We’re Not Really Supposed to Believe James Toney is Working on His Ground Game, Are We?

Toney celebrates
(“Go ahead and strap that black belt on right here, Deano.”)

Amid concerns this week that James Toney may not yet have signed his formal bout agreement to face Randy Couture at UFC 118, reports surfaced that the former boxing champion had tabbed one-time Xtreme Couture affiliate Dean Lister and Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Muhammed Lawal to help shore up his ground game. To this, I say: Bullshit. Toney might be rolling with Lister and Lawal a bit just to keep up appearances, but there’s no way he’s making an honest effort to learn to grapple.

Look, in his day James Toney was nothing short of an unmitigated badass. He was a guy who took on all-comers in numerous weight classes and more often than not came out on top. Even at his advanced age he can still hit very, very hard. But Toney has never, especially in recent years, been overly committed to training. The idea that he would suddenly attempt to augment his skill-set three months before his MMA debut is far-fetched. The notion that – even if he did – he could close the grappling gap on Couture in that short amount of time is, well, ludicrous.

There are those among us who would argue that this bout, if it even happens, is in some way meaningful. They would have us believe that something big is on the line here – either MMA’s legitimacy as a sport or boxing’s long-term viability in the marketplace. Because the mainstream media’s job is essentially to seek out the simplest narrative in any sequence of events and then exploit it for all it’s worth, it also continually asserts that this fight will settle an “age-old” debate on “MMA vs. Boxing.” For the record, I don’t know anyone besides the fighters themselves, the promoters and a few reporters who actually care about such a debate.

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Truth is, this fight is none of the above. This bout is nothing more than two slightly over the hill fighters – one probably a little further down the road to the junk heap than the other – who are fighting each other because they don’t know what else to do with themselves. And possibly because they both need the money. No matter who wins, it won’t prove anything, except that the loser should consider immediate retirement.

It’s also clearly a fight that James Toney has exactly one chance to win: To punch Randy Couture in his face as hard as possible before Couture dumps Toney on his ass. Fortunately for him, Couture has looked increasingly more punchable in each of his last handful of fights. Contrary to what many MMA fans think, it’s not totally impossible that Toney might pull it off. Not totally. But is it likely? Well, no.

As some of you know, in my capacity as MMA Editor at The Rumble I work alongside a number of stellar boxing writers. One of them, Avi Korine, is a self-professed James Toney fanatic. Simply put, he knows more about Toney than anyone else I know. A couple of month ago I asked him to analyze the possibility that Toney is taking the necessary steps to adequately prepare for his Octagon debut. His response was this:

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“There is absolutely no chance of that,” Korine wrote. “James is many things, but a careful professional is not one of them. I’ll tell you what James’ plan is going to be. He’s going to get into the ring and spar. That’s all he ever does. James Toney doesn’t like doing road work and he doesn’t like being told what to do. At 20 he was one of the most naturally skilled fighters you will ever see; capable of fighting from the inside or the outside. It was a gift. He still has those skills but you’re not going to teach him new tricks. He might spend a couple of days trying to avoid getting taken down, but that’s about it.”

So all this stuff with King Mo and Lister? That’s window-dressing. Even money say that Toney comes out to the cage wearing a pair of giant, goofy boxing trunks and throws one, maybe two good punches before Couture takes him down. Then we’ll see how much he’s been working on his ground game.