In the mixed martial arts world, James Toney is a punch line.
His sole foray into MMA being a bout against Randy Couture in 2010, Toney was immediately taken down with a lazy low single and submitted. This embarrassment was seen by hundreds of thousands of people around the world as it was the co-main event of UFC 118 (you know... that company which professes not to do freak show fights).
Toney's MMA career was clearly a money grab, and the UFC were more than happy to use his name to stir up the old, and stupid, boxing versus MMA rivalry. But Toney's boxing career had been floundering for a while. The truth is that there are far, far too few fans out there who understand just how good Toney was
As a middleweight, Toney was exceptional. But with his bizarre training practices—multiple sources report that Toney is reluctant to partake in any training that isn't sparring—and his lax attitude to dieting, Toney soon ate his way up to heavyweight. Undersized and underpowered, Toney still made a damn good go of it, besting Evander Holyfield and John Ruiz handily.
Last of the Old Timers
Toney found much of his inspiration in old time boxing masters such as Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore, and considers himself the last of the old time boxers. Watching him in the ring at his best, it would be hard to disagree with the notion. The shoulder rolls, the inside work, the pivots—the similarities with Moore and Charles are obvious. Along with Floyd Mayweather, James Toney is considered by many as a throwback to the golden age of boxing.
What is fascinating about these so-called “throwback fighters” is that, wicked counter punching game aside, a great deal of what makes the difference in their fights is what I call “working in the grey areas”. Adrien Broner, for instance, does a fantastic Floyd Mayweather impression, but has none of the ability to tie up when in trouble. Marcos Maidana battered Broner, but was tied up at will by Mayweather.
A surprising amount of what Mayweather and Toney did in the ring is, for lack of a more sport specific word, wrestling. The idea that boxing is just the punching part hurts a great many fighters when they get in the ring with a throwback fighter who will wrestle them around, push them to the corners if they get lazy, or lean on them.
One of the greatest reasons for Mayweather's success is his punch 'n' clutch. After every punch, you know the opponent is going to be firing back, so most fighters practice dipping or weaving after they've thrown their own blows. But the easiest way to ensure nothing comes back at you after you've punched is to dived into a clinch immediately afterwards.
Much praise is heaped upon Mayweather's right hand lead, which is superb, but it carries none of the danger that a usual right hand lead would when he crashes in chest-to-chest after he throws it. He frequently did this to Ricky Hatton as the Mancunian stepped in.
But Mayweather's ability to tie up is just one side of the coin. When his opponent starts wrestling back—either attempting to keep him off of them, or to pull him close to keep him in the clinch—Mayweather starts punching again. The second part of the above gif demonstrates that amply. Hatton never knew whether he wanted Mayweather off of him, or close to him, and he got hit between his attempts at securing each.
The vast majority of Mayweather's best power punches come in these wrestling exchanges. Here he snaps Shane Mosley's head down and leans on it (illegal), releases the head underneath his armpit and immediately pivots to nail Mosley with a power right straight.
Archie Moore was a master of passing opponents under his armpit. It can set up a reversal of position along the ropes, or simply provide room to pivot out and change angle. Notice that in the first instance Moore escapes the clinch and returns to the middle of the ring with the chuck under technique. In the second instance he uses it to tie up instead.
The chuck under forces the opponent into a predictable return to upright and turn. Most folks react the same way, so it's up to the head chucker how he wants to proceed following the technique.
And Mayweather, like George Foreman and Badr Hari, has a terrific pull-push right straight off of the cross face. As his opponent ducks in to clinch, Mayweather jams his forearm across the side of their neck or face, and pushes away as he turns his hips into a power right hand. Looks simple, but it's difficult to push with your left while turning your hips and shoulders to drive in with a right hand. So predictable is the tendency to tie up when hurt that a decent puncher can turn into a terrific finisher on the strength of this alone.
Returning to James Toney, one of the trademarks of his early career was his use of an interesting two-on-one clinch. The classical tie up of boxing is the same as the over-under of wrestling, except the overhooking arm is pinned between both fighters' chests to lock up the position. The tie up which Toney used was a much looser one.
Notice how Toney pinches Iran Barkley's left arm underneath his right armpit, then his left hand (usually low in the classical Stonewall / Philly Shell defense) scoops under and cups behind Barkley's elbow.
Remembering that in boxing the body bisected and all the legal targets are on the front half, you'll notice that this position places Toney's back to Barkley's only free hand. Barkley is reduced to clumsily arm punching Toney's kidney when he thinks the ref won't notice it.
You're probably thinking that this 'clinch' looks a little loose. Really, it's just a clamp on the opponent's left elbow. You'll notice that Toney is pretty much in his standard Stonewall guard anyway, while hindering Barkley's terrific left hook. It's also worth noting the role of Toney's right elbow that is clamped down over Barkely's left wrist. The gloves in boxing make it exceptionally easy to hold a glove under your armpit once you've got it there. A geriatric Larry Holmes was able to completely nullify a prime Mike Tyson on the inside just by alternating between the classic "Ali grip" on the back of Tyson's neck and trapping Tyson's left glove under his armpit.
As the fight progressed, Toney would let Barkley push him to the ropes, blast off a combination (and young, middleweight James Toney's hand speed was blistering), then clamp that left arm again and turn his back to the right one.
By the mid rounds, Barkley's eyes were already closing and Toney could begin flurrying before stepping off and landing his right straight from a dominant angle. Just beautiful stuff.
And how about this example, again from the Old Mongoose, Archie Moore. Yolande Pompey dives in with punches, Moore looks to slap on the same two-on-one clamp on Pompey's left arm but changes his mind because Pompey has given Moore's right hand a clear path to his jaw.
It was the opening which Moore had been looking for all fight and, just as is so often the case with Mayweather and Toney, it happened when his opponent's brain went to autopilot as they were seemingly falling into a clinch. When Pompey rose from the knockdown, Moore stayed on him and got the TKO. And that, more than anything, is the value of this neat little clinching trick—unlike the classical tie up the fighters are not tied up. Moore and Toney could release and start punching whenever they wanted, their opponents couldn't.
Application in MMA?
This little two-on-one is a technique which is pretty much uniquely useful to striking sports—it's just a little too close to letting the opponent walk around behind you on your left side—but it isn't far from the basic arm drag from the over-under which is a basic of amateur wrestling. That, of course, involves getting the opponent's arm across your body, however, and that can be pretty difficult if he's holding on tight.
If one were looking for some form of throw which he could use from this tie up—particularly because it is a fairly easy position to get into against a wild, swinging opponent—I suppose you could do worse than the Amiuchi of sumo. Amiuchi, meaning "fisherman's throw" because if its resemblance to how Japanese fishermen cast out their nets, is one of the traditional kimarite or deciding techniques of sumo.
Unfortunately Amiuchi is pretty much limited to use in sumo, because it is a technique that relies on a ring out rather than throwing the opponent to the floor. That being said, if I ever see someone in MMA or Sanda chain an off-balancing Amiuchi into the pivoting right hand that Moore threw above, I'll proclaim them the winner of all combat sports and retire from writing.
Amiuchi, from Thomas Zabel's excellent book, Sumo Skills.
On the subject of sumo throws, Sotomuso, the outside thigh twist down might also find application off of this tie up. In this technique the left hand reaches across and checks the opponent's left thigh as he is twisted downward to his left side.
I wouldn't go so far as to say you won't see this tie up used in MMA—it seems like Ronda Rousey can throw from any tie up she chooses—but it seems unlikely to find much of a home. It is, first and foremost, an exploitation of the rules of boxing.
But it does highlight the point that there is a lot more grappling going on in high-level boxing than most would realize. It's not the kind of grappling you'll see in BJJ or submission grappling tournaments, but there aren't many other ways to define physically moving an unwilling opponent around.
To finish, here's James Toney demonstrating an old Archie Moore favorite, standing on his opponent's foot. Toney hits Ruiz with a right hand and Ruiz steps back and Toney performs a skipping step to plant his left foot on Ruiz's right. Foot traps are among the most underused techniques in all combat sports. If you hit someone while you're standing on their foot, you've got a great chance of knocking them down. If you keep that foot pinned as they fall, you've got a terrific chance of breaking a toe or spraining their ankle. When Mike Tyson is asked about what aspect of MMA he would struggle with, he always replies that he couldn't put up with people stamping on his feet.
It's either crazily lucky that Toney decided to perform that additional shuffle (after standing still for most of the fight and baiting Ruiz in), or he's an extremely crafty cheat. As Toney is a man who sculpted himself after Archie Moore (who broke a good few toes in his time and wasn't shy about saying it), my money would be on the latter.
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