(Photo via Bellator.com)
By Elias Cepeda
Last month, former Strikeforce champion Muhammad Lawal was scheduled to take his next academic step towards the Bellator light-heavyweight tournament title. Sure, he had to fight someone, but no one seemed to give much credit to his opponent, Emanuel Newton.
The two had traveled and trained in the same circles, even together, but their careers couldn’t have been more different. Lawal was a former top international wrestler that entered high-level MMA with great fanfare and quickly became one of the most dangerous 205-pound fighters in the world.
Newton, instead, had toiled on mostly the regional circuits for nearly ten years. He had fought, and sometimes beaten, guys who would go on to fight and win in the UFC, but Newton’s own shot at the big time had yet to come.
Fighting in the Bellator tournament, however, gave him his chance. Both Newton and Lawal won their first-round fights in January and advanced to face one another. All the attention, including from this writer and site, was on Lawal.
With his pedigree, brash public persona, and world class skills, “King Mo” was the story. The world took for granted that he had taken a step down to fight in Bellator after being fired by Zuffa (the parent company of Strikeforce and the UFC) and that Lawal would easily stomp through every one of his opponents in the tournament, Newton included.
For his part, Lawal insisted to us that Newton was a real fighter who posed real danger, but no one really listened. Fighting is intrinsically meritocratic when left to its own devices, however, and our expectations and prejudices have no bearing on what happens in the ring.
On February 21st, Emanuel Newton cut Muhammed Lawal’s Bellator coronation short by knocking him out cold in the first round with a spinning back fist. The punch, like Newton himself, looked to be an afterthought. But both packed more power and surprising timing than was expected, and tonight Newton finds himself in the finals of Bellator’s Season 8 light-heavyweight tournament against Mikhail Zayats.
The day before weighing in for the fight this week, Newton insisted to CagePotato that Lawal’s hype didn’t faze him leading up to their bout last month. “I didn’t feel too much, man. I didn’t let the hype, the attention for my opponent, anything, affect me. I had a fight in front of me and that was it,” he told us.
Not buying into your opponent’s hype is one thing, but being such an overlooked underdog had to have motivated “The Hardcore Kid.” Still, the plain-speaking Newton insists that he didn’t feel slighted. Rather, he was too busy training to worry about being insulted by being dismissed. He does allow that winning was sweet, though.
“Afterwards it was definitely sweet,” he said. “I liked showing what I can do.”
Predictably, Newton didn’t let his surprise KO of Bellator’s biggest star distract him from his next task — fighting Zayats in about a month’s time. “I had to move forward,” he said. “I have a tough guy in front of me.”
Indeed he does. Zayats has won his past seven fights, including a TKO over former UFC title challenger, Renato “Babalu” Sobral.
Newton may not talk trash, but his confidence is unmistakable. It is also clear that much of it comes from his faith.
“I feel like I’ve got God with me and so there’s nothing I can’t do,” Newton told us.
He doesn’t seem to mean that God wants him to win and not Zayats, necessarily. Newton just seems to believe that the higher power he believes in makes anything possible for him, if he reaches out and grabs it.
“I think Mikhail is a God-fearing man as well,” Newton ended.
“But it’s just my time, now.”