By U of MMA Staff
Photos by Laura Baker, Jeffrey Hitchens, and courtesy of Ericka Letrice Newsome
We’re always warned to never judge a book by its cover, and in the case of Ericka Letrice Newsome, no other adage could apply better.
With muscular arms, broad shoulders, and compact waistline, Ericka has the physique of a dedicated athlete who’s worked out all her life. You’d never believe that she once weighed a very unhealthy 300 lbs. Likewise, to see her fight, you’d think that she’s driven by a dark, vengeful past that finds therapy in inflicting pain. So you’ll likely be taken aback to learn that she’s a classically-trained trumpeter who’s performed in the Rose Parade six times. And to see her light up as she discusses her passion for jazz greats like Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, you realize that there’s far more here than meets the eye.
Ericka Letrice Newsome was born in Monterrey Park and has lived most of her life in Pasadena. She’s always been fascinated by martial arts, starting out with Kung Fu and Taekwondo at the age of seven. When she was 12, she saw a kickboxing match between Kathy Long and Bridgett ‘Baby Doll’ Riley on TV, which planted the seed for future aspirations of training and competing. She took Kung Fu by high school, at which point she also started looking into other martial arts, including Muay Thai.
Unfortunately, by that point she was already heavyset, and because of that had difficulty being taken seriously at the gym. According to Newsome, instructors were dismissive, telling her ‘this is too much for you. We know you want to do this, but you’re not at the level.’ When a sparring accident led to injuring her neck and spine, she was forced to sit out for a year, which literally added insult to injury.
“During that time of being on disability, I gained a lot of weight, just sitting around doing no physical activities,” she recollects. “I started being sad because I couldn’t work out, so I ate a lot. Everything went towards eating. If I was happy, I ate. If I was sad, I ate. If something was cool, I ate. I did that for a year. I went from about 280 lbs. up to about 320 lbs.”
By 2008, Newsome had recovered from her injury, though her motivation was on the wane. In October, however, she once again realized her passion for martial arts when she was encouraged to check out FightworX, a small, but serious, gym located behind a boxing supply store in Pasadena.
“The [supply store] owner’s son told me ‘go and check it out,’” she says. “Bazooka Joe [Gonzalez] was getting ready for a pankration event. I could see them doing the grappling inside the ring. From what I saw from that first half-hour, I was just amazed . . . I kept watching and I was like ‘this is what I want to do.’ The next day, I started training with them, and I’ve been with them ever since.”
Leading ‘them’ is her head coach, Matt Hambelton, a Glendora native who trained and competed extensively in Muay Thai and Krav Maga in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Having seen the rise of MMA in Southern California during those pioneering years, Hambelton prides himself on working with only the most serious and dedicated of aspiring fighters, a philosophy that Newsome has reflected as much as anyone in the FightworX ranks in their three-year partnership.
“When she came in, I said ‘if you want to put in the time, if you want to do the technique, you want to spar, you want to lose the weight, when you get to 180, we’ll start finding you matches.”
According to Hambelton, Newsome’s dedication during those two years averaged 4-5 hours a day, seven days a week. For her first fight, she weighed 180 lbs., after two years of continuous work.
“I was still kind of embarrassed though, because I was really big,” she remembers. “It was hard, but I knew that its something I really wanted to do. And I took it seriously. This is where I need to be. I wanted to be part of this facility.”
“When Ericka started, it was about weight,” says Hambelton. “She had to fight guys 180, 190 lbs. We couldn’t put her with 145 lb. females. So she got used to hitting and getting hit by grown men. She didn’t ever spar with another female until her exhibition fights. Because there were no girls out there.”
e-medium wp-image-1316 ” alt=”Newsome and Autumn Richardson after their second fight.” src=”http://uofmma.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Ericka-Newsome-x-Autumn-Richardson-17-Jeffrey-Hitchens-300×199.jpg” width=”300″ height=”199″ /> Newsome and Autumn Richardson after their second fight.
Newsome fought twice for the University of MMA, both times against Autumn Richardson from Team Quest. Their first match was the main event at the U’s first Hollywood show, ‘I Will Be Victorious!,’ in April 2011, going all the way to a close decision. When the two both had difficulty finding opponents following that bout, they agreed to rematch on another show. When the U announced its next show, Richardson and Newsome both requested to bring their match back to the U.
“I think when it comes to ground technique, she was probably one of the toughest [opponents]. Because she knew stand-up and ground,” says Newsome.
“One thing I noticed differently [in the rematch], that she didn’t strike with me like she did in the first fight. I think she did more striking with me, more punches and stuff. But the second time around, her main focus was trying to get me to the ground. She didn’t throw. She wasn’t that aggressive on stand-up.”
Neither of Newsome’s U of MMA post-fight interviews give the indication that she’s one for verbosity. Her answers are short and not very revealing. However, when the conversation turns to her other passion, music, you’re playing the right tune.
Newsome is a classical and jazz music aficionado who started training to play woodwind instruments in middle school, later graduating to brass in high school, including tuba, saxophone, and trumpet. She marched and performed in Rose Parade with the Pasadena City College Honor Lancer Band (which recruits only through auditions) between 1997 and 2002. Nowadays, she jams out with the college’s swing band, and like the new physical lease on life she’s built through fighting, her love of jazz is both a place of comfort and a fertile garden of expressing herself.
“My foundation is actually orchestra and classical music, but I am going more towards jazz, because I love the chance to improve and be able to play.”
When asked about the parallels between music and fighting, Newsome confirms that timing and cadence are important elements which translate between the two.
“There’s a certain timing to when you move your body,” she explains. “Music is a time. I know when Matt will teach me a certain move and I’m not getting it, or I might be too slow; once I put music to it – more like ‘okay, he wants it more flowing,’ in music that would be more like a slur. Or he wants this hard, maybe like an attack, or staccato. So I convert it in a way. . . I use music to put it in the way he wants the moves to come through.”
In July last year, Newsome made her pro debut, against Katalina Malungahu of Xtreme Couture. The match didn’t go Newsome’s way, suffering her first TKO loss in her fight career, but it also hasn’t deterred her spirits.
“With this one, it was pretty much over a year since I fought. It was like a last-minute thing. I didn’t really have much time to prepare for it. And when I went in, I just had too much hesitation. I didn’t have that aggression that I usually have when I fight amateur,” comments Newsome. “Out of all the girls that I fought, I just had never been hit that hard before. I got caught with a really good hit. From there I was like ‘wow.’ I wasn’t expecting that. I learned a lot from that one.”
In light of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable experience, Newsome has vowed to erase that hesitation and embrace her inner aggression in her future fights. Given her typical level of activity in previous amateur matches, that’s a pretty intimidating promise. But if there’s anything that Ericka Letrice Newsome’s story proves, its that when she sets her mind to something, it gets done.
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