UFC Must Avoid The Toney Trap

James ToneyWhether UFC management likes it or not, the biggest story coming out of this past weekend’s UFC 108 event involved boxer James Toney crashing the party. Toney appeared at the UFC 108 press conference in Las Vegas, asking Dana White to book him in a fight for the promotion. Toney has pulled the same stunt at previous UFC events, but this time around he got White cornered and the media ran with the story. Despite the fact that UFC 108 with a cursed card turned out to be fun to watch, the event had little buzz or sizzle in the media. This allowed Toney to suck up the oxygen in the post-fight media coverage and put himself on a pedestal that other boxers have tried to in relation to MMA but have failed to do so.

On the surface, James Toney is an appealing boxing candidate for UFC to book. He’s in his 40s, he’s big but slow, his work ethic is often in question, and he’s prime for getting taken down to the ground by a decent fighter and submitted. The problem with booking Toney for an MMA fight is that he could be the equivalent of Ray Mercer.

Does the name Ray Mercer ring a bell?

Mercer, in his mid-40s, lost to Kimbo Slice in an MMA fight in Atlantic City, NJ. In fact, it was that fight that drew such a circus-like atmosphere to the Boardwalk that Gary Shaw ended up taking a flyer on Kimbo and building Elite XC around him. Kimbo caught Mercer in a choke and won a relatively short fight.

But Ray Mercer is also known in MMA circles for humiliating former UFC Heavyweight ace Tim Sylvia. It was Mercer and Sylvia who had agreed to a boxing match last year in Birmingham, Alabama on a Monte Cox-promoted event. However, Greg Sirb of the Pennsylvania state athletic commission stepped in and said no way to that happening. Mercer was having trouble getting licensed to fight in the States and had been boxing in, of all countries, Sweden. So, after Sirb stepped in, we ended up with Mercer vs. Sylvia in an “MMA fight” which essentially turned out to be a boxing match in a cage. Within 10 seconds of the fight, Mercer knocked Sylvia down like a Redwood tree with one punch. It’s a Youtube moment that will forever haunt Sylvia and gave a lot of boxers hope that if they could get into an MMA fight that they could knock out a skilled MMA fighter with limited boxing ability.

Which is why James Toney so desperately wants to fight in UFC.

The story of Toney is simple to understand. He’s fought in multiple weight classes and won numerous titles. However, he’s taken so much punishment and has been through so much scandal that he’s struggled to find any sort of prime booking in boxing. Toney failed a steroid test in California a couple of years ago and has struggled to stay in shape as he has gotten older. And yet, people still are interested in watching him fight. He’s legitimately crazy. One moment highlighted that more so than any other I can recall watching.

In September of 2004, Toney faced a man named Rydell Booker on Fox Sports Net (a “Best Damn Fight Show”). Toney won the fight by decision. Afterwards, Toney was doing his usual smack talk with Chris Rose and John Salley on a stage set. Then footage was shown of Toney dropping his pants while barking in the parking lot. No one does crazy angry like James Toney. He talks smack about Southern fighters, about Bernard Hopkins, and about anyone who he’s facing. His promoter is Dan Goossen, who has booked Toney for a lot of fights in Southern California at the various casinos there. Toney has fought about twice a year in the last six or seven years. In other words, he’s active but not too active and his ability to get bookings outside of the Hasim Rahman and Fres Oquendo’s of the world is difficult.

Enter UFC.

Toney knows that the UFC promotional machine could make him a star attraction again to the public. He gets this, more so than most people in boxing. While the UFC and boxing audiences do not generally crossover, Toney knows that he could attract some curious eyeballs from the boxing world towards any match he is booked in for UFC. Toney also knows that there are some possible opponents that could give him a chance to fight on PPV and earn some money that he hasn’t been making lately. There’s one opponent that everyone can sense that he wants to fight and one opponent that makes the most sense.

Kimbo Slice.

Slice has already fought Ray Mercer and beat Mercer in Atlantic City. So, the inclination by UFC is to think that Toney vs. Kimbo would be favorable for them. Favorable in terms of publicity and favorable in terms of the outcome. I say that’s a mistake.

Of all the boxers to book against Kimbo Slice, James Toney would be the worst candidate possible. He’s big and he’s a hard, hard puncher. Mercer in his mid-40s against Kimbo was a good puncher, but not the kind of hard puncher than Toney is. Yes, Toney is out of shape and prone to make some knucklehead moves during fights, but he’s also a very powerful puncher who could easily hurt Kimbo in the ribs or knock the guy out. We all saw what kind of chin Kimbo has, thanks to “Smoothie King” Seth Petruzelli.

There will be a great temptation for UFC to book Toney against Kimbo. Toney is the ultimate trash talker and is the easiest guy to market in the world. Out of all the outlandish boxing personalities that currently exist, Toney is right up there with the best of them in terms of hyping a fight. I’m sure that there are discussions right now about whether or not Toney vs. Kimbo would be a safe fight to book. The big question to ask yourself is this — if Kimbo loses to Toney, does the one-time PPV buy rate outweigh the potential of a semi-long Kimbo winning streak? Does it outweigh the prospect of Kimbo losing to a younger heavyweight star that UFC has under contract long-term?

The temptation to fall into The Toney Trap and book him against Kimbo will be very strong. No matter how much low-balling happens between UFC and the Toney camp, the truth is that there will be a real urge to book the veteran boxer against Kimbo Slice in the ultimate freak-show match-up. The dollar signs are there. While it would be a hypocritical match-up for Dana White to book given White’s stance about not booking experienced top level MMA fighters on UFC cards, we are already seeing White show a soft stance publicly when confronted about Toney wanting to fight in UFC. It’s clear that Dana has some respect for Toney and what he’s accomplished in boxing, but more importantly he understands that the buy rate potential for a Toney/Kimbo fight is very, very strong. Everyone in the boxing and MMA worlds would pay big attention to the fight.

Will UFC fall into The Toney Trap and think about the short-term cash? If they are thinking about the future, the answer is no. If they are in panic mode, stressed out about the future, and willing to sacrifice the hard work they’ve done to rebuild Kimbo Slice? Then maybe their answer is yes.

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