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Ex-heavyweight boxing champ Toney to make MMA debut Saturday

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LOS ANGELES -- James Toney is down on his back, and he's getting pummeled. A small, quick sparring partner wearing 4-ounce gloves straddles his chest and rains down blow after blow on the prone boxer.

Toney leans onto his right shoulder, rolls to his left and escapes the position with surprising ease for a man of his size. John Arthur, Toney's manager and longtime guru, leans against the wall of the mixed martial arts cage and shouts with the spontaneous joy felt by a teacher whose pupil is finally getting it.

"That's the move. That's the one," Arthur said. "He's never going to see that coming."

Toney has spent the past nine months learning fighting skills he never imagined he would need to compete in a sport he still derides. After winning 72 fights and multiple title belts during more than two largely successful decades in the ring, Toney has put himself in a cage, training for his MMA debut against Randy Couture at UFC 118 on Saturday night in Boston.

Given his inexperience, most MMA observers don't see how he can win. Seeing smaller opponents with a fraction of his punching power in the cozy confines of the octagon, Toney doesn't see how he can lose.

"They're not used to anything like me," Toney said, sweat dripping off his entire body after a lively ground-and-pound workout at the M-1 Global gym in Chatsworth, tucked in the northwest corner of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

"There isn't anybody in the MMA circle with my background, with my history," Toney added. "Everybody out there who thinks I'm going to lose isn't going to believe what I do to him. Randy Couture can't offer me anything I haven't seen inside a ring, and when I hit him, it's going to set a gold standard."

Toney's fight with Couture has been criticized from the moment UFC president Dana White made it. Toney's complete lack of MMA background certainly suggests it's a freakshow, a carnival attraction, a stunt -- everything that White has strived to avoid while building the league into a billion-dollar athletic endeavor over the past decade.

Yet White said he couldn't resist the chance to "shut James Toney's mouth" by matching him against Couture, the 47-year-old MMA pioneer who has scarcely slowed down in the octagon while simultaneously pursuing a burgeoning acting career.

And it's an undeniably fascinating sideshow, billed second on the UFC's debut show in White's hometown, largely because it's another chapter in an argument that has roiled for decades: Which so-called combat sport is really the toughest?

"I had to step up to the plate for the boxers," Toney said. "I ain't scared of nothing. I'm the best fighter, period. When I hold the heavyweight title in boxing and MMA at the same time, people will realize it."

Karate stars once fought a succession of boxers at Madison Square Garden. Muhammad Ali fought a Japanese pro wrestler to a 15-round draw in 1976, an incredibly dull fight that nonetheless fascinated Japan. Boxers James Warring and Art Jimmerson fought martial artists in the 1990s. Just last year, former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia was knocked out by 48-year-old former Olympian Ray Mercer in a 9-second fight.

Couture and Toney won't settle the argument, but their meeting is sure to stoke it -- particularly if Toney gets close enough to Couture, whose background is in wrestling, to do real damage.

Arthur has watched Toney's transformation into a martial artist with eager support.

"How can everybody say this is going to be a circus, a freakshow?" Arthur asked. "You've got two champions, going toe to toe. You're putting two arts together. (Couture) has never been in the ring with someone as vicious as James. James doesn't need to make any adjustments to his skills, either. James is a fighter. I don't worry about him in a street fight, and that's what this guy is getting."

For all of Toney's winking bravado, Toney and Arthur have taken this experiment quite seriously since Toney decided to try MMA after flirting with the idea for several years. Toney, who turned 42 on Tuesday, has trained nearly without a break since Christmas, and he's in markedly better shape than he exhibited in most of his recent fights.

Toney wasn't tired of boxing, but perhaps boxing was a bit tired of Toney. The former football quarterback in his native Michigan had been visibly paunchy for several fights in recent years, and he twice tested positive for steroids in recent years. He had fought just once since Sept. 2008, winning the meaningless IBA heavyweight title.

With the UFC's exponential growth in popularity in recent years, Toney is unlikely to be the last boxer to try this stunt. Hard-living former welterweight champion Ricardo Mayorga tried to fight for a smaller MMA promotion in May before promoter Don King put the kibosh on it with a contract dispute, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. briefly floated the possibility of stepping into an octagon two years ago, though Mayweather won't even go near a ring these days.

But Toney is invigorated by his second career, which he hopes to continue for at least three more years. The new skills have captivated his intellect, and he relishes the likelihood he'll be booed by everybody in Boston when he finally gets in the octagon.

"I've always been the underdog," Toney said, wiping the sweat from his bald head before continuing his second workout of the day. "MMA has made me so much better as a fighter. It heightened my skill set even more. If I had had this 10 years ago, I'd be a much better boxer today. Nobody could have stopped me."