In early January boxer James Toney began angling for a spot in the UFC. After weeks of internet posturing and at least one scuttled contract, a deal had, improbably, been reached. On March 3, James Toney was announced as the newest fighter of the UFC. Questions abound...
Has the UFC crossed into freak show territory?
Without any mixed martial arts experience to his credit, it's reasonable that Toney's signing with the UFC raise some eyebrows, but the affair isn't all circus. We should remember, Toney isn't just an athlete making a high-profile jump to MMA, but one with an appreciable background in combat sports. As accomplished a boxer as he is, Toney's transition is no more bizarre than Abu Dhabi champion Braulio Estima's pending debut, or, having had only three professional fights, Rolles Gracie's appearance in the UFC. So why the gnashing of teeth?
The long-simmering feud between MMA and boxing probably has something to do with it. While other martial arts communities-judo, jiu-jitsu, muay thai, and so on-seem to happily coexist with mixed martial arts, the boxing community has, on the whole, turned its nose up at MMA. Naturally, then, MMA fans grow indignant at the idea that some aging pugilist expects to blow his way through the UFC, and we become yet more frustrated when he's given the chance to try. Yet, the public might also be less critical of Toney's place on the UFC's roster if Dana White hadn't been so vocal in the past about what he's characterized as gimmick fighters and pretenders.
Festooned with f-words aplenty, White's criticisms of competing organizations have, in the last several years, most often zeroed in on their talent pools, and what appeared to him as sideshow attractions masquerading as serious contenders. Pro-wrestlers, Kimbo Slice, and crossover athletes have all drawn his ire, and yet those are what have constituted the UFC's most-high profile signings in the last two years. Hell, the whole last season of the Ultimate Fighter was lousy with NFL benchwarmers. With all this in mind, it'd be fair to say that Dana white has, at times, tossed his standards aside and peddled his share of curios. This, however, isn't one of those times. In James "Lights Out" Toney MMA fans are getting a proven fighter, and that's what counts.
Can James Toney become a true contender?
Nightmare scenarios run through my mind. Randy Couture, laid out within the fight's opening 60 seconds, is retired by the blustering MMA amateur James Toney. Lyoto Machida's championship reign is cut short, his modified karate failing him in the face of a precision previously unheard of in mixed martial arts. Light-heavyweight captains Mauricio Rua and Thiago Silva find their leg kicks countered at blistering speed, and Rashad Evans blindly, desperately shoots for a double-leg, eyes jabbed up and swollen. When considering James Toney in the UFC's light-heavyweight division, these are my greatest fears. That decades of cross-breeding among the martial disciplines can be undone by the striking prowess of even a mediocre boxing champion; that mixed martial artists are, after all, just low-brow, brawling roughnecks, and that the sport we've hailed as the future was, in the end, only a diversion. Certainly, this is what most boxing elitists would like us to believe. Certainly, in my heart, I don't. Like most nightmares, it is unrealistic, illogical, unlikely.
We should remember that Toney has been so effective only within the confines of boxing, against other men working within the same relatively narrow criteria for victory. We should likewise consider the possibility that Toney, in his especially concentrated prowess, may be too specialized a fighter, that his skill set and instincts are so refined, so particular, that there is little room for improvisation or adaptation. So, while he might outbox Chuck Liddell with his eyes closed, James Toney not only lacks a feel for the sprawl, but his long-entrenched ideas of fighting may prevent him from ever learning it. And that goes the same for submissions or clinch work. Supposing he can overcome his own ego as a boxer and commit to cross-training (dubious, if his dismissive online persona is any indication), then he will yet have his inexperience and age to struggle with. There's only so much schooling his 41-year-old body can endure, and even his best efforts will, when weighed against the UFC's light-heavyweight doom patrol, most likely leave him at an insurmountable deficit, tied up in knots or ground to a pulp.
Given so many obstacles, the chance of Toney pursuing any legitimate title shot seems remote. Rather, we might expect his time with the UFC to yield a string of intriguing showcase fights-with Randy Couture, Anderson Silva, or, oh boy, Kimbo Slice.
How will this effect Strikeforce?
With Strikeforce garnering a fair amount of buzz thanks to a successful MMA debut by likeable football legend Herschel Walker, it might be fair to assume that James Toney presented the UFC with a timely counter-maneuver. And while Toney certainly ought to bring more credibility with him, former boxing champion such as he is, neither Walker nor Toney seem to present any long-term value to either promotion.
Should Strikeforce be so lucky as to have Walker fight a second time, there's still the difficult matter of who is opponent will be. Who do you get to face off with such a high-profile yet roughly hewn fighter? On the other hand, Toney's dedication to mixed martial arts is extremely suspect. Given his rather casual regard for the rigors and demands of a full MMA program, one gets the impression that his interest in the sport extends only insofar as it comes relatively easy; as much of a novelty as he might be for us, so might MMA be a novelty for him. What's more, it would appear that the boxing community's attitude towards Toney is, and has been for some time, decidedly ambivalent. This is all to say that Toney's wider appeal might not turn out to be all that remarkable, despite his history of accomplishments.
Signing James Toney seems like a smart move by the UFC to accomplish certain short-term goals: give the promotion a shot in the arm following a sluggish winter, and steal some heat away from Strikeforce. As to long-term ramifications, however, Toney may simply describe an offbeat period in the UFC's history.
But is it bad for the sport?!
There's no way to tell. Time was, Brock Lesnar's debut in the UFC was a skidmark on MMA's flag; we watched in horror as the legless, armless Kyle Maynard took to the cage for an amateur contest that would undoubtedly sully the sport's reputation; Ray Mercer's KO of Tim Sylvia threatened to strip all credibility from our beloved (and not so beloved) champions. Novelty acts, embarrassing reality show antics, and grudge matches fueled by scandalous vitriol-mixed martial arts has been an occasion for all these things, and flourished nonetheless. So why should James Toney's UFC career seem such a killer? Because some smart-mouthed fossil of a boxing aficionado scoffs on his blog? Man, who the hell cares? Fellas, it's time to admit that we may have slight alarmist tendencies.