The Ultimate Fighting Championship started with arguments among fans about which combat discipline was superior.
A decade later, the debate has intensified. Former three-division boxing world champion James Toney, who was miffed when UFC President Dana White said boxers can't stand up to mixed martial artists, has signed for his first mixed martial arts bout against former UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture on Aug. 28 in Boston.
"I called Dana White out and he had to save face," Toney said.
The acrimony between the street-hardened Toney, 41, and White reached a peak this month when White confessed he "got caught up in the MMA-vs.-boxing thing," and considered Toney's participation a "freak show."
"Toney will get his [rear] kicked on August 28 and I'm counting the days," White said.
"Why wouldn't I take this [bout]?" asked Couture, 47, who held the UFC heavyweight championship until November 2008. "I heard [Toney] was talking smack about MMA fighters, and that I was on his list of guys he'd knock out. Let's do it. It's an MMA fight, and has a lot of crossover appeal — I know the boxing world will be paying attention."
Toney has spent eight weeks at a Chatsworth gym in two-a-day training sessions, trying to shed his reputation as an uninspired fighter during the latter stages of his boxing career.
"He's a natural predator," said Trevor Sherman, the MMA coach who's taught Toney key grappling fundamentals so Toney can land devastating punches if he gets Couture to the mat. "No one has ever stepped into the octagon with this type of striking prowess."
Toney said he grew frustrated last year in his attempts to land a heavyweight boxing match against the world champion Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, as well as with another champ, David Haye.
Toney was looking on the Internet one day when he noticed White discussing the advantage MMA fighters would have over boxers in an MMA fight. Toney recalled some war stories his manager, John Arthur, told him about participating in no-rules "Sudden Death" fighting in Thailand in the 1960s.
"I've told James about sharpening my teeth for those fights, about using the four weapons of your hands and feet, and the joint manipulations I knew," Arthur said. "He said, 'Pop, I want to do what you did.' Couture's in a fight for his life. He's never been in there with anyone as vicious. And I've never seen James get as up for a fight."
Toney is looking forward to discovering how much damage he can do to Couture if he lands a punch in a four-ounce MMA glove — boxers typically use 10-ounce gloves. Toney smiled and said, "When they told me I'll be using those four-ouncers, I said, 'Oh, Lord, we're going to jail.'
"I'm going to be representing boxing, and I'm a boxing master. The meanness, the nastiness. I don't turn my back on anyone like [current UFC heavyweight champion] Brock Lesnar did in his last fight. I love danger. I know this fight represents some danger to me. I'm hitting it head-on."
Toney (72-6-3, 44 knockouts) signed a three-fight deal with UFC, with an opt-out clause if he loses. But he expects to fulfill his UFC commitment, hopeful for a victory over Couture and a title shot at Lesnar, and he still wants to box too.
"He's one of the nicest guys in boxing, and I'm glad he has this opportunity to make a few bucks," boxing promoter Bob Arum said.
Yet, Arum said he didn't view this fight as the ultimate answer to the question of what fighting discipline trumps all.
"If James hits [Couture] first, he's going down. But if it goes to the floor, [Toney is] probably going to lose," Arum said. "If this was a boxing match, I'd be watching it, but this is this cockamamie martial arts, guys rolling around on the floor. It's not even a sport."
Toney could be susceptible to the chokeholds or submission positions that former Olympic wrestler Couture can produce. "I'll stand with him as long as I can to get him where I want: with him on his back and me on top of him," Couture said.
Trainer Sherman says Toney's grappling skills will be sufficient, with the primary focus being on unleashing a powerful punch. "Randy's MMA arsenal is mind-numbing, but James has a [strong] right and left hand," Sherman said. "If James lands within three inches, he can cause problems. Six inches, he can break things."
Toney is also out to prove George Foreman's motto that "age is just a number." He is six years younger than Couture and Toney believes his mobility after a dedicated training camp will produce an impressive performance.
"I punch and I knock people out, and I'm going in there knowing what everyone in boxing knows: that everybody has a plan until they get hit. I'm a fan of MMA. But these guys hold, kick, scratch when they're in trouble," Toney said.
"They can't mess with boxing."