In celebration of Black History Month, Fightful will profile Black athletes and pioneers in MMA history and highlight each of their individual stories — introducing former UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith.
Some have criticized promotions like the UFC in the past for their lack of support for black fighters, MediaFile's Matt Giola wrote a piece detailing this back in September 2018. There have also been others who have discussed the issue of racism within the sport of mixed martial arts, Omar Lopez touched on this in a post on his blog Cairn Thoughts and referenced an August 4, 2016 episode of the now-defunct MMAFighting show The MMA Beat where they elaborated on this further.
During this segment of the show, Ariel Helwani brings up the criticism of then-UFC champions Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley, and Demetrious Johnson. His fellow co-host Luke Thomas responded with the following answer giving his take as to why that was and about the racial aspects of the fight game.
"I think we live in a world, everyone likes to deny that there are racial components to the fight game. The fight game is in fact built on, partly, racial stratification and what that means for exploiting people's differences," Thomas said. "I don’t know to what extent they are problems in each of those cases (speaking about Woodley, Cormier, and Johnson), but it is hard for me to buy the idea that someone’s racial background in this country, and in countries elsewhere, that that doesn’t affect how fans perceive them. To what extent, we can debate, but that it is there, I think is absolutely incontestable."
Nearly four-and-a-half years later from that episode and the racial component of MMA is still ever-present, if not more evident. It's hard to look at some of the promotional tactics of a fighter like UFC welterweight Colby Covington in recent years and some of the comments he made towards both Kamaru Usman and Tyron Woodley in the lead up to their fights, documented here by Insider's Barnaby Lane and not see a reoccurring issue. Yet the sport's lineage is and has been filled with black stars and champions in multiple weight classes and promotions. So for the month of February and in honor of Black History Month, Fightful will be doing a series that looks back at some of the best Black athletes and pioneers in MMA history and highlighting each of their individual stories. The first fighter we featured was former UFC welterweight champion, Carlos Newton. The second fighter we will feature is former UFC heavyweight champion, Maurice Smith.
Smith was born on December 13, 1961, in Seattle, Washington, and like many kids that grew up in the '70s, it would be martial arts icon, Bruce Lee, the film Fist of Fury, and backing down from a fight when he was 13-years old that inspired Smith's initial interest in martial arts. He would follow in his hero's footsteps and start training in Wing Chun, as well as traditional karate and tae kwon do before finally finding his calling in September of 1980 when he found kickboxing. Smith competed in over 70 kickboxing matches from 1980 to 2005 compiling a record of 53-13-5 and winning world titles in multiple organizations and two different weight classes. His resume is an impressive one featuring bouts with legends like Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts who Smith faced four times, Jerome Le Banner, Rick Roufus, Michael McDonald, and Don Wilson. He'd also have the honor of competing as a member of the inaugural K-1 World Grand Prix in 1993, making it to the semi-finals where Smith would get knocked out by a beautifully timed Ernesto Hoost switch head kick.
His MMA debut would come in November 1993 under the Pancrase promotion, where he fought both Bas Rutten and Ken Shamrock but his 3-4 record with the company was mediocre at best. Many would look at Maurice Smith's time in MMA only judging it by wins or losses and see a 14-14 record, and would also call that a mediocre career. Smith is a prime example though of why you can't always define a fighter's legacy or contributions to the sport by simple metrics of how many victories or defeats they have. The impact he would make on the sport would be far bigger than just looking at his record could ever encapsulate. It would come against the proclaimed "Godfather of Ground and Pound" on a summer night in Birmingham, Alabama where Smith would cement his place in mixed martial arts history forever.
UFC 14 would take place July 27, 1997, and be headlined by a heavyweight title fight between Smith and champion Mark Coleman. The sport up until this point had been largely dominated by predominantly grapplers like Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and now Coleman who was a freak of nature. A trend the defending heavyweight champion even confidently acknowledged in the pre-fight interviews shown before the bout.
"He [Smith] can only punch or kick a person that's standing still, I don't plan on standing still," Coleman said. "I can shoot from a lot further out than he can kick or throw a punch. That's the key in this sport, it's a grapplers game because we can take a person down from a lot further out than they can stand there and punch us. So he has to learn how to wrestle and I've learned how to take a boxer-kicker down."
A former 1992 Olympian and 1988 national champion at Ohio State, the 32-year old Coleman was a budding star for the promotion. He was undefeated at 6-0 with all six wins coming via first-round finishes, four of them coming within the opening three minutes of the matchups, and the most recent being against the well respected Dan Severn. Coleman would manhandle Severn at UFC 12, submitting him with a scarf hold to become the first-ever heavyweight champion in the promotion's history. Sporting a hulk-like figure at 245 pounds, having the most feared takedowns, ground and pound, and headbutts in the sport, Coleman seemed like an unstoppable force who was just starting his reign of terror.
Smith was on the other end of the spectrum with his career, looking to find his footing in the sport with a record of 5-7 at the time. He had just knocked out Marcus Silveira in the third round at Extreme Fighting 3 with a head kick to become the Extreme Fighting heavyweight champion, even sweeping the American Top Team head coach while mounted, but that win didn't seem to warrant Smith getting the first crack at Coleman's title. He was far from the first choice, before Smith the plan was for Don Frye to rematch Coleman at UFC 13, but Frye wanted more money for the matchup. Then the promotion turned to Marco Ruas as a secondary option to fight Coleman but he now wanted more money for the matchup with Ruas and the UFC wasn't going to accommodate that request. They say the third time's the charm and for Smith, it was just that, as ultimately he got the call to face Coleman in a "title unification bout" after the UFC signed him when the Extreme Fighting promotion went under in the spring of 1997.
The matchup was a foregone conclusion for most in the MMA stratosphere, Coleman would do to Smith what he had done to his previous six victims and maul the veteran kickboxer. It would be another coronation of the new face of the UFC, an easy first title defense for Coleman as Smith would be his launching pad to a showdown with fellow heavyweight standout and phenom Vitor Belfort. A mere 30 seconds into the fight and everything was going as planned, Coleman would secure a rather easy double leg takedown and start raining down headbutts on Smith inside of his guard. After the initial barrage from Coleman though, Smith was able to control the defending champion's posture with the use of over-hooks and controlled Coleman's right bicep with his left hand, while also utilizing elbow strikes from his back to cause damage from the bottom.
Eventually, another surge would come from Coleman though as he'd explode to create a scramble and mount Smith at around the five-minute mark. Thunderous right hands would pile on top of Smith but he would continue to survive, hip escaping out of the mount and even using a Granby Roll to get Coleman off of his back. Coleman would stay in top position in Smith's half guard but remained tied up by a lockdown that Smith had applied to one of his legs and the continued use of bicep control from the Seattle native. At nine minutes and fourteen seconds into the bout the unthinkable would happen, Smith would escape out the back door from Coleman's control and get to his feet finally. Fatigue makes cowards of us all and in that one moment, the hulk-like figure, the unstoppable champion that was Mark Coleman put his hands on his knees and hunched over in a sign of exhaustion, the tide of the fight had shifted.
Coleman would get a desperation single leg takedown and remain in the top position for most of the remainder of the 15-minute regulation period, but Smith would still land elbows and punches off of his back, even reversing Coleman to once again get back to his feet and clearly had shocked the mixed martial arts world and the behemoth Ohio wrestler. Smith wasn't surprised at all himself though and neither was his cornerman Frank Shamrock or his team The Lion's Den, this had been the plan all along and Smith had pulled off the UFC's version of Ali's rope-a-dope. BloodyElbow's T.P. Grant did a fantastic, extensive look on the background of Smith's training for the fight with Coleman and some of the thought that went into it.
As both fighters returned to their corners before the start of the first of the two overtime periods, the difference in conditioning and confidence couldn't be more clearer. Smith seemed like he was catching his second win and his corner seemed to have this exciting urgency in their demeanor, Coleman's was panicked as Kevin Jackson would yell profusely at the depleted champion "you better suck it up, Mark!" The damage was done though and the stage was set for what is still to this day argued as maybe the biggest upset in the sport's history, Sherdog's Lev Pisarsky examined why this is.
The final six minutes of the matchup would be like watching a predator taunt their prey. The words Coleman so confidently exclaimed before the fight about not becoming a target that stands still had come back to haunt him. Smith's onslaught now begun, taunting the beaten-down former Olympian while putting on a beautiful showcase of technical striking from feinting, distance control, utilizing the jab and low kicks. He had beaten the supposedly next big thing in the UFC and had exposed the notion that elite strikers couldn't compete at a high level in MMA and showed that it would no longer be just a grappler's delight.
Smith in just 21 minutes had shown another aspect of what MMA could become and displayed the blueprint for success while paving the way for other elite strikers like Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Conor McGregor, and many others to succeed in a sport that's early days were dominated by grapplers. His win over Coleman at UFC 14 is a pillar and foundational moment in the growth of the sport in a myriad of ways. The victory also broke barriers in another way though with Smith not only becoming the UFC heavyweight champion but also becoming the first black champion in the promotion's history. Smith winning the title in Alabama, a state that has racism deeply within its roots also seemed like somewhat of poetic justice. It's not an accomplishment though Smith, who was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2017 is all that caught up on but is something he's happy with.
"I don't want to make a bigger story than what it is, I went in to fight and I won," he said to MMAJunkie's John Morgan after being inducted in the UFC Hall of Fame. "At the end of the day, I actually loved what I did, I got no complaints, I'm very happy with what happened. It took a while for me to take it all in because I said I had mixed emotions about it but you know I'm happy with it."
The fight and victory over Coleman is the crown jewel of Maurice Smith's career, but he'd also have some memorable moments afterward. Smith became the first man to defend the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 17 defeating Tank Abbott, also becoming the first fighter to win via a stoppage caused by leg kicks in the promotion's history although the win is technically listed as a submission victory. Smith would eventually lose the title to UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture at UFC Japan in 1997 and from there fight the likes of the late Kevin Randleman, Renzo Gracie, and Marco Ruas in a series of fights, that saw both as coaches in the now-defunct IFL promotion. Maurice Smith is a name MMA fans and pundits probably will never consider as one of the greatest to ever grace the Octagon, but without his contributions to the sport, I'd argue mixed martial arts would've just been like if Neo took the blue pill.