Whether Toney experiment is freak show or not, people will watch

Publish date:

After a public campaign that featured press conference outbursts, incoherent Internet videos and even a cable TV cameo, former three-division champion boxer James Toney finally got what he wanted this week -- a contract with the UFC.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either proof that persistence pays off, or that some ideas are so bizarre, so baffling, they become practically unavoidable. Rather than give encouragement to every nut job with a Flip cam and a YouTube account, I'm going to chalk it up to the latter.

FanHouse: UFC signs boxing champion Toney

That a notable pro boxer would one day show up in the UFC seemed inevitable. I just never would have guessed that it would be a 41-year-old diminishing talent like Toney, with no MMA experience to speak of and very little evident respect for the sport or its fighters. This may sound callous, but I was hoping for someone -- how can I put this -- better. Someone younger, even. Someone who at least appeared to know enough about MMA to realize that, without a significant amount of mat time to prepare, he'd be little more than bait in the Octagon.

At the risk of judging him prematurely, Toney does not appear to be the boxer we've been waiting for.

According to what Toney and his handlers have had to say about it so far, fans will be "surprised" how much he knows about MMA. That shouldn't be too difficult to accomplish. If he knows anything at all, you can consider me surprised. If he can stop even one takedown attempt from a competent opponent, or check even one leg kick, I'll be the guy picking his jaw up off the beer-soaked arena floor.

Then again, there's always the chance that "competent" isn't a prerequisite for Toney's first opponent in the Octagon.

President Dana White insists UFC won't go the "freak show" route with Toney, telling Yahoo! Sports, "Hey, I don't want this to be seen as a joke, and it's not like Herschel Walker or [Jose] Canseco or any of those guys. James Toney is a fighter."

Whether that means Toney will make his debut against an established UFC fighter remains to be seen. For all his boxing glory, he's 0-0 in this sport. It could be difficult to get an athletic commission to even sanction a bout between Toney and an experienced mixed martial artist, though nothing would scream "freak show" louder than a pay-per-view fight between an over-the-hill boxer and an Octagon rookie who's been brought in to play the role of the punching bag.

And there's the rub in this particular gamble by the UFC. If a guy like Toney -- who is regarded by boxing enthusiasts these days almost as a crazy uncle who must be tolerated but never left alone unsupervised -- can jump right into MMA's top promotion and knock out some hand-picked opponent on his first try, what does that say about the sport in general?

If, on the other hand, the UFC manages to get him into a fight with an experienced grappler who takes him down and feeds him elbows until he learns a begrudging respect for the ground game, it could be a very unceremonious end to this experiment.

The truth is, on some level, this has to be part freak show. That's Toney's appeal in MMA. The same way we want to know what would happen if a mountain lion fought a grizzly, we want to know what would happen if a boxer fought a mixed martial artist. That's how this sport got its start, at least in the U.S. We wanted to see fighters of all disciplines thrown into a cage together just to see who would walk out. Ideally, we'd also like those fighters to be a little closer to their prime.

It's possible that White was motivated to sign Toney because he's sick of all the press Canseco and Walker have been getting. It's also possible that the die-hard boxing fan in him just couldn't say no to a rapidly fading great like Toney knocking on his door and then practically camping out in his front yard.

It doesn't really matter why it's happening anymore. In a way, it had to happen. It didn't necessarily have to be Toney, but you make do with the boxer you have, not the boxer you want.

The people on both sides of the MMA-boxing divide -- even the ones decrying the move as a carnival act -- will still tune in. They have to, and that's part of the point. The only question is whether they'll be watching a boxer fight a real mixed martial artist, or just someone who is playing the part. Once it's over, regardless of how it turns out, that distinction will mean everything.