What Do You Do With a Problem Like James Toney?

Elton HobsonCorrespondent IMarch 10, 2010

Let’s get the uncomfortable truth out of the way, shall we? Like it or not, James Toney is set to compete in Mixed Martial Arts, on the sport’s biggest stage. It’s going to happen. And we all might as well make peace with it, because the mainstream sports world is going to soil their pants over it and Dana will translate that into huge bucks for his evil empire.

Too bad Dana had to sell his soul to do it.

Ok, I’m being dramatic - but damn if the UFC boss isn’t turning out to be a bit of a hypocrite. Or has he just been loyal to the quick payday all along? I mean, we know he’s not above booking freakshow fighters as main event headliners and title contenders (with great success) even while he derides lesser orgs for doing the same. He called Kimbo a fraud and a sideshow, then happily turned around and embraced him as one of the UFC’s flagship TV stars when the Miami brawler starting tearing up the ratings on The Ultimate Fighter.

And now Toney.

I had the same reaction as most fans when I first read the news of his signing. But the fact is he’s coming, and he’s going to bring a lot of hype and attention with him. The one thing we know from all the press around the signing is that James Toney can sell a fight - even if he verges on “Ultimate Warrior” like incoherency. So the question becomes: who do you match him up with?

On the surface, it’s an interesting question. James “Lights Out” Toney is the first serious top 10 boxing contender to make the cross into MMA. He has great technical boxing skills and proven ability with his fists. Unfortunately, he’s also 41, and doesn’t seem to show a lick of interest in learning the finer points of MMA - things like takedowns, submissions, clinching, kicks - you know, anything other then boxing.

So who do you put him up against? Let’s see - we need a fighter who’s primarily a slugger, and not a particularly versatile one at that, who has no inclination at all to take it to the ground and can bring freakshow appeal equal to Toney’s. Like many MMA fans, my mind jumped to…

1) Kimbo Slice

There’s an interesting rumour circling regarding the signing of Toney - that Strikeforce, shopping around for Herschel Walker’s next opponent, was apparently interested in the heavyweight pugilist for the job. In an attempt to break up the match, Dana White signed “Lights Out” first - with plans to put him on a card headlining against Strikeforce’s second CBS show.

His opponent: the UFC’s other resident public curiosity/ratings bonanza, Kimbo Slice.

Never mind that this would represent an all time low for the legitimacy of UFC matchmaking. If it happened, it would represent the equivalent of a nuclear bomb in the Strikeforce vs. UFC war, one that could reverse the San Jose promotion’s rapid ascent literally overnight. Their CBS offering is already severely hindered by the noticeable absence of Fedor, and by having Jake “Ratings Killer” Shields in the main event.

Strikeforce was already facing an uphill battle for casual fan attention. Now the UFC is rumoured to be planning an event to counter program Strikeforce’s network offering, in the same exact city no less. For whatever reason, the UFC is seizing upon Fedor’s absence to make a serious assasination attempt.

With Kimbo vs. Toney as the headline, the UFC would likely dominate the ratings battle. Even if they didn’t, they could inflict enough damage to the Strikeforce/CBS relationship to get the promotion off network TV - and permanently second place in line. Big TV networks care only about the short term, about what will draw the biggest ratings NOW. MMA on CBS is still very much an experiment. A bad night of ratings would probably be enough to terminate it.

Luckily for the integrity of the sport, it seems those plans have been nipped in the bud. After much speculation, Kimbo Slice has been officially penciled in to face fellow TUF 10 castmate Matt “Meathead” Mitrione at the UFC’s May 8th show in Montreal. Talk about a fight that will answer serious divisional questions.

Fans everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief - as can Scott Coker, though he’s not out of the woods yet. To save his network chances and his company, it looks like he’s willing to sell his soul, too (that's assuming M-1 didn't get 50% of it in the latest round of renegotiations ). Finally, this opens Toney up to face his other much speculated, much hyped “possible” opponent in…

2) Randy Couture

It all started off with an innocent tweet. Of course, Toney answered the challenge with his usual tact and grace. It may end up being the biggest crossover fight this year.

“Couture vs. Toney - the Ultimate Battle of Boxing vs. MMA!”

This fight actually makes a certain amount of sense to me - assuming they don’t want to “build up” Toney first by feeding him a bunch of cans (see: Slice, Kimbo). If Dana is serious about Toney not being a freakshow attraction and getting the Brock Lesnar, “feet first” kind of matchmaking, then a fight with Couture is a natural first step.

For Couture, it’s perfect. The aging legend is still a huge name and high paid star who can’t be put in “time waster” fights anymore - his salary demands big returns. Since Shogun/Machida/Rampage/Rashad still have to sort out the LHW title picture, he’s a ways off from a title shot. A fight against Toney would be tailor made for Couture at this point in his career. A massive, high profile mega fight - against a man with a skillset he will most likely dominate. Cue another gigantic, crowd pleasing win for “Captain America”.

Besides, the fight sells itself. It harkens back to the roots of MMA: style vs. style. In this case, Mixed Martial Arts vs. Professional Boxing. The rivalry between the two sports (and their respective fans) is well known, and could be exploited for big gain. MMA’s elder statesmen, the icon of the sport, vs. one of the most well known and controversial heavyweight boxers of the last ten years. It has the kind of primal appeal that made UFC 1 a smash back when it first aired. And it would be a fight in which Toney’s advanced age would legitimately not be a negative factor.

This is my pick for most likely fight to happen (but not my pick for best choice, as we’ll see) and I see it being penciled in on the June “Liddell vs. Ortiz 3” card or the 4th of July card featuring Brock Lesnar’s return. Either way, it’s a fight that’s going to get a lot of attention - which is good, because it’s also probably going to feature Randy Couture kicking James Toney’s candy ass. It's like the movies - nothing sells better then seeing the egotistical braggart get his comeuppance.

3) Keith Jardine

I don’t know where this rumour came from, but this fight needs to go away, and quick. I’m sorry, but do you really want our sport represented on a serious world stage by the Techno Viking?

Besides, is Jardine really the best guy to send in the ring against a heavyweight slugger? Remember this? What about this? This one ring a bell? How about this beaut? It’s ok if you don’t remember them - neither does Keith.

For so many reasons, Jardine has no reason to be anywhere on James Toney’s radar - unless Rashad Evans is thinking about fighting Toney down the line and wants his usual inside scoop.

Ok, so there’s good choices and bad choices. But the best choice - in my opinion - the fight I would most like to see James Toney in is against…

4) Roy Nelson

I could just see it now. Imagine the same hype and build I described for Couture vs. Toney - only substitute “Big Country” instead of “The Natural“. Elitist analysts and critics from ESPN as well as a legion of mainstream and casual fans will tune in to see an epic “Clash of the Styles” match where their beloved pro boxer is matched up against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

It would be a confirmation of all their derogatory stereotypes. Here’s MMA’s representative, a fat, cheeseburger eating, beer drinking white guy with bad tattoos and a planet sized gut. No sooner has the bell rang then Roy has Toney on his back, pinned to the mat. Less man then gelatin blob, he holds Toney down and saps his will. In no time, he’s in half guard - then, the dreaded crucifix. 78 pitter-patter punches to the head later, and Roy is chugging his post fight Pabst. Sports purists and boxing fans the world over fume in rage at the blatant smother tactics of the MMA “ground fighter”. James Toney eats a dump truck load of shit. I laugh hysterically.

Now tell me that scenario doesn’t sound even a little bit fun. Besides, if Toney ever puts together a win or two, there's always the king freakshow himself waiting in the wings.