UFC 118 Preview: James Toney v. Randy Couture And Boxing Technique In MMA

(Photo by Al Bello / Getty Images)

A look at boxing techniques and their translation to mixed martial arts as well as how James Toney's boxing style will translate to his UFC 118 bout with Randy Couture.

Here is a list of men with at least 10 pro boxing bouts and 5 pro MMA bouts:

Marcus Davis - Pro boxing record: 17-1-2 (12 KO), MMA record: 17-6 (6 KO)

Chris Lytle - Pro boxing record: 13-1-1 (7 KO), MMA record: 29-17-5 (4 KO)

KJ Noons - Pro boxing record: 12-2 (5 KO), MMA record: 10-2 (8 KO)

Jeremy Williams - Pro boxing record: 42-5-1 (35 KO), MMA record: 5-0 (3 KO)

Despite a lot of talk from people who follow both sports there does not appear to be a direct correlation between having experience as a pro boxer and being a massive KO artist in mixed martial arts. This comes down to the rather obvious differences in the sports. The threat of takedowns and kicks take away the ability of a boxer to sit down on their punches and deliver them with full power.  That threat can be witnessed with clarity in this exchange between Chris Lytle and Muay Thai stylist Thiago Alves:

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You can see Lytle throwing an overhand right to close distance and covering up from the return left hand of Alves only to eat a nasty leg kick with his left foot still planted. Lytle is an experienced and successful MMA veteran, he knows what to expect in an MMA bout. How will James Toney handle the first time he instinctively goes to his boxing defense and eats a leg kick or gets double legged for a takedown? We'll get back to Toney in a few moments.

There is also a change in stance between the two sports if you want to have even the slightest ability to defend against takedown attempts. These things also add up to there being significantly less punches thrown in 15 minutes of MMA action than boxing reducing the overall possibility that you get an "accumulation knockout" where the volume of punches landed wears a guy down and eventually finishes him.

In four ounce gloves almost anyone possesses knockout power. A clean power shot to the chin can finish a fight at almost any moment. That is not something specific to just men who have boxed in the past. The place where a boxing past can and does help a fighter is in straight up punching exchanges. There is very little that can give a man the timing and accuracy in straight-up punching exchanges like a professional boxing background. But again, as soon as the spacing changes due to the variety of options available in mixed martial arts that boxing technique means little. See Marcus Davis getting dropped in his bout with Dan Hardy at UFC 99:

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Davis is trying to throw some hooks at Hardy from close quarters and Hardy traps the head in a Muay Thai plum, erases the hooking distance and knees him to the chin, almost finishing the fight. In Davis we have an experienced and successful mixed martial artist with skills in multiple areas of the sport, not a man making his debut in mixed martial arts against one of the sport's legends on less than a year of training.

This all brings us to:

James Toney - Pro boxing record: 72-6-3 (44 KO), MMA debut Saturday night

The recurring theme when talking about Toney's fight with Randy Couture at UFC 118 is that James has to land punches early and knock Couture out. One can't really argue the logic of this statement. Over just a few months of training mixed martial arts there is no way that Toney will be able to pick up enough grappling to hang with Couture, a three time NCAA All-American wrestler and three time Olympic alternate. If Randy can outwrestle and submit Mike van Arsdale (a former gold medal winner in freestyle at the world cup and NCAA D-1 champion) after van Arsdale had been fighting for seven years, he can easily do the same to James Toney who has only trained for maybe seven months.

Knowing the above mentioned significant stylistic differences between boxing and MMA we can assume that the window for Toney to be able to sit down on his punches and knock Couture out is reasonably small. So when we look at Toney we have to look at his style to see if he is the kind of guy who is likely to engage in a fast paced start to achieve a knockout. For a review of Toney's boxing style I'll defer to boxing writer Steve Kim in his recent interview with Luke Thomas on MMA Nation:

He's not a guy-- number one, he's not really a guy that's in top physical condition at all times, he's not a guy that's gonna come forward and be frenetic and chase guys down. He's gonna be a guy who's kinda gonna plant his feet and he's gonna react off you. You mentioned the shoulder roll. The one thing he likes to do is he likes to neutralize your right hand. He hides that chin very well and he hides it behind the shoulder and he rolls it. So one thing he always tries to do -- and I've noticed this from being in the gym with him many times at the Wild Card -- he loves for you to lead with that right hand, and he will roll it and he'll come back with his own shot. That's one thing where I think Randy Couture is gonna have some difficulty. If he is going to rush James Toney and attack him, I think that suits James Toney just fine. And, obviously, Randy Couture is gonna go and dive at the legs. I can't imagine him trying to do anything over the top, but what James Toney wants you to do is to be pro-active in your offensive approach. He wants you to lead, and if Randy Couture's not careful, I think he's gonna catch a right hand counter.

...

(responding to a question of Toney's power)  ...to put it as a baseball analogy, he certainly wouldn't be Mark McGwire circa 1998, but he's the type of guy-- Power, from one to ten, I would rate it somewhere around a seven or an eight. He was more of a volume puncher that relied a lot on accuracy and timing, and that's the one thing he was very good at, was timing you. But was he considered at any weight class a one-punch knockout artist? No, that was never the case.

In his 1994 fight with Charles Williams his ability (albeit at 168 pounds) to score a decisive KO was on display. Though, to be fair, this did come in the 12th round of a fight which had been a war. So while it's decisive it was not a KO "walking out of the corner":

Still this is a significantly older and significantly heavier James Toney than in 1994 and power doesn't always carry up in weight. And while we're on the subject of weight, the original plan was for this fight to be contested at light heavyweight (205 pounds) which is the division in which Couture competes currently. Toney's camp turned that down and then turned down a suggestion of a 220 pound limit catchweight, instead wanting to "just make it a heavyweight fight." I'd say the larger Toney comes in, the slower he is going to be and the more he will tire from having Randy Couture leaning on him and pressing for takedowns.

As mentioned earlier, the four ounce gloves should increase James' ability to do significant damage with one punch. But stylistically he is still a guy who has spent the last twenty-two years boxing and using a defensive, shoulder rolling style that should open him up for the takedowns of Couture. The lean back and slip punches approach he uses in boxing opens up his legs and trunk for Couture's wrestling game.

Is Toney going to have the wrestling timing down to land a punch to the head of a former Olympic caliber wrestler as he changes levels? Will James be able to operate with any effectiveness out of the clinch should Randy tie him up against the cage and use his patented "dirty boxing?"

These are all questions that we can't honestly answer until we see the two men enter the cage Saturday night, but I do have to say that based on history and styles I'm not liking Toney's chances.

(Photo by Al Bello / Getty Images)

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