It's UFC vs. boxing as Randy Couture takes on James Toney

If you're an over-40 sports fan who won't acknowledge mixed martial arts and who believes that combat sports begin and end with boxing, this bout's for you.

" UFC vs. Boxing" is how the Ultimate Fighting Championship is marketing its Saturday night event in Boston, which pits former five-time UFC champion Randy Couture, 47, in a heavyweight fight against former three-division world boxing champion James Toney, 42.

Toney, who was frustrated by his inability to land a boxing title shot at either of the heavyweight Klitschko brothers, turned his attention to the increasingly popular UFC.

"Toney literally stalked us until we caved," UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta said. "We ultimately agreed this would be interesting, that the public will want it. It's about exposure."

In his role as MMA's greatest advocate, Fertitta has made millions drawing interest from younger sports fans who like their fighting to include knees, elbows, kicking, wrestling and more blood.

But as a former Nevada boxing regulator who's still sensitive to dismissive critiques of his sport by older fight fans, Fertitta acknowledges "there's still a core true to boxers, saying our [MMA] athletes aren't as good as theirs …

"So this is UFC vs. boxing. Those people can tune in and see what a great sport this is. We'll definitely get viewers we haven't had before based on the interest Toney is bringing."

The UFC 118 card is headlined by a lightweight title main event, pitting champion Frank Edgar against the veteran he dethroned, B.J. Penn. Both weighed in at 154 pounds Friday.

Toney — who weighed in at 237, compared to Couture's 220 — has done his best to trumpet the boxing-MMA divide. He has dared Couture to stand and fight instead of resorting to his wrestling strength, implying strongly that such fighting isn't as courageous as boxing. Toney's game plan is to land a world-class punch in smaller four-ounce MMA gloves.

"UFC can't claim supremacy unless Couture comes to boxing, and I'll match whatever he's making for this fight," Toney's boxing promoter Dan Goossen said. "Anything else is just James Toney showing his true warrior spirit, saying damn the torpedoes and conceding to all of the [MMA] rules."

Couture says he doesn't have to defend his toughness or the compelling quality of his own story. He converted from amateur wrestling to accept his first $20,000 MMA payday, one that he parlayed to a slew of high-six-figure purses after his performances and Fertitta's business acumen helped catapult the sport into the mainstream.

"I've been on the up end of the downside, before we got on cable, when people thought this sport would die," Couture said. "We had to overcome a lot of hurdles about the misconceptions. The appreciation for the different dimensions of MMA has grown during the last four or five years.

"James [Toney] has done a good job hyping up the boxing people making a lot of comments, and he deserves respect for being willing to step into the cage. But how appreciative is he of the different dimensions? I absolutely intend to find out. It's my job to put him on his back and test him."

Couture and Fertitta both expressed doubt when asked whether future MMA-boxing hybrid fights will follow.

Couture, nearly an 8-1 favorite in Las Vegas sports books, called the Toney fight an "anomaly." But Couture acknowledged other boxers may come to the MMA ring "if James lands that shot he's been talking about." Conversely, should Toney lose, he is unlikely to return to the MMA ring again.

With "UFC vs. Boxing," Couture says, this bout "seems as big as any fight I've ever been in, title fights included. For as long as I've fought, we've been compared to boxers. It's an interesting matchup, and he's an intriguing puzzle to solve."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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