UFC once governed by Newton's law
When welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre walks into the octagon to defend his title against Jake Shields in UFC 129 at the Rogers Centre on Saturday, the Montreal native will, undoubtedly, receive a hero's welcome. After all, he is one of the most accomplished and adulated figures in a sport that's exploded in popularity in recent years, especially in Canada.
Yet years ago, before GSP rocketed to global stardom, before the UFC sold a record 55,000 tickets to its inaugural Toronto event, the face of mixed martial arts in Canada — when it was still largely seen as a controversial bloodsport that few athletic commissions would sanction — belonged to Carlos (The Ronin) Newton.
Ronin is a Japanese term that refers to a masterless, wandering samurai. It was an apt nickname given to him by Japanese fans early in his career after the Toronto resident transitioned from a highly-decorated amateur jiu-jitsu and judo fighter to an exciting MMA star making a name for himself in fight leagues around the world.
"It was very unique in those early days," Newton, 34, said in an interview at Revolution MMA's Toronto facility, where he teaches the sport. "You really felt like you were a guy going some place where no one has gone before, testing themselves like no one has before."
Fight fans today rave about St-Pierre's raw athleticism and dominant skill. But a decade ago, Newton was Canada's pioneering MMA sensation — a superb, crafty grappler with seemingly limitless potential. Look up his highlights on YouTube and you'll see a man contorting his body like a python to tap opponents out or slamming them to the ground with tenacity.
"It was unbelievable to watch him fight," said UFC analyst Joe Ferraro. "You're talking about a guy who was so naturally gifted that it was almost comical when people fought or trained with him.
"As he continued to progress in his career, he just kept getting better and better. He was just born with this warrior spirit."
Newton began fighting professionally in his late teens, when weight classes weren't common and rules were more relaxed. His first pro bout took place in 1996 at the Kahnawake reservation outside Montreal — against a man at least 75 pounds heavier than him. Battling the larger opponent wore Newton out and he tapped out, due to exhaustion. But his debut was promising and led to offers to fight in Japan, where MMA was already a popular spectator sport.
Newton made his UFC debut in 1998 at UFC 17 — one of the last events to feature a tournament-style format. That night, Newton slapped a triangle choke on his first opponent, Bob Gilstrap, and submitted him, then lost to Dan Henderson by split decision.
Even though MMA was "on the knife's edge in terms of being legal or illegal" in North America, Newton recalls his early career fondly.
"It was a really special time because we were still very much into the old martial-arts tradition at that period," he said. "There weren't any fast food mixed martial arts joints around like now.
"You had to put in some real dedication and discipline to really get good back then. It wasn't just about athleticism, it was still a matter of character and a sense of destiny for yourself."
'I'm here to compete'
Newton's destiny led him into the ring against some of the greatest fighters in MMA history. During the late 1990s, he fought around the world for several different leagues, including the much-revered Pride Fighting Championship organization in Japan.
He lost a wildly entertaining grappling-focused match to Kazushi Sakuraba, who would later earn the nickname 'The Gracie Hunter' after knocking off several of Brazilian jiu-jitsu's royal family, before picking up submission victories over Japanese wrestler Takuma Sano and American Karl Schmidt.
Newton returned to the UFC in 2001, where he fought for the welterweight title in Atlantic City against hugely successful veteran star Pat Miletich. Newton pulled out the victory and became part of MMA mixtape lore by catching Miletich with a side headlock and squeezing relentlessly until he tapped.
An emotional Newton fell to his knees in the octagon after winning the title that night. But becoming Canada's first UFC champion didn't change his perspective on his career.
"For me, it was matter of, 'OK, I did it, but I'm not gonna bank my whole future on this because I could be spending the rest of my life trying to legalize it. That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to compete,'" he said.
Newton's title reign would be shortlived. Later that year, he lost to future UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes in another highlight-reel match. Over the next few years, Newton would battle several of MMA's biggest names in other promotions, including jiu-jitsu master Renzo Gracie (one win, one loss) and current UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva (loss by KO).
Newton last fought for the UFC in 2004 — just before the organization vaulted into the mainstream, thanks in part to the success of Spike TV's Ultimate Fighter reality show and recent lobbying efforts to get the sport sanctioned in new major markets like Dubai, Vancouver and Toronto.
For Newton, seeing the UFC put on its biggest-ever show in his hometown is "a real sign that [MMA] is really going to be out there in the public eye and people are going to know about it now. It's a really good opportunity to better this sport because the full conversation is on the table."
'Vivid and diverse career'
Newton's MMA journey continues today, but mostly out of the ring.
While he has fought regularly in the past few years with smaller like promotions like Canada's Warrior-1 league, there aren't any matches planned in the future.
He's not officially retired, just happy where he is and helping the sport grow by training a new generation of MMA fighters and imbuing students with the same sense of respect and discipline he learned as a young martial artist.
He's also keen to advocate on fighters issues, such as pay equity, arguing that MMA athletes are under compensated, especially when compared to other sports leagues — a sentiment recently expressed by high-profile UFC fighters like Rich Franklin and Randy Couture.
Still, Newton concedes it's a little bittersweet that he's in the winter of his fighting career, just as the sport gained such a high profile. But as he did when he won his UFC title, he is keeping it all in perspective.
"I think anyone would understand that it would have been really nice for me to have fought for my title in the Rogers Centre," Newton said. "That would have been phenomenal.
"But the fact that it didn't happen doesn't make my experience any less of value to me. Randy Couture, Georges St-Pierre or any other fighters around the world will tell you that Carlos Newton has probably had the most vivid and diverse career of any us.
"I've fought around the world. My period in the sport is just one [in MMA history] and I know that, as I try to make my sport better, the experiences of the athletes to come in the future are also going to be very different.
"You may, someday, be asking guys currently fighting at the Rogers Centre: 'Isn't it bittersweet that you fought then compared to now?'"