Veteran anxious to rebound from back-to-back losses
“I was willing to go take a fight to not even make any money; I just wanted to fight.”
We hear athletes say these things all the time, how they’d play their sport of choice for free or can’t believe they get paid to play a game for a living. Most of the time it’s a cliche. They mean it to a certain measure, but if push came to shove, they wouldn’t set foot on a court or field for less than what their contract stipulates.
Scott Smith isn’t like most athletes. When the 32-year-old fighter utters those words over the phone, there is a sincerity in his voice that says he’s nothing short of serious. So do the words he chooses to describe his time away from the cage.
“I’m real excited. I’ve been itching for months. It’s actually been depressing not fighting, not knowing when I’m going to fight, not knowing what’s going on,” Smith said earnestly, speaking with Heavy MMA earlier this month. “I realize I’m coming off of two losses, but not knowing if they want me to fight is kind of a hard thing to swallow, and I’m just excited for the opportunity to get back in there.”
After ending 2009 in impressive fashion, 2010 was a difficult year for the ten-year veteran. Smith delivered a thrilling come-from-behind knockout victory over Cung Le to close out 2009, but was defeated in the rematch the following June. He decided to drop down to the welterweight division, where he welcomed Paul Daley to Strikeforce in December.
Just over two minutes into the first round, the explosive British slugger connected flush and forceful with Smith’s jaw. He crashed to the canvas like a freshly felled tree; motionless, heavy, and unable to stop the face plant that instantly became one for the highlight reels.
Losses happen, and Smith accepts the defeat without complaint or objection. What he’s had a hard time dealing with are the people looking for an elaborate explanation of what went wrong. Smith has a simple answer.
“I felt really, really confident going into that fight and I got caught. It’s tough; I’ve got family saying I cut too much weight, go back up to 185. Everybody is just pointing fingers at what happened. I really, really wish that I had something to point the finger at, but I don’t. I had a great camp. The weight cut was hard, but every weight cut is hard. I got IV’ed up right after; I felt great.
“Now if I get caught like that again, maybe that is too big of a weight cut, but I really don’t think it was. I think 170 is a great weight class for me. There’s critics everywhere, even in my own family, wanting me not to cut back down. That’s been the hardest part.”
Smith is definitely qualified to speak on the subject of “getting caught.” He’s made a career of catching people himself, adding the moniker “The Comeback Kid” to his more common “Hands of Steel” nickname. His rib-clutching, doubled-over-in-pain, one-punch sleeping of Pete Sell at the finale of The Ultimate Fighter 4 is legendary, and he points to his victory over Le as a perfect example of what can happen.
“I’ve kind of always defended Cung Le when I knocked him out. People who said he’s more hype — the guy got caught. He had a perfect game plan, he fought me great. He got caught, that’s the bottom line and that’s why MMA is so intriguing.”
As he prepares to face Tarec Saffiedine this weekend, Smith is aware that a third consecutive loss will bring the critics out in droves. A 1-3 record over his last four fights has some wondering if he’s fighting beyond his expiration date. Another defeat on Saturday night will only intensify the scrutiny, bringing questions of retirement. For now, it’s not something Smith is thinking about.
“I want to get a couple good wins and see where I go from there. I would like to keep fighting for a few more years. I feel great. I feel like I’m improving still, like there are things I still need to work on. I’m getting better people surrounding me, so I want to keep seeing where I can go with this.”
Though he’s solely focused on Saffiedine, the Daley loss continues to sting. It was supposed to be a new beginning for Smith, who entered the fight healthier than he’d been in years, ready to change up his tactics and take the fight to the ground.
“This is the thing that’s frustrating about my last loss: ever since the Benji Radach fight, for that camp, I didn’t do one ounce of wrestling because of injuries. I had a knee injury; I wasn’t walking six weeks before the fight. Then coming up after that — the Diaz fight — I was injured for that. The first Cung Le fight — my neck. I almost had to pull out of that fight; zero grappling for that fight.
“The Paul Daley fight was the first fight where I really got back to my roots of wrestling and jiu-jitsu, so this is why it was so frustrating for me. I was planning on taking him down, and I think right when I got caught I was trying to go in and take him down. It’s frustrating to not get to stick to your game plan; that’s been the biggest thing (in this training camp).”
After years of being known as a banger — a guy who stands in the pocket ready to go shot-for-shot with anyone — is Smith planning on donning a singlet and completely changing his approach against Saffiedine?
“I just want that in my game book at least,” laughed Smith at the suggestion. “It’s never been there. I’ve never considered going to the ground. If he’s going to be a lot quicker than me on my feet and I can’t get a hold of him, I absolutely don’t mind taking the fight to the ground.
“I think I have some great ground-and-pound. Now that elbows are legal, that makes it even more intriguing. If he’s beating me up on the feet, I would definitely take it to the ground.”
He said this as earnestly as when he said he was willing to take a fight for free just to get back in the cage, yet it somehow felt off. It hung in the air like a teenager with bad grades reluctantly admitting to staying home on Saturday night to study. All that was missing was the shuffling of feet up the stairs to an awaiting desk, mumbles about following parental instruction trailing off with each step.
Like the teenager who wants to spend Saturday night drinking crappy beer someone’s older brother bought them, Smith wants to stand-and-trade and knock people out. The teen doesn’t want to study and Smith doesn’t want to wrestle, but sometimes you just have to do what you’re told.
Then again, sometimes you sneak out the window, go to the party and get grounded on Sunday morning.
Sometimes you just get caught.