Some have criticized promotions like the UFC in the past for their lack of support for black fighters, MediaFile's Matt Giola wrote a piece detailing this back in September 2018. There have also been others who have discussed the issue of racism within the sport of mixed martial arts, Omar Lopez touched on this in a post on his blog Cairn Thoughts and referenced an August 4, 2016 episode of the now-defunct MMAFighting show The MMA Beat where they elaborated on this further. During this segment of the show, Ariel Helwani brings up the criticism of then UFC champions Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley, and Demetrious Johnson. His fellow co-host Luke Thomas responded with the following answer giving his take as to why that was and about the racial aspects of the fight game.
"I think we live in a world, everyone likes to deny that there are racial components to the fight game. The fight game is in fact built on, partly, racial stratification and what that means for exploiting people's differences," Thomas said. "I don’t know to what extent they are problems in each of those cases (speaking about Woodley, Cormier, and Johnson), but it is hard for me to buy the idea that someone’s racial background in this country, and in countries elsewhere, that that doesn’t affect how fans perceive them. To what extent, we can debate, but that it is there, I think is absolutely incontestable."
Nearly four and a half years later from that episode and the racial component of MMA is still ever-present, if not more evident. It's hard to look at some of the promotional tactics of a fighter like UFC welterweight Colby Covington in recent years and some of the comments he made towards both Kamaru Usman and Tyron Woodley in the lead up to their fights, documented here by Insider's Barnaby Lane and not see a reoccurring issue. Yet the sport's lineage is and has been filled with black stars and champions in multiple weight classes and promotions. So for the month of February and in honor of Black History Month, Fightful will be doing a series that looks back at some of the best black athletes and pioneers in MMA history and highlighting each of their individual stories. The first fighter we will be featuring in this series is former UFC welterweight champion Carlos "The Ronin" Newton.
Newton was born on August 17, 1976, in The Valley, Anguilla a nation in the Caribbean that's part of the Leeward Islands. The British overseas territory that's national sport is boat racing, would also be where the origins began for the future UFC champion. On the island, Newton would first be introduced to martial arts by his stepfather in the form of karate, but it would be when his family moved to Canada when he was nine that his descent into the arts deepened. In Toronto, he started his training under Tom Sharkey a 33-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service and well respected martial artist, this led to Newton competing in jiu-jitsu representing the Samurai Club. There he would meet Terry Riggs who opened Warrior Mixed Martial Arts in Ontario and Newton would make the gym his home and Riggs is his trainer for his fighting career.
He would then make his professional debut in April 1996 at only 19 years old and against Jean Riviere, a man who out-weighed him by 100 plus pounds. Newton lost the no-holds-barred fight but bigger things would be ahead for him, starting in the summer of 1998 where at 21 years old he debuted for both the UFC and Pride FC. He'd start in Mobile, Alabama the location for UFC 17, and make it to the UFC middleweight tournament final against fellow MMA legend Dan Henderson. The fight is a forgotten classic that Newton ended up losing by split-decision, but he gave Henderson everything he could handle, dropping the future Pride champion with multiple right hands throughout the fight and hurting him with low calf kicks.
Just a month later, the young Newton would head to Tokyo, Japan to face another pioneer of the sport Kazushi Sakuraba at Pride 3. Already adding another instant classic to Newton's short resume, the fight is revered as one of the greatest displays of grappling in MMA history. The fight is a masterful showcase of catch wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu, transitions, reversals, chaining submissions together, and just about everything you could expect from a fight with such high praise. It had more scrambles in it than your eggs in the morning, and Newton reflected on the fight in an April 2018 interview with The Hannibal TV saying the following.
"Me and him went move for move, back and forth, you know it was an awesome grappling match. We did grapple a lot in that fight and you know when I think back at it too for me, to be able to go in there and again hold my own against another top fighter like that and doing that in Japan, it was a real sign to me that you know you're good at this, keep going you're good at this and you're not just dreaming you're doing it here, you're here for a reason. Sakuraba was a very, very respectful opponent. When we see one another to this day it's always smiles and great memories."
The losses to Henderson and Sakuraba would spark a 6-1 run for Newton. He would win three fights in Pride during this stretch over Daijiro Matsui, Yuhi Sano, and John de Oliveira, while also securing a win in the Shooto promotion over Kenji Kawaguchi. The highlight though would come on May 4, 2001 in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the co-main event of UFC 31. A 25-year old Newton would face UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich, who at the time was the only fighter to hold the welterweight title for the promotion and was 7-0 in the UFC. The night would be a historic one for Newton, he'd become the first black UFC welterweight champion as well as the first Canadian UFC champion after a come from behind submission victory via a bulldog choke in the third round of the bout. The choke was yet another feather in his cap, becoming the first bulldog in the promotion's history and cemented Newton's place in the lineage of the sport. He spoke about the Miletich fight in that same 2018 interview with The Hannibal TV.
"That match really, it took everything that I learned to win that match," Newton said. "It took a certain degree of patience, it took a certain degree of strategic thinking, a certain level of knowledge and physical fitness, that fight took everything that I've learned and everything I had at that time to win."
Newton had reached the pinnacle of the sport with the victory over Miletich and made history in a plethora of ways, but his next fight would be the moment that some define his career by. He would make his first and only title defense at UFC 34 against future UFC Hall of Famer and Miletich protege Matt Hughes. Newton had moments in the fight sweeping Hughes a couple of times early on but was mainly outwrestled in the clinch and outmuscled by the all-time welterweight great. The finish would come shortly into the second round and be one of the craziest the sport's ever seen. While Newton had secured a triangle choke on Hughes, he elevated the defending champion towards the cage where Newton grabbed it to prevent being slammed. Referee John McCarthy would warn him to let go of it, which Newton proceeded to do and then Hughes completed the slam, leaving both fighters unconscious in a chaotic scene.
Hughes would be awarded the victory though, even after waking up and visibly not knowing what had happened. Newton would take a fight with Jose Landi-Jons at Pride 19 and secure another crazy comeback submission victory, before getting an eventual rematch with Hughes at UFC 38 in London, England. This time though, there was no controversy as the Illinois native dominated most of the matchup and secured a pummeling fourth-round TKO finish to once again defeat the former champion.
Newton's career past the Hughes fights would see a Pride 25 showdown with pound-for-pound legend and former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, where he was eventually knocked out by Silva but had early success taking down and even mounting the Brazilian legend. He'd also split a series of bouts with Renzo Gracie, where both even served as opposing coaches for the now failed IFL promotion.
Outside the cage, Newton has had maybe an even bigger impact on the sport than he did while competing in it. He's part of a group of UFC fighters that are suing the promotion in a lawsuit that could force them to payback fighters upwards of $5 billion. The lawsuit just received class-action status last December by Federal Judge Richard Boulware and is perceived to be a big win for the fighters in the progression of the case moving forward. Newton spoke recently on The Godfathers of Podcasting show about the story MMAFighting's Steven Marrocco recently did on Spencer Fisher and the correlation it has with the lawsuit.
"I was lucky at a young age I realized this thing is not structured for competition," he said. "It's structured purely to provide entertainment and line these guys pocket. It's structured in a way for them to patently exploit you and suck every penny out of you till your dry. It's just entertainment that is being passed off to seem like competition but it's actually not.
On the surface level, many would or will look at Newton's 16-14 record as subpar at best and consider him a fighter who is more famous for his losses than wins. But to me, that's what makes Carlos Newton the definition of a legend and true pioneer of the sport of mixed martial arts. He's the epitome of why you can't judge the merit of a fighter, man or woman by how many losses they have or how many titles they may win. That shortsightedness diminishes the value of a great like Newton, who not only had incredible moments inside the cage and ring competing as a fighter but embodies the martial artist spirit outside of it as well. He's a kind, soft-spoken, humble, intelligent warrior whose nickname "The Ronin" which is a wandering samurai who had no lord or master by definition, couldn't fit Newton better given his career spanning several promotions and countries. If there's anything to take away from Newton and his career, it's that life is not really about your victories or defeats, it's about not letting the fear of failure define your actions as cliche as that may sound. Carlos Newton may never be considered the greatest fighter of all-time, but he left an unquestioned legacy, fought with fearlessness and class, became a world champion, and now in retirement is still paving the way for a better future for the generations of fighters to come.