IFL has a fighting chance
By NEIL DAVIDSON, CP

NEWMARKET -- The Dragons are about to take flight.

Led by former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton, the Toronto-based Dragons are Canada's entry in the fledgling International Fight League. They make their mixed martial arts debut Saturday in Moline, Ill., against Frank Shamrock's Razorclaws of San Jose.

Newton, 30, believes the team-based IFL can go where the Ultimate Fighting Championship can't.

"UFC has been around for 10 years and was the first show on TV, but UFC is scratching on the window of the mainstream audience. It has not broken through yet," Newton said in an interview at Warrior Martial Arts, the supersized suburban Toronto gym run by his manager Terry Riggs.

"IFL will be the one to break through."

Newton has no beef with the UFC. In fact, he wishes it well knowing a healthy UFC, North America's dominant player in mixed martial arts, is good for the sport.

He just believes that the IFL brand of MMA is more palatable to the public.

IFL fights take place in a ring, rather than a cage. Elbow strikes to the head are prohibited, helping prevent cuts that end bouts early. That's good news for both the fighters, and the IFL's TV network, Fox Sports Net, which has a better shot of more action without premature stoppages during fight cards.

"It is much more mainstream than the UFC will ever be, just from appearance value," Newton explained. "I've been able to walk into bars here in Newmarket and seen the PGA (Tour golf) and the IFL side by side on TV screens. I've never seen the UFC walking into a family establishment on TV."

The team setup makes for more strategy. Coaches can choose their lineups to get better matchups on the best-of-five fight card. And if they win the pre-fight toss, they can choose the order of the bouts.

The IFL's league format also helps avoid the focus on champions in the UFC and other promotions, where title bouts traditionally headline cards. The UFC, for example, found itself short on champions earlier this year when both Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin, two of its four title-holders, were sidelined through injury.

EIGHT SQUADS

The IFL started with four teams, with cards in April and June in Atlantic City. Now it is up to eight squads, with the addition of the Dragons and three others, and has launched a fall tournament that began Sept. 9 in Portland.

The first full league season will kick off in January with 11 events planned.

Like the Dragons, each team is led by a marquee fighter who will coach his squad and take part in so-called "super fights" on the card.

Other squads are the Anacondas (coach Bas Rutten, Los Angeles), Pitbulls (Renzo Gracie, New York), Sabres (Antonio Inoki, Tokyo), Silverbacks (Pat Miletich, Quad Cities, Ill.), Tigersharks (Maurice Smith, Seattle) and Wolfpack (Matt Lindland, Portland).

Four more teams are planned for the 2007 season.

The Dragons will be a road squad. Ontario does not sanction mixed martial arts events nor does New York.

Newton, who has fought sparingly in recent years, says it was veterans like Smith, Gracie and Rutten who convinced him to come on board.

"We've got your back, we did our homework. ... It's an amazing opportunity,' " he remembers them saying.

"They said we've had no disappointment with them so far. They (the IFL) really do take care of the fighters, they really have it structured so that in the end the fighters benefit.

Guys like us being around in this game for as long as we've been, we made our mark, this is our chance to take care of our future generation."

Newton's stable of fighters has been put on salary, with additional fight contracts and win bonuses.

"I know exactly what other coaches are paying their fighters," Newton said. "I know the budget they have to work with, they know my budget. The fighters in between teams discuss (money) with one another."

Newton says each of his fighters stands to make in excess of $60,000 US next year, even if they lose all of their fights.

That beats what newcomers to the UFC earn, he says.

The only Canadian to hold a title in the UFC -- the championship belt hangs proudly on the wall of his gym -- Newton has a special relationship with the UFC. He still attends many of its marquee events.

"I am a former world champion, that will never change regardless of how much they like me or don't. Having that, yes it is in everyone's best interest to make it a good-working relationship."

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