UFC insists Toney signing isn’t ‘freak show’
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The Ultimate Fighting Championship didn’t become a billion-dollar enterprise by having its executives take crazy risks. The company was built methodically, with the larger goal always in mind.
But on Wednesday, the bus swerved sharply in a different direction when UFC president Dana White confirmed that the company had signed boxer James Toney to a multi-fight contract.
White conceded he’s certain of very little about his plans for Toney other than that the future boxing Hall of Famer will compete in the UFC as a light heavyweight. Toney, being the contrarian he is, said he wants to fight as a heavyweight.
As for when Toney will fight, the level of opposition he will face and other pertinent details, White admits he hasn’t mapped it out yet.
“We’ll figure something out,” White said. “I’m not really sure. Here’s the thing with James: We were sitting around finishing the deal and talking and he told me that he’d been talking to Strikeforce. He said they were talking to him about a fight with Herschel Walker. James said to me, ‘Do you know what I’d do to that [expletive]?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You know, I have a lot of pride and I’d never do anything to embarrass myself. I’m a fighter. I want to fight. And don’t ever underestimate me.’ ”
White, who remains a diehard boxing fan, clearly is infatuated with Toney, who is one of the greatest pure boxers who ever lived and among the five finest boxers of his era.
But Toney is 41, has twice tested positive for steroids and in recent years he’s often had a belly that has hung over his waist. And though the UFC has come a long way in convincing the masses that it’s a world-class sport and not some kind of a carnival sideshow, it’s hard to see much of an upside in this signing.
If Toney gets blown out in his UFC debut, his opponent won’t get much credit. Most of the talk will be that the opponent beat up an aged, over-the-hill boxer.
On the other hand, if Toney were to win, it would cause plenty to question the quality of fighters in the UFC.
There doesn’t seem to be an upside for the UFC unless Toney shows up in peak shape and puts on several quality fights in a row.
Toney insisted his weight would not be an issue and said he has no concern about adjusting to MMA.
“Don’t make wise cracks about my weight, because I’ve been working hard and the next time you see me, you’ll be shocked,” said Toney, who said he would probably box sometime in the next six weeks to get the rust off. “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.”
Dan Goossen, Toney’s long-time friend and promoter, was disappointed to learn the news. The contract with the UFC allows Toney to continue to box and Goossen said he had conversations with Toney earlier this week about a boxing match next month.
Toney has been doing some MMA training, Goossen said. While he’s no MMA expert, Goossen understands Toney will be at a disadvantage fighting against men who have been training in the sport for many years.
“Let’s face it: There are some bad – meaning good – fighters in MMA, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Goossen said. “There are a lot of wrestlers who are fighters now and James is not a wrestler. He’s a standup fighter; he’s a boxer. His skills are standing up. There’s not an MMA fighter in the world who could fight James on his court, in the ring, and be able to stay with him.
“But this is like something I said to Pete Rose the other day: As great a hitter as Pete was, and he’s one of the greatest who ever lived, do you think he would be the all-time hit king in cricket? It’s still hitting a ball with a stick, but they’re completely different sports.
“Boxing and MMA are fighting sports,” Goossen said. “They’re related, but they’re different sports. You need different skills in each of them. As great as James is, he’s not going to be as good of a wrestler as the guys he faces. He can’t cram into a six-, eight-, 12-week training camp what they’ve been doing all their lives. He’s definitely going to be at a disadvantage and I don’t want to see him being used.”
White insists he didn’t sign Toney to be a freak show and said he’ll avoid gimmick fights like Toney against Walker, the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, or Toney against former baseball MVP Jose Canseco.
White is not sure against who or when, but he said Toney will be just another UFC fighter when he debuts. Toney said he isn’t sure when he’ll debut, but said he thought June or July would be a fair guess. And he said he expects to be the main event.
“I’m a main event fighter and I’ve been a main event fighter since before a lot of these punk-(expletive) fighters were out of the crib,” Toney said. “Don’t give me that (expletive) about fighting on the undercard. People want to see James Toney and I’m going to give them what they want.”
White gave former NCAA Division I wrestling champion and ex-WWE superstar Brock Lesnar one of the stiffest challenges possible when he was matched against former heavyweight champion Frank Mir in his UFC debut in 2008.
If the UFC were to pull a similar move with Toney, he might be paired against someone like former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin.
Toney, though, is such an X-factor that it’s difficult to match him evenly. His boxing skills are first-rate and he’ll probably have the best chin in the UFC the minute he walks into the cage for the first time.
But even if he’s paired with a striker, how will he defend against kicks? If he’s paired with a grappler, like Lesnar was, will he be able to escape without having his arm broken?
There are a lot of hard decisions White is going to have to make with this signing.
“We threw the kitchen sink at Brock when he came in,” White said. “Are we going to do that same thing with James? I don’t know. To be 100 percent honest with you, all [expletive] aside, I haven’t thought it out.
“I like James Toney. He’s one of the greatest boxers ever. I have tremendous respect for him. He said he wanted to fight in the UFC and I was interested. Now he’s here and I have to figure out what to do with him. What we won’t do is make a freak show out of it. I’d be the first to scream if someone else did that, so I’m not going to do it.”
Toney is still a big enough name in boxing that he’s been mentioned as a possible opponent for World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko. Goossen insists that with Toney’s ability to sell a fight, it could set a European record for ticket sales, if it occurs.
For the first time, the UFC will have to manage the schedule of one of its fighters with someone else, since Toney’s contract allows him to box.
There are a lot of variables that are going to make this a difficult proposition. White, though, is undeterred.
“Hey, I don’t want this to be seen as a joke, and it’s not like Herschel Walker or Canseco or any of those guys,” White said. “James Toney is a fighter. The worst thing anyone can ever say to me is that they were watching one of my fights and they changed the channel. That’s why I’ll never put [expletive] fights on.
“James is an interesting case. We know how much talent he has as a boxer and he insists he’ll surprise people by how much MMA he knows. I’ve still got some thinking to do. But if we promote him and he does well and that raises his profile and he gets a Klitschko fight and makes a lot of money for himself and Goossen, I’d be cool with that. But James came to me and he literally chased me around the country to do it, so I’m giving him the chance. We’ll get it figured out one way or another.”
This report was updated at 10:25 p.m. ET on March 3.