Mixed martial arts has no soul.
I’m not talking about the trifles of janky promoters trying to stifle athletes of their hard-earned cage cash, although that truly is character dereliction. I mean the kind of soul you only get from overcoming insurmountable odds, achieving the impossible, forever changing a culture and the way people think about something.
MMA almost did it when four men of different backgrounds came together to create a cultural oddity: the first black-owned MMA promotion. Had this been boxing there would be nothing odd about it. But this is MMA. And in that sport, the color lines have never been more clearly drawn.
Since inception, the former underground spectacle known as No Holds Barred (NHB) or Vale Tudo (translation: anything goes) was a backroom freak show where men fought, devoid of athletic commission sanctioning, just to test their martial arts strengths against one another.
Baltimore native Dorian Price, who went to prestigious HBCU Hampton University, was enamored by this phenomena and was one of the early viewers of the Ultimate Fighting Championships back when it was still considered “human cock-fighting” by Senator John McCain.
He had aspirations to become a NAVY Seal, which was one of a few reasons he attended school in the Tidewater Virginia area where a base was located. His passion for Muay Thai boxing, competition and combat drew him to this real version of fight club.
(Dorian Price, Photo Credit: mmaspot.net)
“I wound up going to Columbus, Ohio, which is where my mom is originally from, and I ended running into Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman,” said Price. "Now I had watched the UFC’s before. I had an ’89 Toyota Camry and I pulled over into a parking lot and I’m like, ‘Oh man Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman I’m a fan of yours.' And they were just like, 'Come on down to the gym and train.’"
"I love fighting, I love competing, I love the hand-to-hand combat," Price continued. "Knowing that there was no Muay Thai in Ohio, I was like, 'Okay, this is still a fist fight so let me go ahead and try my hand at that.'”
That spark sent Price on a professional combative journey that spanned Southeast Asian fighting pits and even the refurbished, newly sanctioned MMA industry popularized by the UFC’s preeminent ownership group of former Nevada Athletic Commissioner and Station Casino head Lorenzo Fertitta, his brother Frank Fertitta and their gregarious President Dana White.
However, maltreatment suffered by the fighters in the early days dismayed Price. He reached out to his younger brother with an idea to create an MMA organization that would give athletes the sense of pride they deserved.
“The competitiveness of sports kind of goes together with business," said Devin Price, younger brother of Dorian. "And I’ve always been intrigued by doing things a little bit differently, really focused around change-management and going into things that are kind of broken and fixing them. Really though, with Shine, the emphasis was being able to do something with my brother, that was a big part of it too.”
Devin, a successful University of Rhode Island graduate and entrepreneur, listened as his older brother detailed the concept for Shine Fight Promotions - where fighters would finally get their “shine” or day in the spotlight devoid of typical promoter shenanigans.
(Devin Price, Photo Credit: mmaspot.net)
By being a victim of those poli-tricks himself, Dorian sought their eradication and knew that where he had a combat I.Q., his brother could formulate the blueprint and raise investment capital.
Along the way, Dorian met two individuals who would finalize the nucleus of its initial structure. Ron Foster, an active duty Army soldier from Detroit who was a fighter on the first ever MMA card in Washington, D.C. had deep aspirations to become an MMA matchmaker.
The other person was me, Rhett Butler, a Howard University graduate from NYC and combat sports event operations coordinator at the time with the UFC and other smaller promotions. I had the coordination contract for the fight that Ron and Dorian were participating in at the time in D.C.
Eventually Dorian and I would meet again at The Ultimate Fighter Season 6 Finale in Las Vegas, where he was a fighter on the reality show and I the coordinator. Afterward, the four of us convened to begin the new venture.
The obvious couldn’t be ignored though: we were all black.
“I can’t even say that we went into it saying we were going to create an all-black company," said Dorian. "It just so happened that all our resources and experts in every different discipline that we needed with my brother being the best business mind behind it, Ron being one of the best matchmakers, Rhett being the best at organizing and making sure everything comes together as a fighter liaison and myself being a fighter."
“You quickly learn that you don’t know everything,” said Devin. “Just like with sports, you cant play every position. You also have to rely on your teammates. “
So in May 2009, SHINE 1: Genesis took place in Columbus, Ohio, anchored by a stellar card, which was unheard of for an upstart promotion. The true mettle of any promoter hawking blood sports is the caliber of its competition and on his inaugural matchmaking run, Ron Foster hit Shine out the park.
“Initially we were going to have Ronald Jhun from Hawaii, who was actually my first trainer,” said Foster. “He was going to fight “Jucao” Roan Carneiro in the main event in that fight. We had started getting a lot of steam behind that because it was two UFC vets coming from a smaller show. But about three weeks before the fight, we were just checking on stuff with the (Ohio) Commission and we had found out via the website that the fight didn’t get approved. So then we were scrambling to make the main event.”
(Britt vs Mendes, Photo Credit: sherdog.com)
We settled on Antwain Britt, who was just on The Ultimate Fighter Season 8 and his opponent, Antonio Mendes, who had two UFC appearances and a loss to Thiago Silva. Britt knocked out Mendes standing against the cage in eight seconds of the first round. The MMA media took notice. Shine had begun to arrive.
(Britt KO's Mendes, Photo Credit: sherdog.com)
“I remember Devin and I we walked around, and I’m not exaggerating, for probably 10 hours passing out flyers in Columbus,” said Foster, “We were telling people that we were the owners of this organization and they didn’t believe us because we were young and black and because we were doing all the leg work," he said while laughing.
"But I think that’s why the organization meant so much to me because we literally took it from scratch," he continued. "Came up with a name, came up with an idea and from the time that we all four sat down and put some pen to paper to when we had our first event, it was about six months. And we did it all on our own.”
However, as time progressed and the word got out that the ownership of the buzzing fight organization were a group of black men well under 40, the same community we thought would embrace us actually began to continually reveal the underlying secret tone in MMA.
“At some point you start reading the (fan) forums," said Dorian. "The word nigger was used a lot and to my brother, he was kind of like thriving off it. You always got that sense that they were saying, "Okay, here these niggers are. Now where’s the white man behind them?"
Four months later, Shine 2: American Top Team vs. The World came to downtown Miami’s James L. Knight Center. It featured the famous gym's top talent against credible guys looking for a shot against bigger-name fighters. The audience was filled with South Florida fighting royalty, including someone that we never thought would be there.
(Ron Foster, Middle, Photo Credit: sherdog.com)
“Ricardo Mayorga was in the crowd,” said Foster. “So he came up and said ‘I want to do this, I want to fight.’ We’re like, 'This man is making millions of dollars, why would he want to do this?' But he said, 'This is what I want to do, I want to fight in that cage.’ And we really didn’t take him too serious. But we stayed in contact and he was dead set on wanting to fight. “
The Nicaraguan-born former two-division boxing world champion, known as the craziest man in the sport due to his penchant for basic training faux pas like smoking cigarettes, was seeking a new challenge.
And Shine Fights for some reason was where he wanted to be....
Stay Tuned for Part 2 of an incredible story of great triumphs, overt racism and the nefarious machinations of a boxing O.G.