All Carlston Harris wanted was a steady job and a better life when he left Guyana for Brazil in 2007.
Little did he know that he would fall in love with martial arts and become the first Guyanese fighter to sign with the UFC more than a decade later.
Fresh off a first-round submission victory over Christian Aguilera in his octagon debut earlier this year and slated to face Impa Kasanganay in the preliminary portion of UFC Vegas 37 this Saturday, Harris looked back at his life’s journey as inspiration.
“I left Guyana looking for any opportunity, but I didn’t go out with the intention to fight,” Harris told MMA Fighting. “I ended up in Manaus in 2007 and started working as a car mechanic, and began training boxing and luta livre as hobby. I just wanted an opportunity to change my life and help my family. I jumped on the first opportunity I had.”
Harris had “no specific job” back in Guyana. He did everything from unloading trucks, carrying luggages, working in construction, and any other type of job that would pay him cash by the end of the day. Raised by his mother and eight siblings — his father had five other kids with a different woman but wasn’t present — Harris says life was “complicated.”
“You had to work to have something to eat later that day,” he said. “You had to work every morning to eat in the afternoon.”
Life was better in Brazil, he said, especially for a hard-working man like Harris.
“Things always worked out for me as soon as I put my feet in Brazil,” Harris said. “Life is a fight, of course, but it has always worked out for me. I was getting opportunities in the sport, I had a job. Life is a fight, it’s a challenge, so we have to fight.”
Martial arts stopped being a hobby once he realized he was getting better at punching people in the face. But watching the memorable UFC lightweight championship bout between B.J. Penn and Diego Sanchez in 2009 was his final push towards MMA.
“I bought pirate DVDs in the local fair in Manaus because I didn’t have Combate on TV,” Harris said. “The UFC was on TV on Saturday night and I bought the DVD on Sunday to watch it. I was watching Diego Sanchez’s fight with B.J. Penn when I decided that’s what I wanted for my life. I thought it was so cool, they were brawling, dropping each other and getting back up to fight back. That showed it’s a sport for warriors. It was a non-stop challenge, just like my life.”
Harris’ luta livre coach Junior Lopes noticed he was gifted and may go far as a professional martial artist, so he suggested Harris move to Rio de Janeiro and train under the tutelage of Marcio Cromado at RFT. Harris made his MMA debut later that year in 2011, losing a split decision.
“Moçambique” scored his first MMA victory two months later, tapping his opponent in the opening round in Rio de Janeiro, but lost a decision in his next bout in the first quarter of 2012. But Harris turned it around. He put a nice winning streak after his 1-2 start and defeated the likes of Michel Pereira, Joilton Lutterbach, and Wellington Turman to show his true MMA potential.
“Losses don’t count back where I was raised in Guyana,” he said. “Losses are a learning experience. I started training harder after I lost my debut. I realized I had to get better at many things.”
Being a UFC fighter wasn’t Harris’ goal in MMA from the get go, but “being among the best” was. He won the XFC International tournament over future UFC welterweight Michel Pereira and captured the Brave CF welterweight gold two years later. With Dana White in attendance at UAE Warriors 15 this past January, Harris submitted Saygid Izagakhmaev to earn a contract with the promotion.
“I saw that every sacrifice I made wasn’t in vain,” Harris said. “Nothing was in vain. Every sacrifice, every second, every teardrop, every sweat was worth it.”
Kasanganay, his opponent this Saturday in Las Vegas, improved to 9-1 in the sport after finishing Sasha Palatnikov with a rear-naked choke in April.
Harris is a grappling ace himself, having collected a Performance of the Night check for his anaconda choke finish in May, and feels ready for anything in the cage.
“[Kasanganay] clinches, he stands and trades a little bit, and likes to go for takedowns, but I’ve trained for all that,” Harris said. “You’ll have two well-trained guys on the 18th and the one that imposes his game plan better will win. I don’t care how, I just want to win. Fights are unpredictable, you never know what will happen, but I’m trained to win.”