UFC great Randy ‘The Natural’ Couture turns 59 today. The two-weight world champion bridged the gap between MMA’s one-night tournament beginnings, winning the UFC 13 heavyweight bracket, and the mainstream juggernaut the company is today. A true legend of the sport, Couture is a trailblazer for another reason: his 2010 fight with boxer James ‘Lights Out’ Toney.
In 2022, we have grown accustomed to boxers and MMA fighters colliding. Anderson Silva owns a victory over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr in the squared circle. Heavyweight contender Kubrat Pulev walloped ex-UFC champion Frank Mir while the iconic Evander Holyfield was destroyed by MMA star Vitor Belfort in an egregious display. But in 2010, such ground was relatively uncharted.
Fringe contender Art Jimmerson had been the first professional boxer to fight in the Octagon, doing so all the way back at UFC 1. His decision to fight wearing a single boxing glove, reputedly to enhance his jab while leaving his dominant hand free for bare-knuckle power-shots, made him a laughing stock. Jimmerson was quickly submitted by future Hall of Famer Royce Gracie.
Precious few boxers of note tried their hand at MMA in the decade that followed. But in 2010, along came James Toney. The three-weight boxing champion had been one of the defining fighters of the 90s and early 00s, winning acclaim for his old-school style and world-class defensive acumen.
But boxing was beginning to be eclipsed by the runaway mainstream success of MMA. The UFC had shaken off the outlaw image of their unregulated early days. MMA was finally seen as credible and was drawing a huge following, partly made up of boxing fans disenfranchised by the politics inherent to that sport. It was at this point that James Toney began calling out the stars of the UFC, asserting boxing’s dominance over the relative newcomer.
While his one-man campaign was dismissed as sour grapes from a notoriously outspoken presence at the time, Toney’s defence of his sport makes perfect sense if you know anything about the man. Toney is an avowed boxing purist, as likely to cite Battling Siki and Gypsy Joe Harris in an interview as Sugar Ray Robinson or Archie Moore. MMA was viewed as the biggest threat boxing had faced in the gloved era. Of course someone who appreciates the sport’s history as deeply as Toney was going to stand up and be counted.
Randy Couture vs James Toney (an all-time boxing great).
On the other side of the fence he found the grand old man of the UFC, Randy Couture. The veteran conqueror of names like Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz made perfect sense as the company’s representative in this bout. Not that UFC President Dana White was thrilled at putting one of his fighters in the controversial bout. White branded the Toney fight “a freak show”.
Despite his concerns, he sent his best man for the job. Knowing that Toney was trained in boxing and pretty much nothing else, Couture was chosen due to his status as a world-class wrestler. Trying to win a striking-based fight with a man who holds boxing victories over Evander Holyfield, Mike McCallum and Iran Barkley would have made no sense. White selected Couture knowing he could take the fight to the mat.
Couture did take the fight to the mat. At the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts on 28th August 2010, ‘The Natural’ allowed James Toney to stand in front of him for just 15 seconds. 15 seconds was all it took for the former UFC heavyweight champion to launch a double-leg takedown of the illustrious boxer. From there it was game over, as Couture ground and mauled Toney’s carcass into shapes it had never been in before in search of a guillotine submission. Couture would lock in the hold, Toney would tap, and the question was answered. Who would win in an MMA fight between a boxer and a UFC fighter? The UFC fighter, as it turned out.
But combat sports as a whole has never stopped asking this question. Rather than drawing a line under the issue, Couture’s victory over Toney has inspired an entire generation of cross-codes clashes. Without this single round of action over a decade ago, Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor would possibly not have happened. Neither would Jake Paul’s half-hearted wins over decaying ex-UFC stars. Triller, a business almost exclusively dealing in boxing vs MMA bouts with a liberal injection of influencers and Z-listers, would probably not exist. Casual fans are almost feral with anticipation over a possible Tyson Fury vs Francis Ngannou exhibition fight, despite both men having more intriguing options within their own sport. That bout would not even be considered viable without the example Couture and Toney set.
Another way in which Couture-Toney informs the modern landscape is the fact that as well as creating an appetite for more Boxing vs MMA match-ups, it defined the parameters of them. When stars of the two disciplines fight now, it tends to be under boxing rules. After Toney’s novice-level MMA training was exposed by a lifelong wrestler, few boxers are keen to agree to fights involving groundwork.
Dana White told reporters ahead of UFC 118, “We're going to make an example of James Toney.” What he probably did not anticipate is that Toney’s would be an example that fighters would still be following twelve years on. Randy Couture and James Toney will go down as two legends of their respective sports. But the three-and-a-half minutes they spent together in a cage all those years ago might end up being their most enduring legacy.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change