Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Black Man in MMA: A Historical Perspective


The beautiful thing about combat sports is that history tends to show there was no segregation when it came to finding out, "who was the better man." Unlike baseball, where certain records absolutely need to be questioned, considering Negro league players were not allowed to compete until 1947 and Jackie Robinson, combat always has involved men of color.

As was recently depicted in the movie 'Django Unchained', which took place in the mid 1800's, typically the combatants and best fighters were African slaves. Similar to cockfighting, the slave masters would pit fighters from their respective plantations against one another in competition for gambling purposes. Thus, it was not out of the realm that when boxing began to take its course at the turn of the 20th century, Jack Johnson would not only be at the forefront, but also known as the man to beat.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that when mixed martial arts was born 19 years ago, men of color were an integral part from the inception of the sport. In this case the black man, for lack of a better term because as you shall see the phrase "African-American" does not aptly apply here, has and continues to be a major force in what is now known as the fastest growing sport in the world, MMA.

Of course when we reference MMA, the beginning is often looked upon as UFC 1 from November 1993. Yet even before then, when the sport was known as simply 'Vale Tudo' or "everything goes," a black man was at the forefront. Brazilian Casimiro de Nascimento Martins AKA Rei Zulu or just simply Zulu (pictured above) has been an active fighter going all the way back to 1963; that's 50 years or a half century for you math flunkies.

However, that's too much history to cover in one piece, so we'll just go back to what is commonly known as 'The Beginning'. At UFC 1 there was not one, nor two, but actually four black men who participated in the inaugural event. Surely everyone remembers the one-gloved, Ala Michael Jackson, boxer Art Jimmerson, who has the distinction of being the first sanctioned opponent ever for legendary Hall of Famer Royce Gracie.

Besides Jimmerson, there was Patrick Smith, who also lost to a Hall of Famer in Ken Shamrock, Zane Frazier and little known Trent Jenkins who fought and lost in the consolation bracket to Jason DeLucia. In all, four out of 10 fighters at UFC 1 were black men.

Smith would actually come back at UFC 2 and garner the distinction of being the first black man to ever fight for a tournament championship, eventually losing to Royce Gracie in the finals. On a side note, the first black man to vie for a tournament championship in Japanese rival MMA organization 'Pride' was Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson at Pride Final Conflict 2003; Jackson too would come up short though in his bid, losing to Wanderlei Silva.

The first black man to claim a championship in MMA would be Maurice Smith when he defeated Mark Coleman at UFC 14 on July 27, 1997. Thus, Smith is not just a pioneer of the sport, but also the first in a long line of great fighters that have since garnered gold in mixed martial arts. On top of that, Smith along with Frank Shamrock, is widely credited for the cross training of arts and styles in the sport, thus creating the name 'Mixed Martial Arts'; before that, it was simply known as 'No Holds Barred'. For all the reasons stated above, I think Maurice Smith should actually be the first man of color to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.

Since that time, even though MMA and specifically the UFC have grown to be accepted as a mainstream sport, it took a long while before it became popular with the African-American audience. I credit Rashad Evans's participation in season two of the TV reality series 'The Ultimate Fighter' for finally making a break through. His involvement on the show as the sport gained popularity and the fact that he went on to win that season's tournament was a huge boost in acceptance by the African-American community.

Of course Evans would go on to become a UFC champion as would others such as the aforementioned Jackson and most recently the first ever flyweight (125 lbs.) champion Demetrious Johnson. The black man has clearly had a profound impact and left his mark on this sport, probably none more so than current UFC middleweight (185 lbs.) champion Anderson Silva. Silva is not only the most dominant champion in UFC history, but is arguably regarded and talked about as the greatest MMA fighter that has ever lived; quite a legacy for the black man in MMA.

Thanks to Amod Rice for being the inspiration behind writing this historical piece

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