UFC's Toney Signing Shrewd on Many Levels
by Jason Probst [March 30, 2010] --
It’s on, at last.
The UFC’s signing of James Toney represents a bold move on numerous levels. And however the addition plays out, it’s proof positive that the organization remains willing to take a risky play and parlay it into a successful one.
Since MMA’s stateside inception in 1993, mixed martial artists and high-level boxers have had few meaningful showdowns. Toney, a four-division beltholder, is easily the biggest name to cross over and with him brings a huge constituency with a lot of long-running questions to be answered. Chief among them … how would a world-class boxer do against a mixed martial artist?
The answer to that question has been supplied on numerous occasions, with has-been boxers, almost always on obscure promotions (our apologies to Melton Bowen), but a puncher’s chance will always draw interest (witness Ray Mercer’s savage one-shot demolition of Tim Sylvia). Previous boxer-into-MMA forays have supplied little evidence, other than a guy who cannot grapple will be subsequently out-grappled and beaten down or submitted once he’s taken off his feet.
But Toney’s one-man trash talk campaign against everyone from Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson to UFC President Dana White serves as evidence that there are still doubters. With those doubts, come millions of eyeballs, attention and media coverage that could prove a boon to the sport, in general, and the UFC, in particular. Toney is proof that, by going viral, there’s still plenty of interest from both sides of the MMA-versus-boxing argument. People want to know what will happen.
What makes or breaks the Toney signing for the UFC revolves around how the public perceives his handling by the organization. Done correctly, it could provide a boost to the sport’s biggest promotion. The keys are in how people view it and what he does inside the cage.
Put simply, a professional boxer is going to have the ability to do two things in an MMA fight -- take out his opponent in wipeout fashion or get completely schooled due to lack of training in the numerous disciplines required to compete in MMA. There is scant middle ground. Just look at how Mercer registered wildly different outcomes in his victory over Sylvia, where he landed a massive right hand that dropped and stopped the former UFC champion, and his loss to street-fighter turned mixed martial artist Kimbo Slice. After a takedown from Slice, Mercer was quickly submitted, despite the fact that Slice had only a few months of MMA training under his belt.
Taken as separate, stand-alone events, a neutral observer could draw wildly different conclusions from Mercer’s forays into non-boxing combat sports. In general, wandering into another brand of competition is a disturbing event when one isn’t used to getting kicked in the head. Mercer’s showings display what could be similar chapters in Toney’s MMA career, provided he’s around long enough to have a few fights.
The key factor here is how the UFC matches him. By putting him in with tough competition -- against someone who might actually try a takedown -- a Toney loss wouldn’t be a bad thing for the organization. It shows a willingness to answer the challenge from boxing while simultaneously demonstrating that those skills alone aren’t enough to compete in mixed martial arts. And if Toney manages to land something big, chances are his opponent is going to sleep. The UFC could then increase his level of difficulty and benefit from the massive media exposure the victory receives.
Overall, the key to the UFC’s overcoming the “freak show” detractors of the Toney signing is putting him in against a mixed martial artist who’s ready to win however necessary. Trading hands with Toney and getting taken out would look suspicious, to say the least. Taking him out with muay Thai and a mix of leg kicks and knees would be a nice tip of the hat toward those arts while showing boxers cannot just rely on hands or, as Toney puts it, his lethal “side check kick.”
At the end of the day, it’s takedowns, grappling and submissions that are the underappreciated arts. It would be a bold statement to make to Toney and the rest of the flat earth defenders; you can’t just jump in and learn the basics of these skills as though you were finishing up an online diploma. At some point, Toney and the rest of his backers will learn this, preferably in highlight-reel fashion. That’s part of the appeal. Even if he somehow manages to win his first bout, the promotional boost will only increase, making the comeuppance all the more sweet.
Kill the Wabbit
Toney’s woofing on MMA, the UFC, White and many of the top contenders is pure genius. Fight fans of any discipline can’t ignore it, and sides are being taken everywhere, be it at the water cooler at work or in chat rooms where fans debate the long-running question of how someone like him would fare in MMA.
Unlike Slice, who made no bones about his humble aspirations to transform himself into a mixed martial artist, Toney’s dismissal of other disciplines makes it seem as though he’d been preserved in a time capsule from 1993, back when he weighed 168 pounds. It’s as if the subsequent evolution of the sport and introduction of better athletes mattered not. There is a small constituency among boxing fans that will buy into this tripe, and they would love nothing better than to see Toney talk smack and deliver the message in the cage.
There are also plenty of MMA fans who have waited years for the opportunity to send the opposite message to doubters of the sport’s legitimacy against a top boxer. It’s like health care reform. There are no dispassionate observers, merely fired-up partisans and lots of rhetoric. The difference here is we get to settle it and get some answers, and fast.
Match Him Tough or Go Home
Make no bones about it -- the UFC acquiring Toney has led many to believe that the organization has jumped the shark, tapping into the kind of dubious sideshow element that led EliteXC to foist up Slice as its main promotional attraction and Strikeforce to give Herschel Walker a slot on its televised card.
Matching Toney tough -- against someone that will bring a full range of willing skills -- does two things. First, it increases the legitimacy of the organization answering his challenge. Second, it adds significant credibility to a win, should he find lightning in a bottle and land something like Mercer did on Sylvia.
If it still seems like a sideshow, consider the alternative of not giving Toney a chance. MMA would merely come under attack from doubters who still do not consider it a superior form of fighting. It’s only fitting that Toney’s chance happen on the big stage of the UFC. It’s a question that deserves asking and answering.
Scorched Earth for Strikeforce
Lost in the backdrop of the Toney signing was the simple mathematics of signing him versus potentially losing him to Strikeforce. The UFC can definitely survive and thrive with or without him, but letting him get snapped up by a rival promotion -- particularly Strikeforce, whose best asset, Fedor Emelianenko, seems to have faded out of the picture for now -- would have been foolish.
Does the UFC do the above-board thing and give him the same tough first fight most guys get? To do otherwise would only be pandering to ratings, and the guess here is that the UFC won’t. Remember, Toney is a lot more valuable before he is exposed. His presence also brings an incredible amount of attention to what constitutes the biggest crossover star into MMA yet.
And while his best days are several years and pounds behind him, his ability to hype a fight and simultaneously disrespect the very disciplines that comprise MMA only make the comeuppance that much better. Win or lose, everyone will be watching. At the end of the day, that’s what’s good for the sport, particularly if some hard lessons are served up in the process.