(Samuel Peter lays hands on James Toney.)
I can’t help but get the feeling that MMA isn’t something that James Toney is truly committed to…it’s more like he’s trying it. But unlike Ray Mercer, who dabbled in regional promotions, Toney will be “trying it” in the major leagues of MMA and in front of millions. No fights in a lesser promotion to test and develop his MMA related skills. Right to the big leagues. Text me when the New Orleans Saints let Chuck Liddell start at free safety. I’d hate to see MMA become a place that retired or declining athletes from other sports come to roll the dice.
Some will say Brock Lesnar and Herschel Walker were given the opportunity to “try” MMA. As for the former, Lesnar was in his physical prime at 29 when he debuted in MMA (30 in his first UFC fight) and wasn’t here to prove that professional wrestlers could beat MMA fighters. In fact, Lesnar hadn’t wrestled professionally in several years and wanted nothing to do with that business when he came to MMA. I wasn’t thrilled with the Walker signing but have to admit that for his part, Herschel did nothing but praise and respect MMA to every extra ear and eyeball he brought to the sport.
Toney, now 41, is a different story.
His UFC contract still allows him to continue boxing, which is all you have to know to gauge his true commitment to mixed martial arts. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. When he started stalking UFC President Dana White, a self-admitted James Toney fan, looking for a shot in the promotion he made his view of the relative merits of boxing vs. MMA very clear:
“Dana put his foot in his mouth and said UFC guys are better fighters than boxers. We’ll see. Everyone who knows anything about fighting knows I’m the purest fighter in the game. There ain’t no secrets…I’ve been fighting a long time. I was born fighting. I know what I’m doing. Boxing is still my main focus, but them guys are a bunch of (expletives) and they don’t want to fight. So I called Dana after he put his foot in his mouth and I’m going to prove he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
So Toney was, by his own words, looking for a UFC contract to prove that boxers are better fighters than MMA stylists. I’m sorry, but that whole style vs. style thing is so 1993. I thought we’d been there, done that. Toney is clearly the most decorated boxer to come into MMA, has a rock solid chin and is one of the best defensive boxers of all time. He will be hard for any MMA fighter to solidly hit and easy to take down and submit or stop by ground and pound. Toney sought out former boxing trainer turned MMA trainer, Juanito Ibarra, to get ready for the Octagon. Ibarra is the former trainer of Rampage Jackson and Cheick Kongo, who have something in common; dynamic strikers with limited ground games. Wouldn’t you have been a little more convinced of Toney’s MMA commitment if you heard he was working at Xtreme Couture, Jackson’s or American Top Team? Hopefully we’ll hear that Toney has added a top notch grappling coach before he puts on the four ounce gloves.
So that raises the issue of who you match Toney up with. Do you put him against a striker with little to no ground game to give him the best odds of being competitive and getting a win or do you put him with a grappler who he’d have to KO before being taken down and finished? Choose the former and you potentially give the vocal Toney the license and material to blast MMA all over the media and say he proved his point that boxers are superior fighters. Choose the latter and you’d give Toney the true style vs. style matchup he says he’s clamoring for.
I say give him what’s he’s been begging for. If this is about boxing vs. MMA, and Toney hasn’t hesitated to tell anyone who will listen that it is, then a well rounded mixed martial artist whose grappling skills are at the relative level of Toney’s stand up skills is the appropriate choice.
There’s already a conflict between James and Dana over what weight class he’ll fight in. Toney says heavyweight, White says he’ll be a light heavy. Regardless of class, Toney will certainly be a main card (he says main event) fighter in the UFC. Who do you put him against? While Randy Couture called dibs on driving the welcome wagon, there is the issue of where you get that fight sanctioned so don’t be surprised if Toney’s debut takes place on an international card.
And with all the questions and concerns that “Toney signed with the UFC” text raised in my mind, I find myself intrigued to see him in the Octagon. Almost like a guilty pleasure or an inane reality show that you don’t want to admit you TIVO every week. But I do so with a certain amount of nervousness for how it will all be handled and what the result will be, both in the cage and in the perception of mixed martial arts. The UFC brass have been masterful in making MMA what it is and they understand that they’re not just driving their brand, but the entire sport in general. If anyone can figure this out, it’s them. And like you, I’ll watch it…nervously.