James Toney to the UFC: smart business decision or circus act?

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Will James

The Broadside

On Wednesday, March 3, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White made a move that could potentially turn out to be very, very bad for the UFC promotion and for the image of mixed martial arts.

UFC has signed the 41 year old legendary boxer James “Lights Out” Toney to a multi-fight contract to compete in it’s light heavyweight division, although Toney has said he wants to fight as a heavyweight.

Mixed Martial Arts desperately wants to be a legitimate competitive sport. And it absolutely is in most cases—PRIDE, UFC, K-1 among others show the purity and brutality of Mixed Martial Arts when it is done right. But with promotions like Strikeforce, World Combat League and some of the fighters within them and within UFC, it’s very hard to take MMA seriously.

For one, Strikeforce just signed an NFL Hall of Famer, Herschel Walker, as recently as a couple weeks ago. Walker is nearly 50 years old and defeated an out of shape and inexperienced opponent with poor technical skills. However for every bad story there is a good one. The much-publicized careers of former pro wrestlers Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley are examples of major stars successfully transitioning to MMA.

But promotions like UFC can’t let things like this go to their head. They can’t let starpower outweigh the quality of their fight cards. Why overlook homegrown fighters like Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira and Wanderlei Silva? Sure, they are featured prominently on the UFC 110 card but all that anybody can talk about is James Toney. What’s more, a fight with Toney involved could damage the credibility of UFC. Because if Toney loses, the opponent will have beaten an aging, over-the-hill boxer who his on his way to the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so considering his memorable victory against Vassilly Jirov naming him Fighter of the Year and also winning him the Comeback of the Year award, and his repeated middleweight title and super middleweight title reigns. If Toney wins, then many will question the quality of UFC’s fighters.

Now, on the flipside there is a chance that Toney fighting in UFC could be good. Not for MMA but for James Toney. He has been mentioned as a possible opponent for WBC Heavyweight Champion Vitali Klitschko, which could very well set records for European ticket sales if it happens, according to Toney’s promoter Dan Goossen. If Dana White handles this correctly and pairs Toney up against a legitimate opponent like Forrest Griffin, Keith Jardine or Mirko Cro Cop, Toney’s star-power could go through the roof and Klitschko’s people would have no choice but to make the fight happen.
However, Dana White could also do the wrong, stupid thing and make a gimmick fight pairing Toney up against somebody like Herschel Walker or former baseball star Jose Canseco. If that happens then it will reflect the belief and the rumor that Mixed Martial Arts is nothing but a freak-show. Here’s hoping Dana White doesn’t unwittingly deal MMA and Ultimate Fighting Championship a deathblow, and here is hoping James Toney follows the same path of Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley—transitioning from a legendary pro career to a successful MMA career.

You may contact Will James at wjames@cocc.edu

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