James 'Lights Out' Toney was once known as a hard-nosed, rugged, relentless and merciless world champion boxer, a liquid stylist capable of making opponents miss punches by millimeters and then immediately pay for their inadequacies. All the while, the former middleweight, super-middleweight and cruiserweight titleholder would remain stoically static, occasionally poke out his tongue, shake his hips or cast aspersions on his opponent's mother or sister. For an explosive period during the early-1990s, 'Lights Out' Toney was the baddest man on the planet. He fought everybody and liked nobody.
That once-ferocious fighting force is now 41 years of age, and more than 41 pounds heavier. Fight fans fondly remember a time when Toney was younger, slimmer and carried a far more substantial reputation in the sport of boxing. His last great ring performance can be traced back to October 2003 against Evander Holyfield, and legendary wins over Michael Nunn, Mike McCallum, Iran Barkley and 'Prince' Charles Williams are only available on VHS tape. Toney boasts 83 professional boxing bouts to his name and and made his pro debut way back in September 1989, the year of Like a Prayer, 3 Feet High and Rising and Paul's Boutique.
Fast-forward two decades and, on Saturday night in Las Vegas, Toney was ringside at UFC 116 to watch UFC world heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar become 2010's 'baddest man on the planet' upon crushing number one contender Shane Carwin. Toney was also in town to help promote his own August 28 bout with Randy 'The Natural' Couture. Seemingly phased out of boxing through a combination of age and lack of opponents, Toney now seeks to become a middle-aged star in mixed martial arts, beginning with a catchweight contest with former three-time heavyweight champion Couture, and ending with an unlikely shot at Lesnar's super-sized belt.
As for his chances of defeating Couture in August, one assumes the outcome will be dependent on whether 'The Natural' becomes a sucker for pride or merely relies on what he does naturally. If Couture, or anyone else for that matter, is foolish enough to stand with Toney, the game's over and quickly. Toney's uncanny ability with his hands, even at 41 years of age, is superior to even the best strikers in mixed martial arts. He does things instinctively, honed through a 30-year fighting career, that no mixed martial arts peer can practice on pads or bags.
Moreover, with beyond 80 fights to his name, Toney has been sneering and collapsing bodies longer than any mixed martial artist in history, including celebrated two-weight champion and inspirational 46-year-old Couture. While some mixed martial artists pretend tough or train tough, Toney doesn't need to fake or work on it. He just is.
However, should Olympic-alternate wrestler, Couture, forget any illusions of duking it out with Toney in a fist-fight, then the impending double-leg takedown and follow-up ground-and-pound will help Randy wrap up one of the more straightforward wins of his career. After all, Toney never cut a particularly mobile fighter in his slimmest boxing days, so one imagines Couture won't have to hustle too hard to secure his piece de resistance.
If Toney needed a revealing insight into what he's up against in August and beyond, then his presence on a Saturday night in Vegas recently was well-served. The former boxing great watched 265-pound juggernauts Lesnar and Carwin bash heads in the centre of the Octagon, briefly exchange punches standing and on the ground, before the champion Lesnar exhibited his complete evolution with an eye-catching and fight-ending arm-triangle.
Known once as a showman pro wrestler, 32-year-old Lesnar has now transformed into a fearsome mixed martial artist, capable of setting up and securing submissions. He also displayed the kind of fighting heart and durability that many before doubted, when overcoming a hailstorm of punishment from the mallet-fisted Carwin in the opening round. Bloodied, battered and on the verge of losing his crown, Lesnar somehow rallied back, took Carwin down in the following round and then revealed the full extent of his ever-increasing arsenal.
Toney watched on from Octagon-side, presumably enthused by Lesnar and Carwin's willingness to stand and trade in spurts, yet also wary of Lesnar's ability to secure takedowns at will and then close the show with the aid of improved jiu-jitsu. Toney, the master boxer, has neither takedowns or jiu-jitsu in his locker. His fascinating venture into mixed martial arts relies primarily on the contents and impact of a left glove and right glove and, some would say, a wing and a prayer.
Reports from training with light-heavyweight standout 'King' Mo Lawal remain positive, yet Toney is robbed of the time and athleticism to adapt to a new sport the way Lesnar has done so impressively since 2007. There are stories of leg-kicks, head-kicks and standing guillotines in camp, but one still fails to see how Toney shakes the ghosts and instincts of an 83-bout boxing career at this advanced stage.
In truth, those can't-be-taught tics and habits may be all Toney needs against Couture in August. Just as Saturday night offered Toney a peak into how advanced Lesnar's grasp of the ground game has become, it also presented the boxer with the chance to watch two elite-level wrestlers trade punches in a stand-up situation. Although both heavyweights were top-of-the-food-chain collegiate wrestlers in a former life, Lesnar and Carwin, like so many others in the sport, also share a human desire to throw fists and prove their superiority in the most masculine, aesthetic and commonly understood form of fighting.
They snarl, step to the centre of the ring or Octagon and, perhaps only for a brief time, look for the picture-perfect finish -- the knockout. They throw punches, sometimes impressively, often sloppily, and soon become blind to both the danger of single blows and the other aspects of mixed martial arts. For a short period, their sheer thirst for battle strips this multi-faceted sport back to its purest and most animalistic roots.
There is no greater or fiercer animal than James 'Lights Out' Toney, even at 41 and with all the wrinkles and shading of a man who's spent most his life in the line of fire. He may be well beyond the point of learning new tricks, but old dog Toney will never forget what he already knows.