Dear MMA Friends, James Toney Isn’t A Top Boxer Anymore

Even with the way my boxing news feed fills up with stories about James Toney vs. Randy Couture, each day that goes by without me mentioning it feels like a personal triumph. Many of the headlines are along the lines of “Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing Face Off with Couture vs. Toney” or something, and usually appear to be written by people who never have covered either sport. They are so ill-informed as to not even warrant a response in this space, as others have more than capably explained how wrong they are.

A very encouraging percentage, though, perhaps the majority, recognize that Toney-Couture on Aug. 28 proves nothing whatsoever about either sport.

But there’s a “but” to the “but.” Within the percentage of articles about how Toney-Couture proves nothing whatsoever, there are some which manage to make it sound like Toney is any kind of relevant boxer today. He is not. It’s accumulated to the point that there will be no personal triumph for me today.

In an otherwise good piece at Yahoo recently, Steve Cofield wrote:

Toney has plenty left, especially if he got down to cruiserweight where he belongs. He’s still a top-10 heavyweight, with a granite chin and defensive abilities as good as anyone in the sport.

In an otherwise good piece this week, Todd Martin wrote for ESPN:

As a result, the stage was finally set for the long-anticipated showdown between an elite MMA fighter and an elite boxer. Multiple-division boxing champion and future boxing Hall of Famer James Toney saw the opening and began a campaign to get a UFC fight. UFC decision-makers were initially cold on the idea, but Toney eventually talked himself into a fight with UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture on Aug. 28 at UFC 118.

And just today, USA Today’s Bob Velin wrote:

Toney, 41, will become the first elite boxer to step into the octagon when he meets heavyweight Randy Couture, 47, in the main event at TD Garden.

No, and no.

Toney is not a top-10 heavyweight. He hasn’t been since 2006. He is not an elite boxer. He hasn’t cracked Ring magazine’s top-10 pound-for-pound since 2003. The last top-10 opponent in his division he beat was John Ruiz in 2005, but that was turned into a no-decision because Toney failed a post-fight drug test. The last top-10 opponent in his division he beat officially was Evander Holyfield in 2003, and even then Holyfield looked that night like a fighter whose career was over. Toneys was good enough in 2006 to lose narrowly to Sam Peter and draw with Hasim Rahman — two men who passed for quality heavyweights in that day and age — but by 2007, Peter blew him out easily. In 2008, he got a decision win over journeyman Fres Oquendo in what some considered the robbery of the year, so thoroughly did Oquendo outbox him. He hasn’t done anything of note in a boxing ring since. Outside the ring, he’s taunted the Klitschko brothers endlessly, but if the Klitschko brothers had fought him, they would have faced widespread criticism for choosing to fight an old, maybe-shot heavyweight who hadn’t scored a significant win in the division in years and years.

I say that with remorse, as Toney is one of my all-time favorite fighters. The only thing he has left is defensive skill and a granite chin, and both have degraded in recent years, as Peter showed by decking Toney with a jab and as Oquendo showed by hitting Toney more than he should have been hit. He’s likely not even a top-20 heavyweight at this point. He is formerly an elite boxer, formerly a top heavyweight. And if that sounds like nitpicking — after all, Toney for the balance of his career was an elite boxer, so maybe using the present tense isn’t so bad — consider that if Muhammad Ali got in the octagon with Couture, nobody would say “Ali is the first elite boxer to step into the octagon.” Ali’s a good deal more beyond his best days than Toney, of course, but neither are currently elite boxers, and what Toney is now matters more for Aug. 28 than what he once was or what he was for most of his career. To call Toney “elite” today is misleading at best.

Everyone who writes that Toney-Couture will prove nothing about boxing vs. MMA is right. But it proves even less than some of them think.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.