Long before he debuted in the UFC in 1997, Maurice Smith was already immortalized with a name check in the classic 1989 film “Say Anything.”
But the man John Cusack’s character Lloyd Dobler used, along with Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, as an example of champions in “Kickboxing, sport of the future,” still had more to achieve in a career that will see him inducted into the Pioneer Wing of the UFC Hall of Fame this July in Las Vegas.
“I didn’t know what the criteria was initially, so I was quite surprised,” Smith said of joining the Hall. “But it’s a nice compliment to me. I accept it and I appreciate it.”
A former UFC heavyweight champion, Smith’s impact on the sport of mixed martial arts certainly qualifies him to join the greats, yet at the time of his first Octagon bout against Mark Coleman at UFC 14, he was already 35 years old and an established kickboxer and mixed martial artist on the international scene. As such, he saw the bout against “The Hammer” as just another fight.
“It was just another fight company,” Seattle’s Smith said. “I looked at everything in very simple terms. Companies were competing for fighters, and that’s how I looked at it. When I went into the UFC, I had been fighting since 1980, so I had been fighting for a very long time. So I wasn’t nervous, I was just focused on the fight.”
That fight was one Smith was expected to lose, simply because Coleman was a juggernaut who was running through all comers. The champion was 6-0 with six finishes in the UFC, and once he got his opponents to the mat, “The Godfather of Ground and Pound” took over.
Smith wasn’t planning on getting taken down though, and having faced fighters like Ken Shamrock, Bas Rutten and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in Japan’s Pancrase promotion, as well as the aforementioned Wilson, Ernesto Hoost and Peter Aerts in kickboxing, Coleman wasn’t an intimidating force, just his next opponent.
“He was just another fighter,” Smith said. “But (coach and former UFC champion) Frank (Shamrock) had a good idea. We all agreed that most of these guys, including myself, were one-facet fighters. So the facet of wrestling is not designed to go long-term at a high pace. And the thing about kickboxing is, you’ve got to have stamina and be able to recover and accept getting hit and not freak out. So we figured he was gonna come out gangbusters and he fought me with pure emotion.”
And as Coleman tired, Smith implemented his game, both on the mat and the feet, and when the 21-minute fight was over, a new champion was crowned and his name was Maurice Smith.
In that one victory, Smith introduced a new era and sent a sign to his fellow strikers that it was possible to use superior conditioning and a sprawl and brawl strategy to win fights in a venue that had been largely dominated by wrestlers and jiu-jitsu players. To say future UFC champions like Chuck Liddell and Joanna Jedrzejczyk were influenced by Smith, whether directly or indirectly, is an accurate statement.
But the notable aspect of what Smith did in the Octagon was that he never stopped trying to get better. And even if he was never going to be an All-American level wrestler or a black belt in jiu-jitsu, he was dangerous enough everywhere to earn his respect. Add in a Spartan dedication to conditioning, and Smith was ahead of his time in several ways.
“It was all about conditioning, and if I’m on my feet, nobody should beat me on my feet,” he said. “No MMA fighter should be able to beat any high-end kickboxer on their feet. Wrestling or grappling is another ballgame, but no one could outstrike me in MMA on the feet. So we just trained hard. Train hard, stay focused, and be the best you can be. And if the best you can be puts you in the position where you’re the best fighter, then you have to train. If you’re in shape and know how to play the game, it doesn’t matter if it’s 15-minute rounds or five-minute rounds. If you train properly, you’ll be okay.”
A self-taught and trained pro kickboxer from 1980 to 2005, Smith compiled a reported 53-13-5 record in the sport he called home for a quarter of a decade. In bouts under complete MMA rules, Smith put together a 10-6 slate from 1996 to 2013, though his time fighting in Pancrase and Rings saw him fight several future UFC stars. But Smith doesn’t consider those fights part of his MMA career due to different rule sets, including no closed fist strikes in Pancrase.
“That hurt,” he laughs. “Slapping hurt.”
It was in Japan that Smith first met (and fought) Ken Shamrock, as well as the future UFC Hall of Famer’s Lion’s Den team. Later, Frank Shamrock entered the mix, with the two complimenting each other in the gym and going on to big things in the Octagon.
Yet despite beating Coleman, becoming the first fighter to successfully defend a UFC title when he beat “Tank” Abbott, and facing off with the likes of Randy Couture, Kevin Randleman, Marco Ruas, Bobby Hoffman and Renato “Babalu” Sobral in a 4-3 UFC career, Smith remains humble about his MMA accomplishments.
“We just trained hard and we were very serious about what we did,” Smith said. “We were very dedicated to training when we got to a certain level of notoriety. It goes from Ken, but Frank is the one who helped me become an MMA fighter.”
Today, Smith looks at another hybrid fighter as the gold standard for the sport.
“I think Jon Jones is the greatest fighter out there,” he said. “He’s not a great striker but he knows how to strike. He’s got great takedown defense, he comes in shape and he’s by far, to me, the greatest fighter in the business. If he can stay out of trouble for the rest of his career, which I hope he can, he has great things coming to his life in fighting. He’s what the sport should look like.”
That’s today. In 1997, it was Mo Smith who showed the world what the sport should look like. And while he’s going to turn 56 in December, the man who last fought in 2013 wouldn’t mind putting on the gloves again.
“Sure, why not,” he said. “All I need is time to train.”