Despite its origins mixed martial arts has, over the years, evolved to the point that it is less about having two competitors with wildly different fighting styles and more about the fighters mixing and matching a variety of styles that has ultimately led to something rather homogenized. Not so much this Saturday when Randy Couture, living legend and ambassador for the sport, takes on James Toney, boxing superstar who holds a 72-6-3 record but has that minor disadvantage of having never stepped foot in an MMA cage before. Since the fight is sanctioned by the UFC and fought under The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts the burden has been on Toney to study up on rear naked chokes and takedown defense and not on Couture to up his striking game. With that in mind it should come as no surprise that Couture, with his home field advantage, is a massive favorite both in Vegas (-600 at last check) and in the blogosphere.
Back in the early days of No Holds Barred Fighting and the UFC matches like this were a regular thing. Sumo wrestlers had their teeth kicked in by skinny guys and when boxers entered the cage they were allowed to keep their gloves on. As L. Jon Wertheim mentions in his book Blood in the Cage often time’s fighters were simply tagged with a style, such as Pit Fighting or Trap Shooter, so as to add interest and give them an identity. UFC 3 was won by Steve Jennum who is an expert in Ninjutsu. . .where has that discipline gone? Nowadays we’re left to get excited when a striker takes on a grappler or is a Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu black belt meets a former Division I NCAA wrestler. Of course those debates are fascinating in their own right but also no successful fighter out there isn’t at least partially practiced in BJJ, wrestling, Muay Thai AND boxing. James Toney, however, will be using almost exclusively boxing and then whatever he could learn of the others in the past nine months. This makes the fight in theory an enticing throwback but in practice it should quickly morph into a three round snooze fest in which Couture and Toney both work hard to save face.
To his credit Dana White has expressed concerns about the fight being a massive letdown and claims that that is why he turned UFC 118 into something of a supercard. To me the lineup is good but not great. Edgar vs. Penn has the potential to be anything under the sun but I’m expecting good things from it, Diaz vs. Davis should be a nasty brawl that could turn into a bloodbath and Florian vs. Maynard for the next Lightweight title shot is my pick for Fight of the Night. White did kind of shoot himself in the foot on this one though after waffling on Fitch’s title shot after he won a #1 contenders match at UFC 117 because now what are people supposed to believe? Those matches are for his base but his main objective, it seems clear, is to siphon fans away from the boxing arena and to do so he’s had to use some good old fashioned deception.
To sell the fight White has correctly concluded that he needs to create the illusion that the Couture/Toney fight will actually be competitive. To do so, it appears, that he turned to his fighters to go out and play the media game. Just take a quick look at what was said this week. Couture played the humility card and went with “I would love to choke the hell out of him” whereas Toney spoke in absolutes about his superiority “I can knock him out or I can choke him out.” And since Toney is almost certainly the more famous individual any casual observer would take the bait and figure that he is just going to roll Couture and that his only real problem at this point is figuring out his mode of execution. White’s real fans won’t buy it for a second but who cares about them when there is the possibility of tapping into a whole new market.
BJ Penn added intrigue to this match by claiming that a win for Toney is a win for everybody associated with MMA. Presumably the idea is that if he goes out and is made to look a fool on Saturday then he will probably retreat back to his comfort zone and forget about this whole misguided experiment. But if he were able to pull off the upset then he would instantly become a big draw main event guy who could play the role of invading super heel until somebody actually beats him. It’s a pretty damn delicious fantasy and could give MMA fans a reason to root against their boy. And please don’t buy into the nonsense that says that a Couture loss somehow inflicts damage upon MMA in general. Boxing can and will hurt MMA when they fix the approximately 2 million problems they have and start running organizations that are similar to the exemplary UFC (not that I don’t have beefs just that all things considered I think they are doing a marvelous job).
Going into the fight I won’t be rooting for one guy over another, instead just give me a good contest, something the MMA community can be proud of and something that allows Toney to maintain some credibility as a fighter going forward. Freak show fights are a lot of fun. Why did we spend all week snickering at that picture of Bobby Lashley being stretchered out of the Toyota Center? Because he was somebody that we knew to be a fraud, an MMA wannabe who was hoping to cash in on his celebrity but forgot to learn the basis (cardio!!). We rooted against him not because he was taking the spot of somebody more deserving but because we feared that under the right set of circumstances he could possibly be given a shot at the Strikeforce Heavyweight title. Had it been Todd Duffee who had gassed out so bad that he couldn’t walk out of the arena would have we laughed so hard? Probably not. So bring on the boxers and the pro wrestlers and the former football players . . . we oughta keep this interesting as best we can and this seems like as good of idea as any.
Tags: James Toney, Mixed Martial Arts, Randy Couture, ufc 118