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James Toney didn't let the first sentence of the first question finish before erupting. After going 72-6-3 as a boxer, Toney makes his mixed martial arts debut when he fights Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer Randy Couture in a three-round heavyweight bout at UFC 118 on Aug. 28 at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.
When a reporter referred to Couture as a legend, Toney banged his palm on a table and began to shout.
"Man, what kind of [expletive] sport is this if y'all call a guy barely over .500 a legend?" Toney said of Couture's 18-10 record. "If this guy is a legend, what am I? I'm going to knock this [expletive's] head off. I'll hit him so hard his grandmother's going to feel it. I come from boxing. Boxing ain't no joke and your legend is about to find that out the hard way."
Toney is one of the greatest boxers of his era, as well as in a league by himself in terms of trash talking. He loves to fight, and not just inside the ring. He never has seen a fight he didn't want to take.
"See all these security guys around here," said John Arthur, Toney's conditioning coach and close confidante, nodding toward a group of burly men with biceps the size of grapefruits sitting nearby. "They're not here to protect James. They're here to protect the public. James is a fighter and if someone says something to him, he's ready to fight all the time. He'd hurt somebody bad if he could. That's how he is. He loves to fight."
He's fighting in MMA because UFC president Dana White is a huge boxing fan and was infatuated with the thought of adding Toney to his roster once Toney began bugging him for a fight last year. Toney has been unable to get a significant fight in boxing recently and decided to try to find one in MMA.
The UFC considered first matching him with the since-released Kimbo Slice, though Toney asked instead for heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar.
"He's a big dude," Toney said of Lesnar, "but all that means is he'll make a bigger noise when he hits the floor after I knock his [butt] out."
He has to wait for his chance at Lesnar, though. As it is, he's positioning his fight with Couture as a battle of boxing vs. MMA, though it's nothing of the sort.
Toney's best days as a boxer are far behind him – his last win over a then top-10 opponent was in 2003 – but he's world-class in a discipline in which not many others in MMA are.
He'll wear four-ounce gloves after fighting much of his career wearing 10-ounce gloves. And though Toney is known more for his defense than his punching power, he can punch and will knock out anyone if he hits them on the chin wearing a four-ounce glove.
The likelihood of that happening, though, is extraordinarily low. Most likely, Couture will either kick Toney and knock his feet out from under him or he'll use his wrestling skills to quickly take Toney to his mat. And despite rumors that he forced Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Muhammad Lawal to tap in sparring, once Toney's on his back, he's a short-timer against Couture.
But if Couture quickly takes him down and finishes him with a ground-and-pound, it won't prove that MMA fighters as a group are more talented than boxers. Nor will it be meaningful if Toney happens to hit Couture on the chin with a haymaker and knock him out.
Toney is the kind of a guy who thinks he can beat anybody at anything. Put him in a game of 1-on-1 against Kobe Bryant and the 5-foot-10 heavyweight would start trashing Bryant's skills and promising a victory. He'd probably try to convince you he'd outrun Usain Bolt in the 100 meters.
MMA and boxing are related but different sports, and being great in one is no guarantee of success in the other. A Toney win will no more be a win for boxing than a Couture win will be a line in the sand for MMA. This fight simply means a paycheck for both men.
Don't take it seriously and it might turn out to be fun.
One of the most underappreciated, but significant, reasons for the UFC's success has been Joe Silva's astute matchmaking. Every fight Silva makes has a purpose. Unlike many promotions, which just put on undercard fights to kill time until the television broadcast begins, each of the matches that Silva makes carries meaning. There is a logical order of progression in his matchmaking.
There is no logic or natural progression in this fight. Toney is a boxer – an old boxer who, at almost 42, is just about finished – and he's not going to be around for the long haul.
White insisted when he first signed Toney that he would never put on a "freak show fight." This, though, is exactly what Couture-Toney has become.
"I'm the guy who said all the time I'd never do a freak show and now, here I am doing one," White said. "But I put a really good card on around this so that no matter what happens, no one can complain."
It will be an entertaining diversion and, if Toney wins, it guarantees the most rollicking post-fight news conference in UFC history.
These sports, though, are about as different as football and futbol.
An athlete who is great at one isn't necessarily going to be great at another. That's a given going in and nothing that happens between two 40-plus-year-old men Aug. 28 in Boston will change that.
- James Toney
- Randy Couture