They say no one has invented a time machine, but while watching the UFC 118 in Boston, I was hard-pressed to believe it. I say this because when that old question, “Can a boxer beat a mixed martial artist?” reared its ugly head again courtesy of the co-main event, it felt like I’d traveled into the past by exactly 117 UFCs. After all the hubbub, mixed martial arts legend Randy Couture choked out boxer James Toney in three minutes 19 seconds.
Certainly, UFC president Dana White seemed to be experiencing a bit of temporal distortion. “I thought we answered this question back in 1993,” he said.
It was answered to the satisfaction of everyone except James Toney, who lobbied Dana White for the better part of a year to let him compete. When Dana White relented—despite years of actively resisting the sideshow appeal of the early UFCs—and matched him with former heavyweight champ Randy Couture, James Toney’s pre-fight hype shifted from surly to obnoxious.
Describing the bout as a contest between boxing and MMA, James Toney insisted he’d single-handedly bring boxing back to the forefront of combat sports by easily knocking out Randy Couture.
As the current International Boxing Association heavyweight champ, James Toney did come into the match as the most accomplished boxer to ever set foot inside the octagon. He’s won numerous titles in his 22-year career, but that statistic belies the fact that his best days were nearly 20 years ago when he fought at 160 pounds, not the pudgy 237 pounds he slimmed down to for his MMA debut. Of course, Randy Couture, 47, has likewise seen better days, but such details were lost on the public as James Toney cast himself as the UFCs biggest villain and ignited an interest that took many by surprise.
Sean Smyth of WBZ-FM said the hype surrounding the UFC’s Boston debut, and especially the Couture-Toney bout, caught some at his station flat-footed. When it became apparent that this was a must-see event, they quickly set up a live 90-minute pre-fight broadcast from the arena.
White, a Boston native, said the reception for the UFC in his hometown exceeded all expectations. Besides the Couture-Toney “fight,” he loaded the card with local favorites, including Joe Lauzon, who garnered submission-of-the-night honors by quickly armbarring Gabe Ruediger, and Kenny Florian, who came up short in his bout with Gray Maynard, losing a unanimous decision.
The main event was actually a rematch between lightweight champ Frankie Edgar and former titleholder B.J. Penn. Although Frankie Edgar silenced his critics by winning a lopsided decision and making B.J. Penn look old, the Couture-Toney matchup was what had the sellout crowd of more than 14,000 buzzing.
Randy Couture entered to a standing ovation, and no one sat back down during the fight, which was less a legitimate MMA contest than a chance for a grappler to school an untrained opponent. Immediately, Randy Couture shot in for an easy single-leg takedown and put James Toney on his back, where he was helpless.
“I had to dust off the low single from college,” said the former All-American wrestler, explaining that the more customary double-leg takedown would’ve necessitated a closer approach, putting him inside James Toney’s reach. “I had no illusions about trading punches. You don’t see the low single much in MMA because you have to start from farther away, and a good grappler will just step out of it.”
Fortunately for Randy Couture, James Toney was not a good grappler. Despite claims that he’d trained for months to stifle his opponent’s ground game, once he hit the mat, James Toney resembled nothing so much as those strikers from the first UFCs who’d never been downed before. Randy Couture quickly got a full mount and began pounding James Toney, whose only answer was to swat from the bottom, a strategy that was largely discredited 17 years ago. Couture finally secured a side choke along the fence, prompting James Toney to stall with his beefy arms. “The Natural” hit him a couple of times, then flattened him out on the ground. As the raucous crowd chanted, “UFC!” Couture reapplied the side choke, forcing his foe to submit.
When asked later whether he’d take on James Toney in a boxing match, Randy Couture responded, “I would respectfully decline such an offer.”
Always the gentleman, Randy Couture said that he respected boxing and that a good boxer could make the adjustment to MMA—as he’d done from wrestling—if he put in the time to learn the game. He also pointed out that he’d probably do as well in a boxing match against Toney as Toney had in MMA against him, reiterating that MMA and boxing are two different sports.
So who really is better, a boxer or a mixed martial artist? The answer is the same one we came up with 17 years ago. A boxer is better at boxing and a mixed martial artist is better at MMA. We really didn’t need a time machine to tell us that.
(Mark Jacobs is a freelance writer and martial artist based in New York.)