The light heavyweight division is a weird place. It's undisputed number one fighter is currently out of competition for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time. The most prestigious title in the class is held by the undisputed number two fighter, and he's about to fight a man whose last performance was a loss to the third best man in the division, who just failed in his own title bid. Ryan Bader's floating around, too. Light heavyweight is also odd in that, unlike most other divisions in MMA, a significant portion of its best talent is currently competing outside the UFC. Phil Davis, Mo Lawal, and Liam McGeary are among that number, but there is another that stands apart from all the rest. In one of the weirdest divisions in the sport, Emanuel Newton stands alone as king of the weirdos.
For as often as Joe Rogan likes to say "you'd never teach a novice to fight like this," in reference to somewhat unorthodox fighters, his head would likely explode if Emanuel Newton ever made it to the UFC. Like Roy Jones Jr. (but without the absurd athletic talent), Newton has figured out how to make a very unusual set of tools work for him. His performances only become more impressive if you believe Newton when he says that he trained no more than 2 or 3 weeks for each of his last several opponents. By his own admission, he spent only a week and a half in the gym prior to a five-round decision with Liam McGeary, and Newton still managed to make the fight extremely close.
Though no opponent yet has really been able to figure Newton's striking out, I'm going to make the attempt. Let's take a look at one of the most bizarre fighting styles in all of MMA, and try to get some sense for how it manages to work so well.
The hallmark of Newton's game is his oddball footwork. Newton switches stance more frequently than any other fighter I know, often right on the fringes of his opponent's range. It gives him the appearance of a reckless fighter, and yet the precision of Newton's counter striking suggests that his awkward movement is anything but happenstance.
Fortunately for those looking to understand Newton's success, the fight game is no stranger to weirdness, and some of Newton's most reliable tricks happen to bear a striking resemblance to one of boxing's most beloved eccentrics, heavyweight champion "Jersey" Joe Walcott.
Walcott was known for his own brand of bizarre, unpredictable footwork, combined with a sharp eye for counter punching opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, nerves of steel. No one in boxing history has been more comfortable putting themselves in potentially dangerous positions on such a regular basis. That's because Walcott, like Newton after him, was a master at setting traps, and he knew that you catch the biggest fish with live bait. Hence his signature maneuver, a weaponized version of one of boxing's cardinal sins: the Cakewalk.
They tell you not to cross your feet for a reason. To cross the feet is to ruin the integrity of your stance, creating an angle for your opponent rather than making him do the hard work himself, and leaving yourself susceptible to being hurt and knocked down. Fighters know this, and an opponent who constantly crosses his feet is a very inviting target. Of course, Walcott recognized the temptation, and used his Cakewalk to draw fighters in.
Walking casually around right in front of his opponent, Walcott would cross his feet just outside his opponent's effective reach, ensuring that the other man would have to take a step before he could hit him. By making himself appear vulnerable and poorly positioned (which, by the way, he was) Walcott could goad the other man into chasing after him, all while peppering him with irritating jabs, clinching up at opportune times, taunting with his hands at his waist, and generally just making his opponent look and feel like a fool for not hitting him when he was so clearly there to be hit. When they became so frustrated that they just couldn't resist taking the bait, Walcott would spring the trap.
It's beautiful. Walcott cakewalks away from Joe Louis, giving the ex-champ the impression of a cocky fighter taking a shortcut around the edge of the ring. When Louis shuffles forward to jab, Walcott's stride has already carried him back into a strong stance, and he deftly makes Louis miss before running him into a devastating counter right.
Newton's version has some differences, but the similarity to Walcott is clear as day.
Here, Newton swipes at Joey Beltran with a lead right hook, then quickly pulls away. Just like Jersey Joe in our first example, Newton inclines his body over his rear foot to bring his shoulder in front of his chin, letting the counter right of Beltran glance harmlessly away. Next Newton crosses his feet, stepping over with his right foot and revealing his back to Beltran, who almost takes the bait before recognizing the danger and smartly hanging back.
Newton's traps aren't easy to avoid for long, however. Beltran had some success in the clinch early on, but as Newton figured out how to keep the fight at range, he was forced to pressure more and more to close the gap.
At distance Newton is a surprisingly crafty kickboxer. He will throw stiff jabs to worry his opponent, once again using his shoulders to protect his chin as he falls back into different stances for quick changes of angle. His deceptively powerful left kick breaks down opponents who hang out on the edge of Newton's range. Looking at Beltran in this GIF, it's difficult to imagine which is more tiring: Newton's thudding body attacks, or the fact that he switches direction after nearly every strike, forcing his pursuer to work hard to catch him, under duress all the while.
It's at this point that opponents tend to dive into Newton's traps. Tired of being led around by the nose, they will jump on every opportunity to catch Newton out of position. And when he shuffles into that lazy cakewalk, it's a rare breed of fighter who can let him get away with it.
Newton does use Walcott's signature right hand if the distance is right, but the ruleset in which he competes affords him a more diverse set of options. Newton's favorite is the spinning backfist (actually a hammerfist, if you want to quibble). This strike is more deceptive than the Walcott counter because it does not require any reversal of movement on Newton's part. Rather than making a quick about face to catch his opponent coming in, Newton simply continues to turn, sweetening the bait even as he builds up momentum for a fight-ending counter. In this GIF, Joey Beltran feels himself just a split second away from taking the champion's back when Newton's wrist slams into his jaw.
Newton, like Walcott, relies on his incredible composure to make these tactics work. Not only does a perpetually cool head help Newton to spot openings even as his opponent steps into a dominant angle, but it keeps him in the fight longer than a man who barely spends any time in the gym as any right to. Newton's style isn't one-size-beats-all, as Liam McGeary proved, but he strikes you as one of those fighters who, given enough time, could probably beat anyone. Nearly impossible to finish, awkward as hell, and deceptively powerful, Emanuel Newton is an MMA treasure, and legitimately one of the very best light heavyweights in the world.
Now it goes without saying that Newton lacks the grace that made Jersey Joe such a pleasure to watch, but he makes up for it with sheer awkwardness. Where Walcott was smooth as butter, Newton is as stiff as a new pair of shoes. Where Walcott danced, Newton stumbles and totters. There's a surprising lack of rhythm to Newton's movements, and it makes him exceedingly difficult to read.
His tendency to throw out quick, unchambered left kicks, sometimes while improbably moving backward.His selection of spinning kicks, most of which are far from perfectly executed. His tendency to switch stances and then throw from his lead side, rather than switching to load up the rear limb as most fighters do. All of these things and more make Newton a fascinating character, if not perhaps as accessible as Jersey Joe himself was. Rarely do you look at an Emanuel Newton fight and think: what an artist! But even more rarely does an opponent come along who can even come close to proving that Newton is as hapless as he may seem.
For more on Emanuel Newton as well as one of MMA's other weirdos, Nick Diaz, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.