Over his 22-year professional boxing career, a few things have become very certain about James "Lights Out" Toney.
First things first, the man can be brilliant in the ring. Seriously brilliant. There have been times in his career where he has operated the sweet science at virtuoso levels.
Also, Toney loves to talk. This isn't a bad thing, necessarily (or a good thing, necessarily). James Toney, for as ridiculous as he can be when he speaks, somehow seems sincere. When he speaks, you really do believe that he believes that he's been ducked by "the Klitschko sisters." The incredibly easy path of facts, results in the ring, and logic that dictates that that's probably not the case doesn't much matter. James Toney really believes it. James Toney really believes he's the best.
And then there's conditioning and dedication to staying in shape. Look, James Toney is not the first man to go from middleweight to heavyweight. He's also been fairly successful even at the highest weights.
But James Toney is not a heavyweight. He's 5'10" with a 72" reach. There is no shortage of photos available online that will show you the Grand Rapids native looking flat-out slovenly. No, he's not quite Gabe Brown, but calling Toney "in shape" for his run at heavyweight would be a stretch. That Toney has had moderate success as a heavyweight is a reflection of his pure talent.
It's been a while since Toney has had any notable success in boxing, though. MMA fans who are unfamiliar with the reality of the boxing landscape may not realize just how faded Toney is in boxing. Believe it or not, James Toney is not a particularly relevant heavyweight, even in a bad division.
The Heavyweight Years: Part 1
Forget about what Toney did at 160, 168 and cruiserweight. None of that matters anymore. What James Toney did 10 or 15 years ago is not something he can do now. So put out of your mind his rise up against Michael Nunn, his battles with Mike McCallum, his jaw-dropping robbery of Dave Tiberi, the "gamecock punch" fight with Roy Jones Jr., and the incredible war in 2003 against Vassiliy Jirov. Focus on what he's done since moving up to heavyweight, and especially the recent years, because that's the guy coming into the Octagon on Saturday night. The James Toney that fought Nunn, McCallum, Tiberi, Jones, Jirov, Iran Barkley, Reggie Johnson, Merqui Sosa, Montell Griffin, etc., is not the man that fights in 2010.
Let me make something exceedingly clear: James Toney is not the heavyweight champion of the world. James Toney has never been the heavyweight champion of the world. James Toney has never even held one of the four major sanctioning body trinkets (WBC, IBF, WBA, WBO). James Toney has held the very lightly-regarded IBA title and the WBC Continental Americas title, which is one of those countless belts in boxing that allows a sanctioning body to dip into fighters' pockets even though it's not for their top title.
Toney's proper heavyweight career started off in fine fashion when he beat up and stopped Evander Holyfield on October 4, 2003, a little less than six months after he captured the IBF cruiserweight belt in the remarkable fight against Jirov. Toney put the iron-chinned and iron-willed Holyfield down in the ninth round, and Holyfield's corner threw in the towel at 1:42. It was a successful arrival to the heavyweight stage for one of boxing's most enigmatic figures.
11 months later, he dominated unbeaten Rydell Booker in a WBC eliminator. The unproven Booker was simply no match for Toney. It was Booker's final fight, as he had been arrested five months before and charged with possession of cocaine and intent to deliver more than 1,000 grams. He was convicted shortly after and sentenced to 12 to 30 years in prison.
Then the bloom came off the rose. Toney did beat WBA titlist John Ruiz by decision in April 2005. In May, it was reported that Toney had failed his post-fight drug test, and the win was taken off of his record. Toney tested positive for stanozolol, one of the more popular performance-enhancing anabolic steroids. Toney claimed the steroids were prescribed to him to treat an arm injury that he got in the Booker fight, and was also sued by Ruiz.
He returned to the ring on October 1, beating Dominick Guinn, who was once thought to be a "next American star" in the division. Guinn had by then already seen his bubble burst with losses to Monte Barrett and Sergei Liakhovich, plus a 10-round draw against Friday Ahunanya. Toney won a dominant 12-round decision, and was then matched with Hasim Rahman, who held the WBC title. Rahman and Toney went to a majority draw, with two judges seeing it 114-114, and the third scoring it 117-111 for Rahman. Toney's performance was roundly criticized, as was his conditioning. He weighed a career-high 237 pounds for that fight, and looked just plain fat.
Toney had two more fights left in his career as a relevant heavyweight, though. He lost a disputed split decision to Samuel Peter in September 2006. In January 2007, they rematched, this time with Peter dominating on his way to a very wide unanimous decision that no one debated. It was the best performance of Peter's career to date; it was probably one of Toney's absolute worst.
And that's the sum total of James Toney as a serious heavyweight contender. He whooped Holyfield, who 13 months later (after his next fight) would have his license revoked by the NYSAC because he was deemed a risk. By the time Holyfield had gotten to Toney, his career was in a spiral, which had started four years before when he received a generous draw against Lennox Lewis. Starting with the Lewis draw, Holyfield was 2-3-2 in his last seven fights.
The Heavyweight Years: Part 2
Ater the two fights with Peter, Toney became a pure also-ran. He beat journeyman Danny Batchelder by split decision in May 2007, but failed another drug test, popping positive for stanozolol and boldenone. He was fined $2500 and suspended for a year, but appealed the suspension by claiming that someone had tampered with his water bottle. The decision was not reversed -- hell, Batchelder failed his drug test, too, for stanozolol and oxandrolone, plus a "high rate of testosterone," consistent with use of HGH.
A rematch with Rahman in July 2008 aired on Fox Sports Net, quite a step down from the glitz and glamour of an HBO fight. The two worn-out heavyweights went three rounds, with Toney appearing to win a TKO-3 when Rahman couldn't continue due to a cut over his left eye. The California State Athletic Commission overruled the result, declaring it a no-contest because the cut had come from an accidental headbutt.
In December, Toney returned to the airwaves on Versus against Fres Oquendo, another never-quite-was of the heavyweight ranks. Toney won a split decision thanks to an eighth round deduction against Oquendo (the fight otherwise would have been a draw). I scored that fight widely for Oquendo, and truly feel he was robbed of a win that night. Toney was highly ineffective. Toney's next fight came in September 2009, a two-round win over an unknown named Matthew Greer. Greer buzzed Toney, with the silver lining of the easy but troubled win being that Toney, at 217 1/2 pounds, looked in much better shape than he had in the last six years.
So what does all of this mean for Saturday night? Maybe nothing, to be honest. James Toney will not be boxing in Boston against Randy Couture -- or, rather, Randy Couture will not be boxing against James Toney.
I am an MMA fan. I became a major fan in 2002/03 when a friend of mine turned me on to the sport with the Pride and UFC pay-per-views. I had seen tapes of early UFCs in my youth, but while I enjoyed Don Frye quite a bit, I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a UFC diehard from the beginning. I understood little about the sport, in reality, but I didn't mind watching fighting. As I got older and was re-introduced, I began to understand a little more, and not hurting matters was how much the sport had evolved since the days of Tank Abbott and Dan Severn. This time around, it was less a spectacle that THEY DIDN'T WANT ME TO SEE, and more a real sport.
But I am no MMA expert. I don't think one really needs to be for this fight, either. UFC's Dana White has called this a "freakshow" fight, something he said he'd never put on. But it's a little more than that. Past MMA freakshows have included the likes of Jose Canseco and unathletic pro wrester Giant Silva.
Toney, though not highly cross-trained in multiple disciplines and well past his peak, is a legitimate fighter. At the same time, this is not really boxing versus MMA. That's a great way for White and the UFC marketing department to sell this thing, but James Toney is no more representing the whole of boxing than Brock Lesnar represents college wrestling. In the Octagon, under their rules, James Toney is an MMA fighter with a limited skill set.
The Predictable Breakdown: It Ain't Rocket Surgery
Prevailing Thought #1: Couture tries to stand with Toney, it'll be "Lights Out" for the 47-year-old UFC legend. And that's hard to argue against. Toney may not be a devastating puncher, but with four-ounce gloves and decades of training in the art of how to land a meaningful punch, he's more than dangerous enough to put Couture to sleep.
Prevailing Thought #2: James Toney won't be able to do a damn thing with Couture if he can't catch him with a punch before Couture is able to do anything. Also had to argue against. Everyone and their one-eyed, deaf-mute grandma could tell you that if Randy Couture gets the clinch on Toney or is able to take him down with a shoot, Toney's in major trouble. Couture isn't known for his incredible shoot takedowns, really, but how good does he have to be at it to take down a man who barely knows what he's doing past the boxing elements he brings to the table? Couture is a clinch specialist, and he's beaten and even overwhelmed much more well-rounded fighters than James Toney over his career.
It's such a wild card fight. Neither of these guys are the fighter I'll remember them for being. Toney is long past it, as is Couture. What this fight is is a fairly genius financial move by James Toney, who was not exactly having his door knocked down to get work in boxing anymore. Toney will tell you that's because he's so dangerous that everyone is afraid of him. Reality will tell you it's because Toney is past 40, doesn't put on good fights anymore, doesn't sell tickets, and hasn't had the interest of any of the networks in boxing for years.
Yes, Randy Couture could have an exceptionally easy time and could flat-out embarrass James Toney on Saturday. And yes, James Toney could lay out Randy Couture with one good, clean right hand.
What I see as the difference in trying to forecast this fight is that both have one really stupid thing they can do. Toney could try to beat Couture at something other than the stand-up game. Couture could try to stand with Toney.
But Couture has more to go to than Toney does. If James doesn't catch Randy, or goad Randy into a boxing match with four-ounce gloves, what is he going to do? He can't wrestle him. He's not going to submit him with one of his much-rumored chokeouts. Couture can knock off one aspect of his game and go to anything else he knows, because anything else he knows, he knows a hell of a lot more than Toney does.
James Toney can only win this fight with the one thing he truly knows, and that's his boxing background. Randy Couture can win this fight in any number of ways, and it won't be hard for him to do it. If Couture doesn't stand with Toney, it's his fight to lose.
And for his part, even if he's embarrassed, James Toney might parlay the risk taken at UFC 118 into another big payday in boxing. Hey, if Shannon Briggs can get another crack at a heavyweight title, what's stopping the again-famous James Toney?