BOSTON – James Toney was flashing two diamond bracelets on his right arm. “About $10,000 each,” he noted. They went well with his $5,000 diamond ring. On his left wrist was what he claimed was a 255-karat diamond watch – “This is called a ‘brother’s watch,’ ” he laughed. He said it cost $185,000. More diamonds looped loosely around his neck, linked to a diamond cross hanging in front of his stomach.
“The necklace is $200,000,” he said.
Toney earned such riches as a boxer. Nicknamed “Lights Out,” he’s 72-6-3 with 44 knockouts. He’s won 11 world championships in five different weight classes and at age 42 is the IBA heavyweight belt holder. He’d have worn more jewelry Thursday, but his over-sized diamond earring is gone.
“I lost the big one,” he said. “I was being James Toney, fighting in a parking lot back home in Detroit. … It fell off.”
With the diamonds and the dust-up as a preview, James Toney will become the first major boxing star to attempt what appears to be a high-risk, high-pain crossover into mixed martial arts. He’ll fight Randy Couture at the TD Garden on Saturday at UFC 118.
Almost everyone thinks Toney is nuts for trying it.
A debate has raged over who would prevail if a boxer and a mixed martial artist fought since MMA was invented in the early 1990s. No one has been able to figure out how the old-school sweet science fits in with this new-age phenomenon. At UFC 1, a fighter competed wearing one boxing glove and one free hand. Ever since, the two sports have battled for fans, media attention and bragging rights.
The UFC, led by former boxer-turned-promoter Dana White, has flourished. “MMA is the king of the [expletive] right now,” Toney said, which is another reason he’s here. He’ll make an estimated $750,000 to $1 million Saturday. In boxing, “I can’t get no fights.”
Money aside, he now has to actually climb inside the UFC’s caged Octagon. In terms of the dueling sports, it’s almost universally agreed that what matters is the rules in place. If it was a boxing match, the boxer would win. If it is under the umbrella of MMA – where boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, karate and just about anything else is allowed – then the more well-rounded fighter will dominate.
“With these rules, Randy has the advantage,” UFC lightweight fighter Kenny Florian said. “The same way if Randy tried to go and box Toney in a boxing ring, Toney’s got the big advantage.”
That’s why no serious MMA fighter has dared step into a boxing ring. Why get your face carved up by jabs? And it’s why no legitimate boxer has agreed to climb into the cage, where getting wrestled to the ground will result in a submission or a hellacious flurry of elbows to the face.
No one, that is, until James Toney decided to do it. And here is where his unique combination of talent and personality come into play.
He is a skilled enough boxer (note the expensive jewelry) to potentially knock out Couture with a single blow, thus making the bout intriguing. Yet he’s crazy enough (losing an earring in a parking-lot brawl) to attempt it.
James Toney, if nothing else, is a fighter. In a ring. On the street. And now barefoot inside the Octagon. What’s the difference, right?
“I’m a violent person,” Toney said. “I like violence.”
The Toney camp says he’s underestimated. They say his mind is a sponge, and he’s picked up the sport in eight months of training. They say he’s worked on takedown defense. They note his proven ability to slip punches. They say you can’t underestimate the heart of a champion. They even offer up the possibility he might be able to choke Couture out when the former college All-American wrestler shoots for a takedown. If not, once Toney punches Couture like he’s never been punched before, they say, it’ll be over.
Other than people on the boxer’s payroll, though, it’s all Randy Couture, the five-time UFC champion. Toney is called naïve for thinking you can box an opponent who can both hit back, wrestle and kick. Even at 47, Couture is multi-skilled and dangerous.
“When you have Couture’s takedown component and the inexperience James has, if James does get put down on the ground he’s going to be screwed,” said Peter Welch, a top boxing trainer out of Boston. “There is only so much you can do.”
Welch is a boxing guy first. However, he helped train Couture back in 2005, sparring with him both in boxing and MMA. Welch could manage when it was straight boxing. Once it was about MMA, forget it.
“Once you’ve given him the takedown advantage, Randy’ll crush you,” Welch said. “He almost broke me in half backwards when we sparred. So I realized there was a contrasting difference in my game as a boxer and his with everything combined.”
The best you’ll get for James Toney is the proverbial (and aptly named) “puncher’s chance.” Everyone concedes if he can time an upper cut right as Couture comes charging in, then he can win. Either that, or if Couture makes the mistake of standing up with him or getting into a clinch along the fence, where Toney can unleash some short punches.
“What am I going to do because he’s a wrestler?” Toney said. “Wrestling is to my advantage. I like being inside. If you’re inside I’m going to hit you. All I need is 36 inches. I’m going to hit you somewhere. It’s over with.
“The question is: Can he keep from getting knocked out?”
Toney is used to wearing standard-weight, 10-ounce boxing gloves, full of cushion to soften his punches. When he started training for MMA, he said he was told to put on a pair of the UFC’s four-ounce, open-fingered gloves.
“I said, ‘What do you want me to do with these?’ ”
Told those were the glove he’d fight in, Toney recalled: “I said, ‘Serious? Are you kidding me? I have to check my bank account [to] make sure I have the money for bail [because] I’m going in for murder.’ ”
He wasn’t done predicting devastation. No one can deny a world-class trash-talker.
“If Randy stands straight with me, [he’ll] get knocked the [expletive] out. His head [will] get launched. And if he [gets] close to me, he [will] still get knocked out.
“They don’t call me ‘Lights Out’ for nothing. Every man I’ve fought, I’ve hurt real bad. If I don’t knock them out, I [expletive] them up real bad. I’m a puncher.
“I’m the real deal.”
Toney says this isn’t a gimmick and since it’s his face on the line, you have to allow him that. He’s frustrated with the game of boxing. He’s getting old and there aren’t many exciting opponents since, as he puts it, the “Klitschko sisters” won’t fight him. He calls White one of the greatest fight promoters of all time and a businessman that boxing desperately lacks.
So what’s a fighter to do? Even Couture offers his respect for Toney’s attempt. Toney is far from his prime and probably needs the money. He wanted to fight in the UFC way back in 2003, only to have it fall through.
He claims that after beating Couture, he plans on defending his IBO heavyweight boxing belt in October and then returning to the UFC to beat heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar in February. Lesnar is a behemoth who’d probably have seven inches and 50 pounds on Toney. “Lights Out” is undeterred.
“Brock has no heart,” Toney said. “Everybody [saw] what he did last fight. That [expletive] turned his back and ran like a chicken. The only thing was Shane Carwin got tired too.”
Toney said the problem with MMA fighters is they don’t want to take a punch. Still, he respects the sport and its athletes. He’s been watching for “six or seven years.”
Someone reminded Toney that Lesnar has a title defense against Cain Velazquez in November, so maybe Lesnar won’t even be the champ. Toney nodded his head and offered a mea culpa about disrespecting Velazquez. Well, sort of.
“I’m not doubting … what’s his name?”
It doesn’t matter. James Toney may get pummeled Saturday. He may get grounded and pounded. He may have all this talk shoved back down his throat.
Or he may stun the fight world and drop Couture like a bad habit.
Either way, here’s something new. Whether it’s based on talent or sheer lunacy, James Toney is willing to attempt what no one else has ever dared.
Sometimes a fighter just has to fight.