Every major American sport has a history of race relations that its current decision-makers would rather the entire world forget. From the ugly story of baseball's racial integration to the unapologetic efforts of boxing promoters to keep a black man from winning a title in the early 1900s, the stain of systemic racism remains part of the shared history of American athletics.
Mixed martial arts, of course, has been spared the worst of this country's racial strife because it didn't get its start until the early 1990s. Indeed, MMA has seen plenty of popular black fighters, but none have become iconic figures within the sport; never mind the mainstream.
Phil Davis, a Division I national wrestling champion at Penn State and an undefeated UFC prospect, may be the one to change all that. However, being anointed as the future of the light heavyweight division doesn't keep Davis from giving a knowing nod to the past.
"Kevin Randleman was a good example -- an Ohio State guy -- and I always thought it would be cool to one day venture off in his footsteps," Davis said. "But I didn't give it too much thought until I was already sure I wanted to do MMA."
Randleman, a former UFC heavyweight champion, and Maurice Smith, the first black man to hold any UFC title, were elite fighters in the late 1990s, but the stigmatization of MMA kept their exploits mostly in the dark. As a result, modern black fighters don't have much in the way of a cultural connection to the sport.
Muhammed Lawal, Strikeforce's light heavyweight superstar in the making, has become known as much for his flamboyant personality as his in-cage brilliance. He discusses the issue in blunt terms.
"I'm not gonna lie: If I'm watching a fight and it's a black guy and a white guy, I'm gonna root for the black guy," he said. "I have a connection with the black guy, just like a white person has a connection with the white fighter, y'know?"
When the media talks about athletes, it's always the white athletes that are hard workers and blue-collar, and the black athletes are explosive and athletic. Now, anytime you start saying things like 'racist' or 'racism' in a sport where a high percentage of your fans are white, you're going to lose a lot of people.
”-- UFC prospect Phil Davis
Phrasing his opinion as a question almost challenges others to disagree, but there exists a mountain of sociological and race studies to back up Lawal's point. The missing cultural connection cuts both ways, as the portrayal of black athletes has become an increasingly contentious issue.
"When the media talks about athletes, it's always the white athletes that are hard workers and blue-collar, and the black athletes are explosive and athletic," Davis said. "Now, anytime you start saying things like 'racist' or 'racism' in a sport where a high percentage of your fans are white, you're going to lose a lot of people."
The second half of Davis' answer seems telling, as he clearly understands the price to be paid for expressing an unpopular sentiment, especially in the supposed meritocracy of sports.
"People think racism is the word 'n-----' and nothing else, so by being positive all the time about race, you're also absorbing the negative and playing along with it," Davis said. "And if not doing that means being portrayed as a villain, I'll be whoever I have to be."
Those are not the sort of comments one would expect to hear from the mouth of a brilliant athlete in a sport in which black Americans such as Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson have become two of the star attractions. The fact that so few athletes, of any race, are willing to speak out makes Davis' words all the more surprising. But the sentiment isn't his alone.
"I grew up knowing all about Muhammad Ali -- how people tried to make him the bad guy -- but to black people he was always a hero," Lawal said. "Now he's this hero, but back then? People wanted him to stay quiet, and he wouldn't. They want you to be quiet. They want you to play the dumb role, and they get you in trouble if you don't."
Since his days as an amateur wrestler, Lawal has been aware of how his larger-than-life "King Mo" persona has affected the way the world views him and the easy stereotyping it creates. That Lawal appears unwilling to stay silent on the issue and intends to use any platform available to speak out separates him from the pack.
"I'm gonna be like Ali," he said. "I was named after Muhammed, grew up in a Muslim household and, you know, that's me. I can't sit back and let these things go down that bother me. I'm gonna voice my opinion because anything else, to me, is a coward's way. And I'm not just doing it for black people. I'm gonna do it for everybody."
The socially aware athlete who uses his or her status to foster change seems all but dead nowadays, which makes Davis and Lawal potentially anomalous figures. They are both preternaturally talented and have the kind of Spartan work ethic that separates them from the average prospect. Yet they are unafraid to risk their commercial viability in the name of speaking their minds. Lawal hopes his peers will take his example to heart.
"I'm not gonna go out there and say I sold drugs or talk about shooting people. I'm not gonna go out there and do anything that's not a part of my real character," Lawal said. "I think that black fighters have to be themselves but also try and be intelligent and don't be about that stereotypical mentality."
Much can be said for leading by example, as the success of the American civil rights movement is owed not only to the work of its leaders but also to athletes such as Ali and Tommie Smith, who simply stood up and refused to go along with injustice. When John Carlos joined Smith on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics and they raised their gloved fists in the air, it set off a firestorm of controversy that led to death threats and public castigation from the sporting establishment and media.
"I'm ready to take on whatever I have to take on," Lawal said.
The way race plays out in America today certainly isn't the same as it was on the day Martin Luther King Jr. announced his dream to the world, but both the subtle and overt influence of race has been far too commonly dismissed as nonexistent. That this country moved past such things a long time ago has become the common refrain, yet the notion of a post-racial America remains as comical today as it was when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The version of the bill that Johnson signed into law survived 54 days of filibuster in the Senate and had to be weakened before it even reached his desk. Legend tells us that upon signing the bill, Johnson turned to an aide and said "We have lost the South for a generation."
That bittersweet piece of history doesn't mean the goal is beyond our reach, and the sports landscape needs more men like Davis and Lawal: thoughtful athletes who not only understand the world in which they live but are willing to use their status to help improve it.
"I've gone and spoken at junior highs and high schools, and if I mold my attitude into the stereotypical black person, what would those kids think?" Davis said. "They'd think that all the stereotypes they see on the TV are true. So I really gotta be true to who I am and let these people know, 'Hey, he's just like me. He even has a Carhartt jacket like mine.'"
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.