You’ve heard various descriptions of life in the reality television bubble of The Ultimate Fighter over the years, ranging from “I’d do it all again” to “it was what I imagine jail to be like.” But what about the opinion of someone who’s been in some pretty rough situations over the years as a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army?
SSG Colton T. Smith reporting for duty.
“Boot camp’s a lot worse,” laughed Smith. “Boot camp, ranger school, I’ve done a lot worse. This was a cakewalk.”
It was also a successful cakewalk, as Iowa native Smith defeated four opponents on season 16 of TUF to advance to Saturday’s final in Las Vegas against Mike Ricci. This, despite being one of the least experienced competitors on the show, where he entered with a handful of amateur fights and a 4-1 pro slate. Maybe all that previous military training paid off in ways no one could have imagined beforehand.
“I knew coming in that I was one of the least experienced guys on the show on paper, but I knew as long as I won my fight to get in the house and I won at least one more fight in the house, I knew from that point forward that guys were gonna start dropping like flies, and sure enough, these guys mentally broke and it made it an easier road to the finals,” said Smith, who actually embraced the six weeks locked away from the outside world.
“There were no distractions,” he said. “I love them to death but my family wasn’t there, my kids weren’t there, my soldiers weren’t there, and I could focus solely on myself and what I needed to do to prepare myself to be the next Ultimate Fighter. Eat right, sleep right, do everything right, and I knew it was gonna be a formula for success.”
A member of Team Nelson, Smith decisioned Jesse Barrett to get into the house, and immediately, he knew that he wasn’t dealing with anything he couldn’t handle in terms of skill level, despite being overmatched experience wise against future opponents Eddy Ellis (18-15-1, 1 NC) and Igor Araujo (22-6, 1 NC).
“When I started training with my team, I realized that I could hang with any of them,” said Smith. “And when I fought Eddy Ellis, he messed me up the first round, the second round I came out and demolished him, and I knew in my mind that nothing’s gonna stop me; you’re gonna have to turn my switch off. So I knew beating a veteran like him with 30-something pro fights, that was a big feather in my cap. I knew that he was a very crafty guy, I had seen him fight before, and he hadn’t lost a fight since 2007. And then I had Igor, and Igor probably had the second most fights in the house and I knew getting past him was going to be a challenge, but stylistically he matched up very well with me. I wanted to go the ground and so did he; let’s see if he could submit me. If he can’t, then obviously I win. It was a very basic gameplan, and once I beat him, the sky’s the limit. Whoever else they put in front of me, I got it, I’m gonna win, and I’m gonna be in the finals.”
Smith, a lifelong wrestler who had finished all his pre-TUF wins, went on to decision Jon Manley in the semifinals, and his improbable run to the finale card was complete. Now he has to meet up with Ricci, a prospect out of Montreal’s Tristar Gym, home to UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and 170-pound contender Rory MacDonald. And though the two never trained together during TUF, being from opposing teams, seeing each other in the house over six weeks does bring a new and interesting dynamic to Saturday’s matchup, one Smith doesn’t expect to be an issue.
“Honestly I’ve never been in that situation,” he said. “The weirdest moment had to be with Eddy. We shared the same pot of coffee, said ‘good morning’ and ‘have a good night’ to each other, so that was a little awkward, I’m not gonna lie. But I just had to snap out of it and get ready for the competition. As far as living in the house with Ricci, I believe we’re polar opposites. Our upbringing and views on a lot of stuff are polar opposites. He’s a very talented fighter; I just believe that I’m the better fighter and that I have a better gameplan and better approach to the fight game and better approach to being a human being and a good man.”
To prepare for the most important bout of his career, Smith has been putting in the hours in the gym along with remaining an active duty member of the US Army. That begs the question, could he be deployed somewhere at a moment’s notice if necessary?
“Duty comes first, it always has,” he said. “I’ve done a lot in my career and I’ve been all over the world, but at this point, I train soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. I work at one of the nicest facilities the Army has to offer for Army combatives so I’m non-deployable right now. When I have fights, I try to take my own personal leave that I’m allotted, and I won’t say I’m untouchable at that point, but all my chain of command realizes what I bring to the table for the Army with me showcasing my skill set on the big stage of the UFC and what that can do for recruitment in general and for the morale of the troops overseas. So the Army has been very, very good to me in allowing me to chase my dreams as an athlete as well as a leader.”
And as the success of Brian Stann and Smith’s training partner, Strikeforce contender Tim Kennedy, has shown, the military has been a good jumping off point for some top-level fighters over the years.
“Guys like Brian Stann and Tim Kennedy, I look up to them,” said Smith. “They’ve paved the road for guys like me that are in the military and want to continue a fight career as well as being a soldier and a leader, and I think it speaks volumes for the kind of people the military produces and the character they have.”
There’s just one more hill to take for Colton Smith, and that one’s in Las Vegas, with a UFC contract being the end goal. A year ago, that would have been a dream. Today, it’s three rounds or less away.
“I think it’s been such a fast ride that it hasn’t hit me yet,” he said. “I’m sure once this is all said and done and I can stop and think and not be training so much that it might just hit me what I just went through for the past six months of the process. But I take it in stride and it doesn’t get to my head or anything like that. I’m the same person I was before the show started, and hopefully I’ll remain the same person after.”
Colton Smith - Living Proof that Experience Comes in Many Forms
"Eat right, sleep right, do everything right, and I knew it was gonna be a formula for success." - Colton Smith