If James Toney is insane, he is—as is usually the case with such accused—the last to know.
“Listen, just as soon as he raises a leg, you can cancel Christmas,” Toney says, dripping sweat after the first of three daily workouts at a gym in Chatsworth, California. He’s talking about Randy Couture, about connecting with four ounces of leather, which feels like nothing compared to the 10 ounces he’s used to. George Foreman’s longtime publicist and friend, Bill Caplan—who is working with Toney for his UFC adventure—laughs. His longtime manager and friend, John “Papa” Arthur, is walking around with a towel, immune to what comes out of Toney’s mouth but very aware of what people are saying.
“It’s not a transition for me,” the current IBA Heavyweight Champion says, “I’m an animal anyway, the cage is where I belong. I’ve learned a lot of things, about everything. I’ve learned about kicking, and kicking’s good. But I ain’t going to kick—I’m going to knock him out.”
Toney has boxed once in the last 18 months, a knockout victory against Matthew Greer. He weighs around 240 pounds but expects to show up on fight night somewhere in the neighborhood of 215 pounds, meaning his most imminent battle will be with the dreaded scale. He cannot be considered a sensational looking athlete, as HBO described him in his bout with Tim Littles in 1994 when he was IBF Super-Middleweight Champion. That was the fight—Caplan’s favorite—where Toney TKO’d Littles after suffering a gash that had doctor stoppage written all over it. But still, people know he can box. He can survive. His heroes are the old guard, guys like Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, “because they fought anybody anywhere—it’s not like that anymore.”
BORN TO FIGHT
As a born scrapper, Toney’s doing something about it and coming over to Couture’s world. Having grown up in the same area in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as the May weathers,Tony Tucker, and Buster Mathis— “literally the same fucking block,” he says—he doesn’t duck anybody.
Until recently—as in, a matter of weeks ago—the 41-year-old Toney has never wrestled, nor grappled, nor tried to understand what’s meant by the art of eight limbs. Nor has he practiced jiu-jitsu, nin jitsu, or any of the itsus, or fence-walked, or sprawled as a means of survival. He doesn’t watch tape, and he’s not particularly concerned with how Couture fights. He receives his information second-hand through trainer Trever Sherman, whom he trusts in total and refers to as the Freddie Roach of the MMA world.The game plan is not to have a game plan, to let Toney be an animal in the cage.
That’s because Sherman sees Toney as more than just a twilight pug-nose boxer with a legacy of 49 knockouts and 76 overall wins in multiple weight classes. He sees him as a natural sponge.
“I could take him down easier than I could my wife when he first started,” Sherman quips. “But now he’s becoming a beast in there. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. This man is a master at boxing. But to say he has a puncher’s chance, that’s to say Brock Lesnar and Randy have a wrestler’s chances. He has a puncher’s advantage, yes. But a puncher’s chance? That’s like saying Einstein had a thinker’s chance. It doesn’t make sense.”
And that’s the consensus in this small pocket of the San Fernando Valley. That James Toney is much more than a good hard-punching novelty looking for a quick payday and relevancy (though, those too). These guys are bursting at the seams for August 28, when they can roll him out there like a filthy red carpet—an invitation to all comers. In fact, as 99.9% of everybody foresees James “Lights Out” Toney getting his ass handed to him. He and his team are sort of cherishing being the miraculous .1%. From his training partners to the guy mopping the mats, the people in Toney’s camp are at ease talking about the thing everybody else is thinking—James Toney’s being set up for failure.
Why? “I guess they thought I’d be easy pickings,” he says. While this is a very transparent agenda fight for the UFC—who could have saddled Toney with an equally profiled scrap in Kimbo Slice or Paul Buentello, rather than somebody who fights frustratingly, suffocatingly smart along the fence and on the ground—it’s a crusade for Toney.
He’s not a hater of MMA, but Toney views it like he’s carrying the entire sport of boxing on his back every day he wakes up for long cramming sessions, still peeved into action by Dana White’s “loudmouth” comments that boxers can’t hang with mixed martial artists. “I’m doing it for all the boxing world,” he says. He lets it be known more than once that it doesn’t hurt to get paid.
“I saw an interview with Dana White where he said MMA guys were better than boxers, and he called out Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr., because I guess they had made an assumption toward MMA. I was like, look, I’m the baddest boxer in the world, period. I’ve done this stuff for 23 years, ain’t nobody’s done what I’ve done. Put me in there.”
HOT AIR RISING
Though he first met White in 1994 on the Roy Jones boxing tour, it’s well-documented how Toney got a shot in the UFC from there, making videos pleading his case, showing up at live events in Las Vegas and Memphis to call out White, making a general nuisance of himself. Now, here he is, being taken down repeatedly at the M-1 satellite gym by a rotation of guys. He gets back up, and the room lets out a cheer. Then he is taken down again, and the struggle is back on. They do this repeatedly.
“In an ideal world, Couture shoots and takes Toney down, and James gets back up and knocks him out,” says Sherman. Everybody cheers as he reverses a guy against the fence. Greco-Roman is being sent back to the Middle Ages every few minutes. In a couple more moments, Toney will say that he hopes there are four million pay-per-view buys. He wants four million households to see what’s coming. This is why people think he’s taken a few too many shots, and why Bob Arum loves him (“And Bob Arum doesn’t love anybody,”says Caplan). More to the point, Toney just doesn’t give a damn—about his odds, about his bosses, about his opponents.
“Everybody’s scared to fight me in the boxing game, so I have to go to MMA,” he says. “The Klitschko sisters, they act like I have AIDS, so they don’t want to fight me. David Haye? He’s a sissy. And everybody else has excuses. Either in boxing or in MMA, I can sell tickets, because I back up the talk. People don’t like the way I do things because I don’t kiss their ass. I’m not an ass-kisser; I don’t do that. That’s the main reason that Oscar De La Hoya got places.” Here he makes unsettling kissing noises. “He kisses a lot of ass. Not me. ”
Is he trespassing? Sure. So does everybody who thinks they can compete in MMA. With a multi-fight contract in the UFC, he’ll likely trespass again and again before it’s said and done, win or lose. He says he wants to fight David Haye in December, and then fight again on another UFC card in February, against the champion Lesnar or anybody with a big mouth.
“After I knock out Randy Couture, I am knocking out Lesnar or Carwin next,” he says. “I want to be the undisputed champ in bo
xing and UFC champion at the same time. The UFC ain’t going to like that—they won’t know what to do. But I ain’t going nowhere. I am 41 years old, and I feel great. I am healthy, and when I’m healthy, everybody knows I’m the baddest motherfucker on the planet.”
He was saying this kind of thing when he fought Michael Nunn for the IBF Middleweight belt, and that turned out. He did the same thing when he moved to the heavyweight division and clubbed Evander Holyfield, stopping him in the ninth. “Go ahead and ask him, Evander’s still having headaches about that,” Toney says.
No, boxing isn’t MMA, but Toney sees it as fighting is fighting. It’s why he told Sherman that he wouldn’t mind choking “The Natural” out, sensing such a thing would be a travesty for MMA.
Like all marketable fighters, he doesn’t mind if it’s hot air pushing things along.