“Son, do you really want to do this?”
“Pops, I wanna do it.”
With that two sentence conversation, three division boxing champion James Toney added mixed martial artist to his combat sports resume, and his longtime adviser, John “Pops” Arthur signed on to help his charge realize his ambition to move from the ring to the Octagon.
It may sound simple enough, but with Arthur on board, Toney was free to do what he does best – fight, talk, and build fights up – but not always in that order. And Arthur, mildly skeptical at first, quickly became a believer.
“He had always told me that he wanted to do it, even before this challenge came up,” he said. “When the challenge came out, it drove him to another level. He has something to live for now that makes him more hungry. And he’s hungry now.”
If you’ve followed the career of the man nicknamed “Lights Out”, you’ll know that a hungry Toney is a dangerous Toney, and he’s never been more dangerous than when he’s been counted out before the opening bell.
From his first title-winning effort against Michael Nunn in 1991, to his later wins over Iran Barkley, Vassiliy Jirov, and Evander Holyfield, Toney enjoys fighting with his back to the wall, where his shoulder rolls, dips, and dodges create a false sense of security in opponents before he unleashes pinpoint counters in response. It’s what he made his career in the boxing ring from, and he insists that there will be no changes in that MO when he makes his MMA debut against Randy Couture this weekend in the co-main event of UFC 118 in Boston.
“I’m a fighter, I can fight,” said Toney. “That’s all that matters. If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete, and you learn how to adapt.”
But will a scant few months of training in an entirely new sport be enough for Toney against Couture, a Hall of Famer in MMA with years of previous experience in wrestling? You know Toney’s answer to that one, and while many in the boxing industry were skeptical of his intentions when the fight was announced, he has been putting in the hours in the gym to get a crash course in the sport.
“I’m having fun with it,” he said. “When I started learning some moves, I started liking it.”
Working with Antonio McKee and Mo Lawal, along with his head coach Trevor Sherman, Toney’s days have been filled with takedowns, chokes, and groundfighting drills, and that’s necessary, not just to be able to compete in the Octagon, but because the former middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight champion’s main form of attack in his boxing matches may not be effective in an MMA match.
More succinctly, the subtle old-school offensive and defensive tricks he learned from watching film of Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Sugar Ray Robinson may not help him on Saturday night unless Couture engages in an unlikely standup battle with him.
“I’ve worked on things to add to my old-school things. I’ve learned things from Pops, I’ve learned from Trevor, from King Mo, and Antonio McKee. And I’m still learning the game, and I still like to learn. If you can’t learn nothing new, then you don’t need to be doing it. So even though I like the old-school methods better, I’m open to the new stuff.”
And if you ask him about dirty boxing, Toney smiles.
“Randy’s gonna come in and try to do what he does, what you call dirty boxing, and it’s gonna be a short night for him,” he said. “Very short. And I do hope he tries to grab me, because everybody knows that’s my style – I’m an inside fighter. Well, what if he tries to take me to the ground? I’ve got something for him. We’re ready and I’m not playing.”
With statements like that, Toney vs Couture has taken on a life of its own in recent weeks, with more and more excitement building for the “Boxing vs UFC” matchup. For Couture, it’s just another day in the office, as he’s used to all the hoopla that surrounds each Pay-Per-View event. For Toney, who’s been there before as well, it’s a welcome return to the big stage, a place he really hasn’t seen since his two fight series with Sam Peter in 2006-07.
Since then, he’s unbeaten in four fights (three wins and one no contest), and he currently holds the fringe IBA heavyweight title. He promises a return to boxing in the fall, and also expects to keep fighting in the UFC as well.
“I’m gonna do them both because boxing’s in my blood,” he said. “I have a boxing title defense scheduled for October, and until I get those two girls (the Klitschko brothers) in the ring, I’m gonna fight.”
In the process, he’s garnered a whole new admiration society among the MMA media and fans, a startling development for the 42-year old, and one that Arthur has enjoyed watching.
“We’re over the shock effect because we’re working in it now, but it’s amazing and we’re enjoying it,” said Arthur, who also doesn’t buy into the ‘freakshow’ tag put on the fight, as he promises some surprises from his charge on Saturday night.
“This guy we’re getting here (Couture) is not a gift because he’s a world champion too, and I look at it like this: people say it’s a freakshow or circus, and stuff like that, but how can you say that?” he asks. “You’ve got two champions facing each other. But the fight starts up here (raises his fists to ear level), and after that, we’ll see what happens. They don’t know that James is a real fighter. And they’re gonna find out. They’ve never seen anybody with hands like James, and even if you’re trying to grab him, he’s gonna get off first.”
And with four ounce gloves and a lifetime of experience, James Toney may end up being the most dangerous striker we’ve ever seen in the Octagon. But that’s only if he can get his punches off and avoid Couture’s takedowns. It’s those ‘what ifs’ that make this one of the most interesting bouts we’re likely to see. As for “Lights Out”, he’s just enjoying the ride.
“I’m having fun, I’m a natural fighter, and I’ll adapt to any kind of style,” he said. “I belong in the cage because everyone says I’m a beast.”