This Saturday, James Toney, who’s won boxing titles in several different weight classes, will make his UFC debut against the veteran fighter Randy Couture. Though he’s going to be the most decorated boxer to enter the world of Mixed Martial Arts, he’s hardly the first. Discounting Vale Tudo events and the occasional shoot match in Japan, boxers began entering the cage or MMA ring back at UFC 1. How have they done?
Art Jimmerson vs. Royce Gracie(11/12/93): Accordint to boxingrec, Jimmerson was 28-5 going into the first UFC event, with 17 wins by KO or TKO, and on a 3 year, 15-fight winning streak. He outweighed Royce Gracie by 18 lbs. So how’d he do? After a feeling out process in which neither fighter landed a telling blow, Jimmerson was taken to the mat, where he promptly tapped out without Royce applying any hold at all.
Melton Bowen vs. Steve Jennum(12/16/94): At UFC 4, another boxer entered the Octagon. Melton Bowen was 32-6 going into the match with dubious UFC 3 tournament winner Steve Jennum, who’d won the competition as an alternate. He also outweighed Jennum by ten pounds. So how did he do? After another feeling out process where neither fighter landed any telling shots, Jennum clinched with Bowen and stuck to him like glue. Even when Bowen managed to get to his feet, Jennum stayed clinched up with him, leading to a highlight-reel hip throw. Eventually, after both fighters were badly gassed, Jennum was able to lock on an arm bar from mount, leading to a tap out by Bowen.
Eric Esch vs. Genki Sudo(12/31/2003):Eric Esch, better known as “Butterbean”, will never be considered the most technical boxer in the world. In fact, he’ll probably never be in the top 500 most technical boxers in the world at ANY given time. However, he possessed knockout power and a record of 66-3-4 at the time of his New Years Eve 2003 K-1 Match with Genki Sudo. He’d even won the IBF and IBA Super Heavyweight titles. In this match, Esch was listed as 185 kilograms, or around 408lbs, to Sudo’s 75 kilograms, or about 165lbs. Given his incredible knockout power and a size difference of a Genki and a half, surely Butterbean would crush his opponent, right? Not quite. Sudo spent most of the first round side-kicking Esch in the leg, literally running around the ring, and occasionally doing \”The Robot\”. It was actually a lot more fun than it sounds. Esch landed some glancing blows, but appeared winded despite his minimalist approach to movement. A late takedown by Sudo did little to damage Butterbean, though it probably gave him something to think about. In the second round, Genki attempted a dropkick which led to Esch\’s full weight landing on top of him. However, all was not lost; Sudo scrambled out enough to finish off the inept Esch with a heel hook.
Francois Botha vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama(12/31/2004): One year after Butterbean’s entertaining but disastrous debut, Francois “The White Buffalo” Botha made his K-1 debut. The former WBF Heavyweight Champion sported a record of 44-4-2 going in against Akiyama, who he would outweigh by over 60lbs. Surely, he must have learned from Butterbean’s mistakes and prepared himself to face a grappling-centric fighter, right? Well, Akiyama, an Olympic-level Judoka, took Botha to the ground immediately, and after some ground-and-pound, submitted him with an arm bar. This is called “Getting Russia’d”, when someone who repeats the mistakes of a past counterpart in exactly the same way, because they forgot to learn from the past. See: boxers vs. little Japanese grapplers, or would-be world conquerors vs. the Russian winter.
Yosuke Nishijima vs. Mark Hunt (2/26/06): Theoretically, Pride was doing Nishijima a favor in his MMA debut by pitting him against former K-1 champion Mark Hunt. Nishijima faced, at the very least, a man who was supposed to be willing to stand and trade with him. Hunt himself was fighting in only his fifth MMA match, so the difference in MMA skill shouldn’t have been that great. Weeeell… after a long kickboxing career and nearly two years of MMA, Hunt used his boxing weapons, his hands, as well as his non-boxing weapons to his advantage. He kicked, kneed, and even slammed Nishijima, a 24-2-1 boxer and former WBF Cruiserweight champ, who was giving up a significant amount of weight to the New Zealander. Early on, the Japanese boxer had the speed and head movement to avoid a lot of damage on the feet, but by the third round, Hunt’s power punches, iron chin, and varied offense had taken its toll. As this edited clip of the second and third rounds shows, Nishijima was game, but just couldn’t do the sort of damage Hunt was doing. A big right by Hunt put Nishijima down and out. Overall, probably the best debut we’ve seen so far.
Rubin Williams vs. Kazushi Sakuraba(10/6/09): Sporting a boxing record of 27-8-1 going into the match, Rubin Williams was a former IBF Super Middleweight contender who gained notoriety from his appearance on the third season of The Contender. Nearly 16 years after Art Jimmerson graced the Octagon, William should have had ample time to prepare for an MMA bout. So just how did that go? In a match designed to make Sakuraba look good, Williams got faked out for leg kicks for about a minute before Saku shot in, took him down, and tapped him out with a Kimura, as you can see in the first three minutes or so of this video.
Of the boxers listed, not one has made a successful MMA debut. Admittedly, some were going up against tough fighters, like a prime Royce and the iron-headed Hunt, but many also had a size advantage and had been boxing longer than the MMA fighter had been fighting. The later point is one Toney has brought up when justifying how he’ll beat Couture. This, of course, ignores the fact that Couture has been wrestling since he was five years oldand is in his fifth decade of using that skill set. While I believe that there are ways for Toney to win this match, history has shown us that even champion boxers tend to do poorly in MMA. There’s just too many skills needed for MMA that boxing doesn’t offer. Toney has had several months to prepare for the kicks, knees, takedowns, clinch work, ground-and-pound, and submissions that Couture can bring to the table. I doubt that will be enough to out-MMA Couture. What remains to be seen is if it’s enough for Toney to out-box him, to keep the fight on its feet and pick up the win using his most valuable skill set. While MMA is full of surprises, I think the one in for the biggest surprise this Saturday is going to be James Toney.