9 Defense Strategies You Should Learn From James Toney

A career-spanning across 3 decades. While many expected Toney to hang up his gloves mid-2000, he was too much of a warrior to rest on his laurels. 

A natural heavyweight by size, James Toney made weight at 160, 168 and 175 as per requirement. Not just that, he held multiple championships in three weight classes.

His journey in three division saw him complete at middleweight, super-middleweight, and light-heavyweight division. Perhaps his best was in middleweight where he overcame the likes of Reggie Johnson, Mike MacCallum, Charles Williams, and Michael Nunn. 

Today, we are going to study James Toney’s fighting style and will extract as many qualities as we can so to implement or improvise them in our boxing style.


James Toney had a great jab; he would use it to set up right hands or the uppercuts. Similar to the elite boxers we see today, Toney had many variations in a jab. He quite frequently used the stiff jab, up jab and backhand jabs. All of these jabs were used to great effect for setting up a right hand.

In the clip above, you can see Toney starting the proceedings with the most popular jab i.e. the stiff jab. Notice, how he shoots the jab in a straight line. He doesn’t flare out his elbows or telegraphs the jab. This is an important lesson for beginners and intermediate fighters as it can help them prevent telegraphing their jabs. However, it’s not just the direction of the jab or how he hits it but also Toney’s entire body posture and movement.

Notice how Toney’s lead should is in level with his jaw i.e. excellent defensive responsibility on display. Furthermore, Toney maximizes the reach and power of his jab by extending his arm and pushing out his shoulders. Remember, Good Offensive Game Must Have a Built-In Defense.

When shooting a jab, similar to Toney, you shouldn’t put too much weight on your left foot as not only will it expose your jaw but will also cause to go off-balance. Moreover, you should snap your wrist at the end of a jab to achieve maximum power and effectiveness.

Up jab

An up jab begins with a low lead hand position. It is fired in up and out motion. Herein, the point of impact is your knuckles meeting with your opponent’s chin.

James Toney uses the up jab to a great effect. When he throws an up jab with sufficient speed, the angle of approach makes it hard for his opponent to see and react to. Also, an up jab is a perfect way to target your opponent’s head while setting them up for a right hand to the jaw. Now don’t get me wrong but James Toney was a defensive fighter, similar to Floyd Mayweather today, he used to hold his lead hands low. The up jab from a low angle is a great tool to keep the opponents at bay.


James Toney would bring his hands sometimes into the catching position. At the same time, he’d hold his left arm extremely low. He did so to elicit a response from his opponent. By keeping his arms low, he’d bait a jab or a right hand from his opponent. He would then use it to set up his opponent for a right hand over the jab or roll the right hand and counter.

If you see in the clip above, W. Kayden explains how James Toney catches his opponent’s jab with an open glove.

Toney would often use the catch feint to set up his offense. However, most of the fighters knew that Toney was baiting them and thus most of them didn’t do anything. Thus, Toney would capitalize on their inactivity which usually started with them letting their hands down not wanting to fall for a bait, Toney would explode with his own offense. See the clip below for reference.


James Toney was a master in creating space. His inside fighting was simply exceptional. He was successfully able to create space to get his punches whilst working on the inside. He was able to do this simultaneously while catching or smothering his opponent’s defense. And that’s fantastic.

In this clip above, Toney effectively controls Iran Barkley’s left hand. Thus, he forced Barkley onto his right hand. Knowing that he has limited his opponent, he knew where the punches will come from. He knew that at this moment, all Barkley can do was to throw those right hooks to the body. So, that’s all he needs to defend himself against.

Toney against the ring would usually catch a left hook with his right hands. Philly Shell defense usually has a boxer holding the phone with the right hand. Thus, it’s quite simple and effective to drop the right hand to catch hooks to the right side of the body. After frustrating his opponent by blocking the hook, Toney would deliver a counter in the form of Left Hook followed by rolling and a combination. Watch the clip below for a beautiful demonstration:

In this clip below, by leaning back on the ropes, Toney was always able to create space for himself. Using the space, he was able to generate power and leverage on this right hand.


Without a shadow of a doubt, Toney was one of the best counterpunchers in boxing history. He would often counter, with his dominant right hand. He would slip, duck and roll punches and then come back to his right hand.

In the clip below, you can see James Toney counter over Evander Holyfield’s jab with a quick right hand/straight right hand. Holyfield commits a major mistake by not retracting his arm quickly enough after the jab and Toney capitalizes on this lapse on the judgment.

A similar instance occurred in John Ruiz fight where Toney was always rolling his right hands. You can see the application of Philly Shell defense to great effect. Herein, you can see Toney using it to protect himself against the right hand. It automatically allows him to counter with a right hand of his own after rolling his opponent’s right hand off the lead shoulder.

In the clip above you can see how Toney is able to catch/roll punches simultaneously with shifting weight to the right side of the body. It leaves him in a favorable spot where he just has recoil with his right hand and counter. This is one of the major benefits of the Philly Shell Defense. Watch this clip below to witness beautiful counterpunching


In boxing, it’s quite easy to watch the hand movements but extremely hard to keep a tab on those foot movements. This gives up the great impetus to learn something unique from Toney’s boxing style. His stance, positioning, and footwork were exemplary. And the fact that he would do so while punching his opponents made it even more fascinating to watch.

In this clip above, let’s dissect Tony’s movement into pieces. So, I would request you to watch the clip whilst you reading this. Pause when you see the movements I’m describing.

  1. Footwork: First, you can observe Toney’s footwork. Along with his boxing stance. His variation in foot placement or foot positioning is key for balance and effective punching.
  2. The angle of Attack: Second thing you can notice is how the trailing foot instead of the lead foot allows Toney to establish the angle of attack. In combination with the lead, you can first establish the position and then the angle. You can do so by
  • Establishing position with your lead foot
  • Changing angles through pivoting with your trailing foot
  • While setting up the lead foot, you want to make sure that it’s not pointing directly at your opponent but rather angled sideward as it improves overall balance.
James Toney stance

3. Positioning: If you look at Toney’s positioning, the heel of his trailing feet is perfectly level with the slightly angled toes of his lead foot. i.e. the perfect boxing stance. The distance between both the feet provides him balance for punching. i.e. He is not too sideways or too square from his opponent – Glenn Wolfe. The clip below is a demonstration of Toney’s movement masterclass.


One of the strongholds of Toney’s game was to slip to the outside of the jab and follow it up with an uppercut. He almost perfected this technique. His uppercut was a perfect counterpunch for the jab. His uppercut was squeezed in between the opening created by his opponent’s outstretched jab. Below are some of the finest demonstration of his uppercut skills.

You can always see Toney taking a quick step back with a simultaneous change of head slots as he moved his head over to the right to slip the jab. This always led his opponents to fall short in their tracks and enable Toney to counter under the outstretched arm. Since Toney’s head was always in motion, all it took was a subtle move of his head to the right to slip the jabs. 

Toney’s movement singled out the ineffectiveness of the jab as he was successfully able to exploit the opening created by the outstretched arm. As soon as he smelled an opening, he would shoot the right uppercut between the arms of his opponent. Uppercuts are a devastating counter against a jab as you they come with unpredictability.

A successful slip and uppercut are followed by a successful hip movement. Toney was able to maximize the power by a combination of feet pushing off the ground along with hip rotation. As a boxer, you can drive your body weight upwards right into the face of your opponents.


Defensive boxers take pride in being able to limit their opening thereby minimizing the impact of their opponent’s offense by closing down the angles. James Toney was an expert at angling his body in directions which would prohibit his opponents from trying out certain punches. Even if his opponents did dare, he would quickly be able to counter as he could predict what’s coming his way.

In the video above, you can see James Toney shift the angle to the left side over to his left hand. You can see how his right hand is held low. He doesn’t have to worry about the left side of his body since the isn’t any angle for his opponent to target. With the low right hand, this will bait a left-handed punch from Robinson. What happens next? He counters Rob’s left and puts him to sleep. The key takeaway here is how you can limit the angles and thus you only have to worry about punches coming from one side.


Toney’s primary form of defense was to bend at waist or duck to evade his opponent’s punches. He fought out of Philly Shell defense and would use it to great effect.

Because of the basic body mechanics and trajectory of any punch, bending at the waist or ducking punches is extremely effective. An important thing when fighting Toney was that as his opponents targeted his head, Toney’s head is already traveling south.

Most of the times, Toney didn’t even duck all the way down to avoid punches and would rather prefer leaning over to the side and change levels just to duck the punch. Most of the times, he would weave under punches and would come back into the position which allowed him to hide behind his lead shoulder, in case there was a return from his opponent. Watch this clip below to see some blistering movements:


Bending at the waist is a great way to avoid the right hook. By bending, Toney was successfully able to avoided overhand rights and overhand hooks from his Philly Shell Defense. Watch this clip below to watch James Toney’s masterpiece techniques.


I hope this detailed guide on James “Lights Out” Toney helped you learn some valuable lessons about the attack, defense, and counter in boxing. If you love such inquisitive in-depth articles, feel free to subscribe to our website so we can deliver quality content directly in your inbox. Thanks!

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