The crowd chanted “U-F-C!” The boxing writer next to me wept.
The last big matchup between a boxer and a mixed martial artist took place Aug. 28, 2010, when James Toney got his chance to step into the Octagon and teach the MMA world something about boxing. Unfortunately for him, his opponent was grizzled grappler Randy Couture.
Like Conor McGregor against Floyd Mayweather Jr., Toney was given the proverbial puncher’s chance against Couture. But McGregor’s “puncher’s chance” is based on a string of impressive knockouts with lightweight MMA gloves against a bunch of UFC featherweights (and one lightweight). Toney had a bit more to back it up. With his size and resume, including a TKO win in which he dropped the admittedly aging Evander Holyfield with body shots, Toney left little doubt that he could put Couture in all sort of trouble if he managed to land a good punch while the fighters were standing.
But Couture, as cerebral a fighter as ever graced the Octagon, was well aware of the threat. He ended the suspense 15 seconds into the fight, shooting from several feet away, putting Toney on the mat and immediately proceeding to mount. A couple of minutes of ground-and-pound later, Couture got Toney to tap out to an arm triangle. Afterwards, he said he had been working on that choke for a year — longer than Toney had been training in MMA.
The fight had attracted a few unusual visitors to press row. Bob Ryan, the longtime columnist for the local Boston Globe, was on hand. And I was next to an older gentleman whose smile faded as the fight went on. I have no idea what he was expecting, but he seemed to think it was unfair that Couture was holding Toney down to the ground.
Of course, we had heard all sorts of dubious hype. Toney was a fast learner, we were told. He had taken to the ground game like Forrest Gump took to table tennis. He could knock someone out from his back.
Toney did indeed land a few strikes from his back — four, according to FightMetric’s tally, none of them deemed “significant.” One of us in the press conference really should’ve asked Couture how well he was recovering from such a fierce attack.
But if the fight was anticlimactic, the weekend itself was a lot of fun. Toney, a few years past his prime, clearly reveled in the attention. He was in full bling mode for the press events, and he wandered the hotel lobby in the evening merrily greeting anyone who wanted to shake the multiple-time champ’s hand.
Perhaps it was a bit comical. But who could argue Toney hadn’t earned it? This guy had earned a closet full of belts, and unlike McGregor, he actually defended them on occasion.
Best of all, the fight wasn’t hyped as anything other than what it was. A boxer — perhaps the first pure boxer since Art Jimmerson at UFC 1 — was going to go into the Octagon and try to take a shot at Randy Couture. It wasn’t even the main event. The Boston crowd had already seen a dominating performance by one hometown fighter (Joe Lauzon) and a disappointing performance by another (Kenny Florian). After Couture-Toney, the crowd stayed put to see Frankie Edgar prove his win over B.J. Penn was no fluke.
At the time, at least, UFC cards were always guaranteed to be more than a main event. By comparison, how many fighters on the McGregor-Mayweather card do you know? (OK, fine — I know Savannah Marshall because I’m an Olympics geek.)
Perhaps James Toney was a little naive to think he could get in the cage with Randy Couture without any significant grappling experience. But that innocence seems refreshing today compared with the cynical promotion of Mayweather and McGregor, with an undercurrent of racial tension that seems especially inappropriate after Charlottesville.
And as strange as it was to see a journalist in tears while Couture battered Toney, at least we could say he cared.