James Toney, the UFC and kid gloves

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
9:21
AM ET
By Jake Rossen/Sherdog.com
ESPN.com
Archive

Years ago, Vince McMahon had the idea of booking Brock Lesnar against Lennox Lewis in a mixed martial arts match.

At some point, Lewis smartened up and realized that it probably wouldn't have been in his best interests. He retired happy, wealthy and healthy. And while that fight was little more than rumor, it's becoming eerily prescient.

Eight years later, Lesnar is the UFC champ, and Lewis' role as the formidable puncher may now be played by James Toney, a 72-6-3 former titlist who just signed a multi-fight deal with the promotion.

You can spin this either as a compelling experiment or a cringe-worthy disaster, but here are the facts: If we ignore the confused, limited-engagement bout between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki in 1976, Toney is far and away the most accomplished boxer to ever attempt a mixed-style fight. If he can force an engagement on the feet against a striker with limited use of his legs, he has a reasonable chance of success. MMA boxing is not Queensberry boxing, however, and the stance and movement Toney has spent decades practicing might get his legs scooped up from under him; worse, the cardio demands imposed by extended sessions of resistance in the clinch or defending takedowns might have him exploding inside of a round.

These are the questions surrounding his ability in a cage, but good fights are all about stirring -- then resolving -- ambiguity. The more doubt that surrounds Toney's knowledge, the more curious we'll be to see him step in. Fight promoters are many things; raised by fools they are not.

The problem unique to Toney: No one was watching him fight in his own sport. He has not headlined a pay-per-view event in 14 years. If he were getting fat prize purses in boxing, he wouldn't have spent months campaigning for a break in the UFC. This is a fight designed around the novelty of watching a high-profile boxer against a well-rounded martial artist or grappler.

"He's here and I have to figure out what to do with him," Dana White told Yahoo's Kevin Iole. "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."

"Freak show" has negative connotations; so long as two adults are physically fit enough to compete and have skills that could conceivably result in victory, I don't particularly care if they're actors, boxers, or deep-sea divers. But an aging boxer with no history of grappling in live contests is not going to be in any title mix. He's there to be gawked at. That's fine. Just don't call the Bearded Lady a member of high society, and don't call James Toney a guilt-free addition to mixed martial arts.

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