South Africa or, Toney’s favorite damn place in the world, Britain? I thought of him being mad as hell on British television. “I’m South African…,” I said gamely. “No shit?” Toney exclaimed as he blew a raspberry on Jasmine’s neck. “They still having some kind of trouble down there?”

I then told Toney that, actually, I lived in London. He set about amusing me with a personal diatribe that I was meant to hand over personally to Eubank and Benn. We were pals from that moment on.

My first proper overseas boxing assignment turned out to be the gig of a lifetime. I became friends with James and Jackie, with his mom Sherry and a little dog called Pee-Wee, and the mean and slick boxer who called himself Lights Out made me laugh more than any other fighter I’d ever met before.

But then, on October 29, we got serious. Toney agreed that I could spend the last few hours with him before the fight. As time drifted past, the profane kidding around stopped and a stone-cold look settled on Toney’s face in his hotel room on the seventeenth floor. I could hardly believe that, in the room next door, a maniac with a taste for irony played Gene Pitney’s ‘24 Hours to Tulsa’ over and over again.

“Dearest, darlin’/Only 24 hours from Tulsa/Only one day from your arms/But what can I do?” 

“I hate this shit,” Toney snarled.

Finally, as if he could stand it no longer, Toney stood up. It was time to go. It was time for him to fight. He wore a hooded tracksuit and heavy boots. A solid gold choker glinted on his muscled neck. He thrust his fists deep into the pockets of his top.

“You ready for this?” he drawled.

I nodded. “OK,” he murmured. “Let’s go….”

The next few hours unfolded in a blur of intensity. I sat with Toney in his dressing room – “the waiting room” he sighed – while we listened to Dr Dre’s The Chonic over and over again. We liked it a lot more than Gene Pitney.

I asked Toney how he dealt with the tension. “This is boxing, baby…” he answered quietly. “You have to deal with it.”

Thornton walked out first to LL Cool J’s Mama’s Gonna Knock You Out. Toney raised a dubious eyebrow. “How old is that shit?” he asked.

When the door swung open, and a sound man barked “Showtime!”, Toney looked straight at me.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s go…”

I followed him on the long walk to the ring, with Dr Dre’s High-Powered thudding in our wake, and wondered if many other writers got this lucky on their first overseas boxing assignment.

Afterwards, once Toney had won comfortably, he came over to the corner where I stood, sinking a beer that I really needed. “See, man, I’m not so bad,” he crooned as the sweat flew from him. He knew he was on his way to becoming, briefly, the world’s number one fighter in the pound-for-pound ratings. “We gonna do this again?”

I nodded, not quite believing everything that had happened. “OK,” Toney said. “We got a deal. And now, baby, it’s time to eat cheeseburgers, lotsa cheeseburgers, ‘cos I’m James Toney – champion of the world.” 

After that first encounter, Donald McRae went on to write his award-winning book DARK TRADE: Lost in Boxing. James Toney, meanwhile, kept on fightingand eating cheeseburgers. His current record, nearly twenty years on from the title defence in Tulsa, is 74-7-3.

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