BANGOR, Maine — When Carlton Charles visited football practice at the University of Maine last Friday, his presence was a mystery to some.
Not that veteran players and coaches didn’t know the former Black Bear fullback. They just didn’t know it was him at first.
“A lot of the guys didn’t even recognize me because I’m 60 pounds lighter than when I played,” Charles said.
That’s understandable, because while the Windham native arrived on the Orono campus in 2010 as a 268-pound defensive tackle before ultimately finding his place within the program as a 240-pound blocking, Charles was at a fit 185 pounds last weekend as he made his mixed martial arts debut.
That debut couldn’t have been more successful, as Charles required just 23 seconds to earn a technical-knockout victory over previously unbeaten Josh Jones in their amateur middleweight battle at “NEF 30: Rumble in Bangor,” staged before a sellout crowd of 1,200 in the grand ballroom of the Cross Insurance Center on Saturday night.
The two former standouts from more traditional sports — Charles in football and Jones a former Husson University basketball player who went on to play professionally in Europe — immediately clashed once beckoned to fight by referee John English.
Charles scored a takedown, but the taller Jones rose quickly only to be pinned against the side of the cage. Charles then landed two right-hand strikes followed by one left that buckled Jones’ legs and prompted the end of the fight one second short of the combined time Jones had needed to win his first two MMA matches.
“I knew I had to weather a storm because he comes out and throws heavy and hard. I was expecting that,” Charles, 26, said. “Once I got in close on him he was a little shifty so I went for the takedown, but he got back to his feet and then we were against the cage and I rocked him with an uppercut. The ref saw his legs go and that was it.”
The sudden victory proved popular not only within the arena but among his former teammates and coaches back in Orono.
“They were all supporting me and hitting me up on Twitter and Facebook or text messaging,” Charles said after the fight. “They were all just happy and thrilled that I had this opportunity. It was great them having my back.”
Charles arrived at UMaine in 2010 after playing football and basketball at Windham High School and was the second member of his family to play football for the Black Bears following older brother Raibonne, who was a junior defensive tackle when Carlton was a freshman.
Charles played in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman on the 2011 UMaine team that advanced to the Football Championship Series national quarterfinals, making three pass receptions and getting steady work on special teams. He also was named to the Colonial Athletic Association All-Academic team.
He sat out the 2012 season because of a back injury, then played in seven games in 2013 before being sidelined with a leg injury.
Charles graduated from UMaine in December 2014 but maintained his hopes of playing professionally by participating in UMaine’s pro day workouts in both 2015 and 2016.
“I did the pro day in 2015 and I ended up training and doing it again (in 2016), but I messed up my hamstring and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe football is not the path for me,’” he said.
“My oldest brother (Nate) had always been into the the fighting game and I’ve always been real interested in it so I thought that maybe this is where I’m supposed to go.”
So began Charles Family Fighting, the small hometown group where the Charles brothers do much of their training together, though Raibonne does not fight.
“I figured that someday it would happen,” Charles, who also trains at gyms in Mexico and Augusta, said. “I was elated when the day finally came.”
Football players turned MMA fighters are not uncommon. Current Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux played football at the University of Tennessee, while heavyweight Shawn Jordan of the Professional Fighters’ League — formerly the World Series of Fighting — was a fullback on Louisiana State University’s national championship teams in 2003 and 2007.
“There are probably a lot of things in common,” Charles said of the preparation behind the two sports. “The discipline to train, the two-a-day workouts, they’re almost identical. It’s just different training.”
Saturday night’s win actually wasn’t Charles’ first public tasted of combat sports. He and his brother Nate fought boxing matches in Skowhegan a week earlier, with Carlton scoring a first-round technical knockout victory.
“I originally got into it wanting to do MMA,” said Charles, who works as a service technician at Mainely Tubs in Scarborough, “and as of right now that’s what I still want to do and we’ll see what happens going forward.
“I hope to continue this — definitely.”