James Toney is a living legend in the sport of boxing. With more than 70 professional wins and world championship belts in three weight classes, he is the first true boxing superstar to ply his trade against a well-rounded mixed martial artist inside the Octagon.
Other former professional boxers have made the transition with plenty of success. Marcus Davis, Chris Lytle and Alessio Sakara are three who immediately come to mind. But remember that those men spent plenty of time cross training several necessary disciplines, including Muay Thai, wrestling and, of course, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, before stepping foot in the hallowed eight-sided cage.
Toney will do it after just a few months of preparation.
Whether that is a wise decision remains to be seen. It is undeniable, though, that “Lights Out” is in a different league from every other pugilist who dared stand opposed from an elite mixed martial artist. He would defeat any man in the sport in a boxing match. There is no question about that because boxers are the best in the world at what they do – striking the front half of the upper body and head of an opponent with a closed fist covered by a fingerless globe.
Toney is no exception. “Lights Out” can deliver knockout punches from angles that are inconceivable for even the best standup MMA fighter. I don’t care that he won’t be wearing shoes, unlike during his boxing matches. This guy has enough technique to generate knockout power wearing wingtips on an oil slick. He can also anticipate punches and deflect or slip shots that would land against elite MMA defensive artists like Anderson Silva or Lyoto Machida.
But this isn’t boxing.
History has proven that boxers become like a fish out of water when trying to deal with kicks of any kind, knees, elbows, takedowns, submissions and, of course, ground-and-pound attacks.
The best analogy that comes to mind is Toney is moving from checkers to chess. That isn’t a knock on boxing. Not in any way, shape or form. It is reality.
Toney plans to put that version of reality to the test when he squares off at UFC 118 with fellow living legend Randy Couture, the single-most decorated champion in UFC history. Toney hopes to prove that a probable future Hall of Fame boxer, such as himself, can use his natural athleticism and otherworldly fists to thwart a diverse MMA onslaught. He wants to prove that the skill differential with his hands is so massive that it will nullify all of his other MMA deficiencies.
Couture, by contrast, wants to continue proving to the world that MMA is the more effective approach to combat sports. He wants to take down Toney, crowd him on the ground and literally pound him into oblivion.
There is one kicker: each round starts on the feet. That means Toney will have at least one opportunity to land a fight-ending straight right, left hook or uppercut with either hand.
Such a game plan is typically reserved for woefully overmatched foes who, at the end of the day, have nothing more than a lottery-winning opportunity to land a fight ending punch at the beginning of a round. Remember, though, that we are talking about one of the best boxers of the last 30 years, pound for pound. That changes the odds a bit. We know that because history tells us so.
A couple of years ago, Ray Mercer, himself a high-level former professional boxer, decided to test himself in a mixed martial arts match, though not a UFC-caliber bout. His opponent was fading former UFC Heavyweight Champion Tim Sylvia. It is a matchup that Sylvia wins 29 out of 30 times, in my opinion, even if he isn’t in top form.
But he made a critical mistake at the beginning of the bout – throwing a lazy lead leg kick. And he paid for that mistake by suffering one of the most brutal knockouts that I’ve ever seen after Mercer countered the kick with an overhand right for the ages. The bout lasted barely longer than it takes to read the preceding two sentences. And Mercer is basically a boxing journeyman compared to Toney in terms of overall boxing skill, punching precision and career fistic accomplishments.
Couture may very well suffer the exact same fate if he makes a mistake in the opening moments of his fight with Toney. A telegraphed or haphazard kick, rushing in without being completely covered up, shooting for a takedown from too far away, slipping on the canvas during his initial attack, or a myriad of other mistakes could easily result in Couture eating that single blow that instantly renders him unconscious.
Also, there is no getting around the fact that Couture is now 47 years old. Think about that for a moment. Couture is nearly 50 years old.
One day soon Couture will step inside the Octagon and resemble a mere shadow of the man who thrilled fans with multiple championship runs at heavyweight and light heavyweight. He will no longer be able to defeat opponents who would have posed little or no danger to him a decade earlier. That day is coming. Everyone knows it, including Couture, because it happens to every athlete at some point in his life. The fact that Couture has continued to compete at a high level over the last six or seven years is nothing short of awe inspiring.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Couture will be a shell of himself at UFC 118. There is nothing to suggest that will happen. I’ve spoken with guys who have seen him prepare for this fight, and they state without reservation that “The Natural” is as good as he has ever been, which isn’t surprising considering that he hasn’t yet shown the adverse affects of a battle with Father Time during his MMA career. Couture looked as spry in his last fight against Mark Coleman as he did when he shocked the world by coming back from a brief retirement to win the UFC Heavyweight Championship for a record-setting third time just a few years ago.
But again, Father Time is lurking in the not too distant shadows. Probably even lurking close by. Possibly standing right in Couture’s face.
Toney is well aware of the deleterious affects age takes on a world-class professional athlete. He is no spring chicken, either. But he is a strapping young man compared to Couture, and that is why he wants this fight. Couture presents the perfect opportunity for Toney to score a shocking upset victory, if, indeed, Father Time has finally started collecting on Couture’s athletic debts.
There is no need to break down the mechanics of how each man will approach the fight, other than to point out the obvious fact that Couture wants to avoid a fistic exchange with Toney like a pre-Revolutionary naval officer wanted to avoid scurvy. If he has any delusions of wanting to test his standup against Toney’s fists, this will be a short fight – one that lasts far less time that the loquacious boxer’s post-fight verbal celebration.
Of course, if Couture can get Toney to the ground, the fight will last as long as Couture wants it to, and it will end by submission or knockout at his leisure.
• 47 years old
• 75-inch reach
• 18-10 overall (15-7 in the UFC)
• 12-7 in the heavyweight division
• 3-2 in last five professional bouts (2 of those at 205 lbs)
• 7-5 since turning 40
• Current layoff is 203 days (SUB2 over Mark Coleman on February 6, 2010)
• Longest UFC layoff since 2001 is 392 days (KO2 by Chuck Liddell on February 4, 2006, until UD5 over Tim Sylvia on March 3, 2007)
• Two-time UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
• Three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion
• Only fighter in UFC history to win a championship after being inducted into the Hall of Fame
• First fighter in UFC history to win championships in two different weight divisions
• Most championship fights in UFC history (15)
• Won Fight of the Night twice (TKO3 over Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 and UD loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 102)
• 42 years old on fight night
• 72-inch reach
• 72-6-3, 2 NC (44 KOs) as a professional boxer
• 0-0 as an amateur or professional mixed martial artist
• Toney has never been knocked out in a professional boxing match
• 3-1, 1 NC in last 5 boxing matches
• Current layoff is 350 days (KO2 over Matthew Greer on September 2, 2009)
• Longest career layoff is 631 days (UD12 over Steve Little on June 14, 1997, until TKO8 over Terry Porter on March 7, 1999)
• Won IBF titles at 160 lbs, 168 lbs and 190 lbs
• Two-time Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year (1991 and 2003)
The Blueprint: Couture vs. Toney
"Couture wants to continue proving to the world that MMA is the more effective approach to combat sports. He wants to take down Toney, crowd him on the ground and literally pound him into oblivion."