Friday, December 02, 2022  |



Toney is training seriously for Couture


Here's a position James Toney never found himself in as a boxer. The 21-year veteran works on his ground skills with sparring — er, grappling — partner Brian Alexander in preparation for his MMA debut agaisnt former five-time UFC champ Randy Couture on Aug. 28. Photo / Elliott Howard-UFC

I watched James Toney go through an intense workout at the M-1 Global training center in Chatsworth, Calif., a few weeks ago.

Before I go into details of the visit, it’s fair to explain why I’d focus a Gym Notes column on a 41-year-old veteran who hasn’t scored a truly significant victory since he stopped Evander Holyfield (who was just a few days shy of turning 41) in 2003.

Toney’s next fight isn’t even a boxing match. The former three-division titleholder’s next fight will be a five-round mixed martial arts heavyweight match against UFC legend Randy Couture in the co-main event in UFC 118 on Aug. 28 in Boston.

So why am I writing about the 21-year veteran?

Toney’s a real fighter. Yes, he’s a shadow of the marvelous middleweight who took on all comers in the early 1990s, but when he says he’ll fight anybody, anywhere, anytime — even after 83 professional boxing matches — you can believe that he means business.

And when he says that he’s going to beat Couture, a 5-to-1 betting favorite, you can at least believe that he believes what he says.

And to be honest, I’d rather write about Toney than spend any amount of time pontificating on or complaining about the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao negotiations.

So what did I see when I visited M-1 Global (a gym that shares the name of the MMA promoter but isn’t owned by it) on July 1?

I saw Toney warming up in what looked like a Body Glove wetsuit. His upper body appeared solid, but the ample stomach and love handles that became as much his trademark in the last decade as his tough-guy attitude stuck out like a sore thumb.
Looks can be deceiving with Toney, though. I’ve observed him workout and spar since the late 1990s, and I can tell when he’s really training or just going through the motions. He is in shape and he appears motivated to get into even better condition.

“James is deceptively strong and quick,” said Vitaly “Tony” Kozlov, one of Toney’s strength and conditioning coaches. “People look at his midsection and think he’s soft or out of conditioning. He is in good condition, and he’ll be in better shape in August. That’s our goal, not body sculpting.”

Toney never cared much how his body looked. He used to brag about the amount of food and drink and cigars and sex he indulged in to his sparring partners, especially the ones with lean physiques, as he beat them senseless in sparring sessions.

Toney wasn’t exaggerating about his gluttonous lifestyle, which begs the question of how good he could have been had he been more dedicated to the sport?

Bob Arum and Freddie Roach believe he could have been an all-time great. Toney’s former promoter and former trainer say he is one of the most-talented fighters they’ve ever seen, which is saying something considering the fighters with whom they’ve been affiliated.

Perhaps the Sweet Science came too easily for Toney. “Fighters are born, not made,” claimed the boxing natural.

Toney’s last eight months of training have convinced him that he’s a born boxer, not a born MMA fighter.

“There’s a big difference,” Toney admitted. “MMA is a different ballgame from boxing.”

It didn’t take long for Toney to realize that he can’t half-ass it in the octagon, especially against a decorated MMA veteran such as Couture.

“You have to be in great shape for MMA,” Toney said. “In boxing you can hold to catch a breath. You can’t do that in the cage.”

What does Toney do in the cage? Lots of ground work on the day I was present. (You gotta figure he’s got the striking part of his game down, right?) Toney’s trainer, Trever Sherman, and manager, John Arthur, who has a background in martial arts, coached him on various maneuvers as the veteran boxer grappled with an amateur MMA fighter named Brian Alexander for five 5-minute rounds (the same number of rounds and combat time as a regulation UFC title bout).

Toney made the kid tap out, but I didn’t notice, which tells you how much I know about MMA technique.

All I can report is that Toney is working on take downs in the middle of the octagon. He’s practicing what to do if he’s taken down, how to crawl his way to the cage wall, what to do if he’s pushed into the cage wall, how to tie up his opponent, how to use his knees with his back to the cage, and so on.

I didn’t see a lot of punches from Toney. His stand-up game focused mainly on countering Couture’s favored kicks and attacks.

“I hate it when I read that James only has a puncher’s chance,” Sherman said. “Couture’s only got a wrestler’s chance.”

Toney won’t even give his opponent that hope.

“MMA fans ask me, ‘What about Randy’s takedown game?’ What about it?” Toney said. “He better be worried about what I’m gonna do. He’s tailor made for me. All of his strengths will become his weaknesses. He can pick his poison. Whatever he brings, I’m gonna counter it.”

It sounds like Toney doesn’t respect Couture, but he does. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t bother training as hard as he is.

When Toney first met with UFC president Dana White to discuss fighting in the billion-dollar MMA league, he made it clear that he didn’t want any soft touches. White didn’t want to give Toney any MMA patsies, which earned the future boxing hall of famer’s respect.

“I already liked Dana,” Toney said. “I met him in 1994, before I fought Roy Jones Jr. He was writing about boxing for one of the Boston papers back then. I was cool with him.”

Fast forward 16 years. Toney was not cool with comments the UFC bossman made about how professional boxers would fare in his sport.

“When he told the media that MMA fighters are better than boxers and called out Roy Jones and Floyd Mayweather, that pissed me off,” Toney said.

Not because White believes the best boxers would fall to even mediocre MMA fighters, but because he didn’t call out Toney.

“I contacted his people and told them Roy and Floyd are not real fighters, they’re runners,” Toney said. “Call out a real warrior like me. White started tweeting stuff about me and the relationship just rolled on from there. I met him at one of his shows in Memphis last year to let him know that I was serious about his challenge. Then I saw him and the Fertitta brothers [who own the UFC] in Vegas in December. One of the brothers brought up Kimbo Slice as an opponent. I told him that would be like taking candy from a baby.

“I wanted [UFC heavyweight champ] Brock Lesnar or [former light heavyweight champ] Chuck Liddell. But Lesnar was sick at the time. I heard Couture was talking mess on the internet about how he would baptize me to the sport, and I liked that. He became my first MMA opponent. He’s better than Liddell. If I knocked out Liddell, MMA fans would say ‘Oh, he’s done anyway.'”

Couture is 47, but the former five-time UFC champ (two light heavyweight titles and three at heavyweight) is far from done as evidenced by his last two fights — a three-round decision over Brandon Vera last November and a second-round submission (via rear-naked choke) of Mark Coleman in February in the light heavyweight division (205-pound limit). Even Couture’s last loss, a three-round decision to former PRIDE heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira last August, was competitive.

Hardcore MMA fans and diehard boxing fans don’t see eye-to-eye on much, but most agree that Toney’s probably in for a humiliating beating against Couture, a former world-class Greco-Roman wrestler whose “ground-and-pound” technique is legendary.

Many view the Couture-Toney matchup, the co-feature to the showdown between lightweight champ Frankie Edgar and veteran BJ Penn, as a sideshow.

Sherman doesn’t agree with that perspective.

“Dana White is not the kind of guy to sign someone just because of his name in another sport,” he said. “He wouldn’t sign Herschel Walker, who certainly has a name from football. He wouldn’t sign Bobby Lashley, who has a name from pro wrestling. He took a chance on Brock Lesnar because Lesnar had real wrestling credentials before his pro wrestling career. Dana is one of the most-brilliant sports minds out there. He doesn’t play games and he doesn’t make mistakes. He doesn’t buy into hype, so nobody should look at this fight as a hoax or a joke.

“He wouldn’t have signed James if he didn’t think James had a shot. I don’t care what he says on record, I think he knows that James is going to knock Couture out. Randy has been caught and dropped in four of his last five fights. Every time he’s clipped, he goes down. Watch the tapes of his fights with Vera, Nogueira and Lesnar. You’ll see.”

I watched highlights of those bouts on Sherman’s got a point.

However, boxing and MMA are two very different sports. Toney’s never tried to clock a guy who was allowed to kick at him or tackle him to the canvas. And what the hell will he do if Couture gets him in an arm bar, or an arm triangle choke, or worse, a rear-naked choke (I don’t even like saying that phrase)?

All Toney says is wait and see.

“I’m gonna be ready,” he said. “I trained six months with Juanito Ibarra (who once trained former UFC heavyweight champ Quinton Jackson), just going over the basics. Come back in a few weeks and you’ll see me kick the asses of pro MMA fighters the same way I use to kick heavyweights asses at the Wild Card [Boxing Club]. I’m putting in the work for this fight. It was hard for a about a month when I first started training, there were a lot of aches and pains. I thought maybe I was too old for this s__t, but I grew stronger ,and I’ve gained a new kind of stamina. I can feel my quickness, agility and power coming back.

“I wish I had this training 10 years ago, I would have been the undisputed heavyweight champ. I don’t care what sport you do, football, basketball, whatever, this s__t will get you ready.”

In less than five weeks, Toney will get into a cage with a man who has trained like this at least since 1997, the year he made his MMA debut.

Toney knows this and he is expecting a grueling encounter. Never mind Couture’s ability to take a punch or his ability to grapple, Toney says the fight will come down to will power and mettle.

“I’m going to find out if Couture really has balls,” he said bluntly. “If he doesn’t have ’em to my standards, I’ll bring the b__ch out of him. That’s what I do.”