Martin Brown reaches the top of MMA after winning title belt

Published 6:00 am Saturday, February 16, 2019

Fourteen years ago, Martin Brown embarked on a journey that took him from Vicksburg to the top of the world.

The Warren Central graduate slept in cars and gyms. He got punched and kicked, and “delivered some blessings” in return, he says with a smile, which is all part of the deal as a mixed martial artist. Brown has fought for scraps and for riches, for his name and for glory.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Two months ago, on the other side of the world, he finally reached the mountaintop. Standing in a cage in Almaty, Kazakhstan, his arm raised high in victory, Brown was at last crowned a world champion. His five-round decision victory over Beibit Nazarov made him the Titan FC lightweight champion and gave him cherished status as one of the best fighters in the world.

“When I started, the sport wasn’t that big,” the 34-year-old Brown said. “My mom and dad had masters degrees and wanted me to go to school. My other two brothers had gone to college. I said no, I really want to try to do this. When I got into it I had a couple of fights and said, ‘I’m pretty good at this. You know what? I want to be a world champion.’ And it just happened. It took 14 years, but it just happened.”

A long road to the top

Brown’s road to the top was not easy. Mississippi is not an MMA hotbed. Only a handful of gyms around the state provide the level of competition and training required to produce high-level amateur fighters, let alone skilled professionals.

After a brief amateur career — he had to turn pro after he inadvertently took a small payment for one of his early fights — Brown moved to Tampa, Florida, to step up his training. He soon realized he had the talent to make a living as a fighter, but not nearly enough savvy outside the ring.

He climbed his way up the ladder, sleeping in his car and gym, while learning the business hustle of the fight game on the side.

“I didn’t know all of the ways you could make money. I didn’t know how to approach sponsors. I didn’t know that you could do private (lessons) or seminars during your down time. Nobody had ever taught me that,” Brown said. “Coming from Mississippi I was the only one. I had to learn it all on the fly. Now I can do it in my sleep. I wish I had known it when I was 22 or 23.”

Inside the ring, Brown was becoming if not a rising star then at least a reliable hand. He won some fights and lost some until, in March 2013, he fought a grizzled 37-year-old Mississippian named Aaron Williams at the IP Casino in Biloxi.

Brown had eight fights on his resumé. Williams had 38 and was, as Brown called him, “a legend” for his toughness and ability.

Brown, however, knocked out Williams in the third round in the co-main event of the Atlas Fights 14 card. It marked the start of a six-fight winning streak that lasted more than three years, and was a turning point in Brown’s career.

“You could see his skill. He was older and starting to decline physically, but his mind was sharp. The coach kept telling me, ‘You think he’s good, but you belong here.’ I went in and dominated him in the first and second round and ended up knocking him out in the third,” Brown recalled. “That day was when everything stopped. People started looking at this kid as legit. That was when I started learning about myself being the brand. You can get paid to do anything — make an appearance, show up at an after party, go on a show and go on the microphone and speak to the crowd, newspapers, magazines — instead of just being the fighter.

Over the next three years, Brown went from filling out local and regional cards to a genuine talent in the world of MMA. He main evented one more Atlas Fights card in his hometown of Vicksburg in August 2013, then signed with the prestigious Bellator promotion the following year.

Brown only fought twice for Bellator before undergoing shoulder surgery that kept him out of the cage for 19 months. His contract with Bellator expired while he was injured, and he signed with Titan Fighting Championships.

Titan FC is an international promotion affiliated with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which is generally considered the top of the line in the sport.

Brown lost his first two fights with Titan FC, but says he gained a reputation as a guy who was willing and able to fight anyone, anywhere, any time.

“I’ve always been the guy that they brought in to pad up somebody else’s record. I just keep creating upsets. They always say in the gym that I’m the one that fell through the cracks. I wasn’t supposed to win, and I win,” Brown said. “They’ll have a rising star and they need a guy who’s not that much of a threat so they can put another win on his record and present him in front of a televised promotion. Most of the fights they give me, they’ll call me on 14 days notice. Maybe three or four weeks, max, in the hopes they can pad that guy’s record.”

It was a reputation that served him well in 2018.

The hero and the villain

After each of his fights, Brown has a ritual. He returns to Vicksburg to spend time with family and friends, visit old haunts, and get back to his roots. His mother Grace, a retired educator, occasionally has him speak to students at local schools. He’s greeted as a conquering hero.

On Dec. 21 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, he was happily playing the villain.

Brown was offered his first major championship bout with Nazarov, in Nazarov’s native Kazakhstan, after several other fighters passed. The 155-pound lightweight title fight was the main event of Titan FC 51 — the company’s first internationally televised card — and Brown wasn’t about to let it go by.

“I knew if I got the shot I was going to be able to perform. I just didn’t think I was ever going to get the shot,” Brown said. “They give you these fights based on how well you can reach the masses. I was worried Mississippi would be a little bit behind when it comes to mixed martial arts. But they gave me the fight when nobody else wanted the fight because it was in Kazakhstan and against their best. I said I’ll do it. Let’s make history.”

Like in some of his other fights, Brown assumes it was because he was perceived as an easy mark. Almaty is a fairly modern city of nearly two million people, but is cold and mountainous. For Brown, who trains in Florida, it was a difficult physical challenge. Having an entire country in his opponent’s corner made it even tougher.

“My face was on billboards. I was the enemy,” Brown said with a laugh. “They’re a peaceful group of people, but all they have is fight sports. America is a hotbed for athletes. You can be a world champion, but right now I’m living in Tampa and the Buccaneers are there, the Rays are there and the Lightning hockey team are there. So who am I? Whereas they don’t have anything but fighting so if a guy is a star the whole entire country knows who he is.”

Brown’s quest to become a villain did not start off well. He lost the first round and struggled to warm up.

“He won the first round. The crowd was screaming. I didn’t really have a problem with him. It was the temperature. It was, like, two degrees out there,” Brown said.

He soon got going, though. Brown landed a few knee strikes and nearly locked in a submission to win the second round. In the third he punched Nazarov to the ground — and nearly lost the fight in the process.

While Nazarov was down, Brown kneed him in the head. It wasn’t vicious, but did cost the American a point on the scorecards.

“To this day I still don’t know why I did it. It wasn’t even hard,” Brown said. “When I watched the video I think I had to have known it was illegal but I didn’t want to hurt him. I just thought to hit him everywhere I could and didn’t think about him having his hand down.”

Nazarov sat on the canvas for several minutes after the knee strike. The moments were filled with tension for Brown. Had Nazarov been unable to continue, Brown would have been disqualified. The American had taken control of the fight by that point and he was afraid he might have just blown the biggest opportunity of his career.

“I was really worried he wasn’t going to get off the floor. He had that right,” Brown said. “Everybody would have known I didn’t hit him hard enough to quit. I just tapped him. But he was getting beat up bad and it was going downhill. If he doesn’t get up, I get DQ’d and go back to the States with no belt. But he sold 14,000 tickets so he had to get up and fight.”

Brown dominated the last two rounds, but wasn’t able to knock out or submit the gritty Kazakh fighter. While awaiting the decision, Brown replayed the fight in his mind — and the knee in particular — and wondered if he had done enough to overcome the one-point deduction.

“We go all five rounds and they’re getting ready to raise our hand. All I’m thinking is, I’ve had a couple of fights in my career that were taken from me and this might be it,” he said.

The final decision was close, but Brown came out on top on all three cards. He won a unanimous decision 48-46, 47-46, 48-46 to win the Titan FC lightweight championship. Upon hearing the decision, Brown pumped his fist in the air and then covered his face in a show of raw emotion.

“They raised my hand and I said, ‘Finally. I did it,’” he said. “‘I’m the champ.’”

Vicksburg is always home

Brown is relishing the role of champion. He once again stuck to his post-fight ritual, returning to Vicksburg last week and showing off the championship belt to students at Dana Road Elementary at the request of his mother.

He’s made appearances at other Titan FC cards as a featured guest, sitting cageside where he eagerly soaks up the spotlight and as much camera time as he can get. All of it builds his brand, creates opportunities and fame.

He’s a champion now, a made man in a sport where that distinction carries a lot more weight than the 35 pounds of gold and leather contained in the title belt.

“I’m still getting used to it,” said Brown, who has a professional record of 13-5. “I still look in the mirror and see the same person. But every now and then you go into a gym and your words hold a little bit more validity now that you have the belt.”

Brown’s first title defense hasn’t been announced yet, but he figures it will be in April. If he wins then, he hopes to return to Central Asia to defend it again later in the year.

“You know what they say — you’re not a real champion until you defend the belt,” he said. “Hopefully all goes well when I defend the belt in April, and then the next stop is Azerbaijan. So I’m literally trying to go from country to country and conquer them.”

In the meantime, his goal isn’t just to build his personal brand or have a long title reign. He said he’s proud to be from Vicksburg and wants to represent the city well.

“I don’t want to be one of those people where they go get theirs, and then leave and never come back,” Brown said. “I’m from Vicksburg, born and raised, and I still want what’s best for this city.”

The son of Grace and Ben Brown, a school teacher and a computer systems analyst, and from a city without much of a pedigree in the sport, Martin Brown entered the rough and tumble world of mixed martial arts from an unusual angle. Now he’s the best in the world and fulfilled the promise he made so long ago.

“Once they put that belt around my waist it was reality that everything I had ever worked for my whole career, everything I had told my mom and dad I was going to do, I did,” he said.

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

email author More by Ernest