Josh Gross
Thursday March 4th, 2010

In his autobiography penned with Sherdog.com news editor Loretta Hunt, Randy Couture revealed that he received an offer from the UFC in 2006 to fight two-division champion boxer James Toney. Four years later, Toney has finally signed with the UFC, reigniting the possibility of a bout with Couture.

Why now?

FanHouse: UFC signs boxing champion Toney

UFC president Dana White complained about the breadth of coverage Herschel Walker received prior to his MMA debut on a Strikeforce card in January, and Toney is the kind of signing that should garner media attention. In some ways, Toney could do for UFC in the mainstream what Walker pulled off for Scott Coker and Showtime's Ken Hershman -- though the boxer is hardly as amiable a figure as the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner.

Complementing his boxing, which of course is world-class, Toney is famous for his mouth. He makes for good copy and hands-free promotion. But he's also a loose cannon, and after a second career positive steroid test -- the first came in New York in 2005 -- I watched him berate a member the California State Athletic Commission, Dr. Christopher Giza, at an August 2007 hearing.

Here is how the CSAC classified the episode in its minutes: "Mr. Toney stated that he has been competing for 20 years and called Commissioner Giza disrespectful and then burst into a profanity laced outburst directed at Commissioner Giza in front of the Commission and all attendees."

FOWLKES: Freak show or not, people will watch

The episode was a lowlight in CSAC history. Even though Toney came close to verbally assaulting Giza, the commission, which at the time was helmed by executive officer Armando Garcia, voted to reduce the boxer's suspension from a year to six months. What made the whole thing particularly unseemly was the handling of Hermes Franca's appeal several minutes later. The Brazilian lightweight, who tested positive following a UFC main event against Sean Sherk, was contrite and open about his steroid use, and then subsequently slapped with a year-long punishment.

I happen to like the idea of seeing accomplished boxers enter MMA, even if they're well past any prime. When purses are big enough and MMA is widely regarded as prestigious a combat sport as boxing, it will happen that a boxer at his zenith will challenge an equally dominant mixed martial artist. That will be an event to watch. In the meantime, more boxers like Toney, or former welterweight and junior middleweight champion Ricardo Mayorga, who meets Din Thomas on May 15 for the Shine Fights promotion, will join MMA as their boxing opportunities diminish.

How good a mixed martial artist can Toney become? It's reported that he's working with Juanito Ibarra, one of the few figures in combat sports who happily splits his time with boxers and MMA prospects. He's had bumps along the way, including an ugly public falling out with Quinton Jackson -- a Toney-esque figure. Yet Ibarra seems to be a good fit because he can engineer an MMA training camp, and he knows how to tailor fight prep for fighters with big egos.

Forget for a moment that Toney is 41. Or that he's slow. Or that he hasn't won a boxing bout of significance in four years. Even boxers at their physical peak have difficulty identifying many of the tactics offered in an MMA bout. Former UFC heavyweight champion and current HDNet analyst Bas Rutten once told me that he loved sparring boxers because they never saw his kicks coming. Kicks to the head. Body. Legs. They just couldn't. That portends badly for Toney, who often stands straight when he boxes and relies on head movement and parrying with large gloves to defend himself. That won't work in MMA.

The most interesting aspect of Toney's deal is the revelation about Zuffa's willingness to allow him to continue boxing. That's a major step off the path of contractual exclusivity that UFC has worked so hard in defining as a fact of its operation. It can't be taken back. Other fighters -- such as Anderson Silva, who desperately wanted to box Roy Jones Jr. -- won't be so crazy now to ask for exactly the same consideration in their deals, and it will be interesting to see how the UFC handles that.

Let's not fool ourselves. The only reason Toney is giving MMA a try is he can't get fights in boxing anymore. Now, he's a single-discipline fighter entering a three-dimensional world, and heavy odds are against him having any kind of impact. This is about selling tickets and pay-per-views, not that there's anything wrong with that since consumers can vote with their dollars on whether it was a smart decision by the UFC.

As it is, there appear to be at least three reasonable options for Toney's debut, which is reportedly happening at light heavyweight.

• Randy Couture -- An older gun like Toney. Couture wants event fights, and he was offered the bout in 2006. Toney loses, so what? He's supposed to. If he wins, then you're talking mega-fight potential in his next bout.

• Anderson Silva -- Silva wanted Jones Jr. The UFC nixed that. Now they could offer up Toney to Silva in a cage under MMA rules and it might be enough to satiate the middleweight champion. The risk is that Toney, his boxing half-life in decay, would defeat one of the top three pound-for-pound MMA fighters in the world, making the sport look weak. But there's risk in lots of things.

• Kimbo Slice -- This plays against the "freak show" grain White said he wasn't interested in pursuing following Toney's signing, but the fight would sell and the UFC could try to justify it based on Toney's lack of MMA experience.

White cried about media covering Walker. Before he put Slice in the The Ultimate Fighter house, the UFC president railed against the attention the Miami street fighter received on blogs and news sites. Why? Younger fighters. Future contenders. Real stars. They deserved the limelight, he said. Wednesday's news rings as ironic then, since media are talking up Toney instead of Brian Bowles and Dominic Cruz ahead of a terrific WEC title fight in Columbus this weekend.

After officially announcing April 17 as the return for MMA on CBS, sources tell SI.com that CBS is willing to move the card back a week if, as rumored, the UFC decides to move ahead with counter-programing. That would put Strikeforce in direct competition with Zuffa's first attempt at selling WEC on pay-per-view, and likely signal the commencement of major ground operations between the promotional companies.

It was initially thought that production of an April 24 MMA card on CBS was unlikely since the Showtime broadcast crew, led by producer David Dinkins Jr., was handling duties for the second round of the premium network's Super Six 168-pound boxing tournament that night. But Kelly Kahl, the senior executive vice president of CBS prime time, told SI.com that it as his impression "things were fluid" regarding the production dates, though he didn't know for certain.

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