During his days as a quarterback and safety at Huron High in Ann Arbor, Mich., James Toney -- who takes on Hasim Rahman for the WBC heavyweight title this Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. -- weighed 200 pounds on the gridiron as a "River Rat" by his senior year in 1987.
Yet by the time he made his pro debut against Stephen Lee in October of 1988 (a second-round knockout in Mt. Clemens, Mich.), he had shrunk himself down to a middleweight.
"Actually, I was 205 pounds and I came back and turned pro at 158 pounds," Toney said last week. "I kept listening to everybody: 'You're too small to do this, too small to do that. You shouldn't be doing this.' I'm listening to everybody but myself and I paid the ultimate price. I don't know how I did it all those years to make 160 the last week.
"The week of the fights, I lived on water and lettuce. Finally, I just said, 'The hell with this.'"
But during those famished days he was still able to win middleweight and super middleweight titles and earn pound-for-pound plaudits in the early '90s. But even then, he would openly speak of one day winning the heavyweight title, which brought about a collective rolling of eyes and snickering from anyone who heard those proclamations.
A 5-foot-9 middleweight winning a heavyweight title? Puh-leeeze.
"In one sense it's inconceivable because he was a middleweight champion, but he always had problems making that weight, even at super middleweight -- and he showed me pictures of him when he was in high school," said Bob Arum, who promoted "Lights Out" during his glorious run years ago. Ironically, now Arum is the enemy, as he represents Rahman.
"He told me that he was really a heavyweight who had been forced down to middleweight," Arum said. "So he always had visions of himself as a heavyweight."
Toney's battles with the scales caused lackluster performances against the likes of Dave Tiberi, and after a while, a flummoxed Arum suggested at the time that his fighter appear on talk shows to talk about an eating disorder.
"I believed at the time that [it] was because he loved to eat so much that he didn't want to make weight," Arum said, laughing. "But obviously he is a heavyweight; he's a good heavyweight."
After beating Vassiliy Jirov for the IBF cruiserweight title in 2003's Fight of the Year, Toney would migrate up to the heavyweight division.
"Me and Dan [Goossen] had one argument," said Toney of his current promoter. "He said, 'If you can beat Jirov, you can do what you want.' I made him shake on it, got him to sign on the dotted line and after that we made it happen."
And after stopping Evander Holyfield in nine and then decisioning John Ruiz last year for the WBA crown, he seems to have finally shaken the tag of being a "blown-up middleweight." He is now universally acclaimed as a premier heavyweight.
"The Ring" ratings currently list him fourth in the division.
So, in hindsight, should his handlers have succumbed to his wishes earlier in his career and let him fight at a heavier weight class?
"I frankly didn't think it was possible," admitted Arum. "But obviously, he's a heavyweight now."
One of the ways Arum was able to keep Toney near his prescribed weight in those days was by keeping him as active as any world-class fighter in recent memory. Nowadays, when a fighter gets to the HBO/Showtime plateau, you see them twice, maybe three times a year. But during his salad days from 1991-94, he averaged more than five bouts a year, performing seven times alone in 1993. He was the last boxer who had regularly scheduled non-title bouts -- something that has gone the way of the dodo bird. It wasn't unusual to see him face an Iran Barkley on HBO and then have three more outings in the next five months on smaller stages.
He really may have been the last of the old-school fighters who honed their craft by keeping busy.
"James was, and is, very proud of his skills," Arum said. "He's so intelligent, he loves to fight; most guys today in boxing don't love to fight. They fight to get the money. James loves to be in the ring; that's where he feels the most comfortable. So there was always pressure on us when he was fighting for us to get him a fight, even if it was a low money fight."
But, in an ironic twist, as his activity level has dwindled in recent years -- due to various factors such as injuries and suspensions -- some wonder if he has gotten too heavy to fight effectively. It seems as though every time Toney gets ready to perform, speculation is rampant on just how heavy he goes into camp and just what he'll weigh-in at.
Last week at an open workout in Sherman Oaks, a makeshift ring was set up outside the Italian eatery, Sisley, so that Toney could go through a public sparring session that lasted four rounds. He went through his paces in a body suit, and while he didn't look sculpted by any means, he didn't look grossly out of shape, either.
A fighter or camp that is concerned about physical conditioning doesn't engage in public workouts. Goossen said he has no concerns over his fighter's conditioning.
"I got concerns for Hasim Rahman, OK? You saw it today, any man that can wear a body suit, you know he's in great shape."
Toney's trainer, Freddie Roach, thinks too much is made of his fighter's poundage.
"Before the last fight I told him as long as he wins I won't bother him about weight no more, and he weighed 236," he said, as Toney easily tamed Dominick Guinn in October. "He went out there and fought a great fight. The thing is he felt he needed to be a little heavier for Rahman because Rahman's a bigger guy. I'm not really concerned with the weight right now."
Even Roach had to be convinced that his charge was a legitimate threat in the game's glamour division. But after stopping "The Real Deal," he became a believer. And in the past, Roach had expressed a desire for Toney to come in around 210-215 pounds. Now, even he is amused by the cause celebre centering around his boxer's girth.
"I think everyone's making too big of an issue out of it," Roach said. "Of course, everyone wants to know the weight; I think it bothers him so much, I think he's saying he's going to be 250. I think he's lying a little bit but I know he's not that heavy."
Whatever Toney comes in at on Thursday afternoon at the weigh-in, he is the naturally smaller man in comparison to the big-boned and thick Rahman, who made his pro debut at 234 and has pretty much stayed in that range throughout his career.
But that's the way Toney prefers it.
"I look at it like this, just because you're big doesn't mean you're bad or anything like that. It's all in the heart. If you ain't got no heart, you can't be a fighter," said Toney, who still has football running through his veins. He believes just because a linebacker looks imposing, it doesn't make him a Ray Lewis or Lawrence Taylor.
"I love fighting big guys," he said, "they're easier for me. They hit hard, so do I. I got 45 knockouts [actually 43] and 69 wins and so like I said, it's easy to hit those guys."
When Toney and Rahman touch'em up on Saturday night, it won't be their first tussle. A few months ago at a WBC convention in Cancun, Mexico, they crossed paths and scuffled.
"He got jealous because I stole his thunder," Toney said. "Then he blamed me and we got into a little pushing and shoving contest and he tried to slap me but he missed and scratched me and cut me on the upper lip like a lil' bitch. He's going to pay for that."
It was an eventful time for Toney, as he got married during that period.
"They begged me not to do nothing so I let him slide, but on March 18, that bell rings, and we'll see what he's about," he said. "I'm going to see what he's about because I like fighting big guys, I love it. I get off on knocking big guys out."
If he should get past Rahman and hold the belt for more than 15 minutes (as his win over Ruiz last year was expunged due to him coming up positive for steroids), Toney said he will take on all comers.
"I want to fight who you guys want me to fight," he said. "I'll fight anybody; I've never turned anybody down. You ain't going to have no problem with James Toney fighting nobody, ever."
Who would've thunk it? Maybe this guy was a heavyweight the whole time.
"I'm a firm believer," Goossen said, "that James Toney will show on March 18 that in any era he'd be one of the great heavyweights of all time."