Maurice Smith - The MMA Game Changer

On July 6th, as part of International Fight Week in Las Vegas, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Maurice Smith will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. While there are many deserving parties that can fit in the ‘Pioneer’ category, Smith will also go down as one of the sport’s biggest, yet under appreciated game changers in North America.

The first time I was able to witness Mo in action was in the late nineties, when I was able to acquire a VHS tape of ‘Extreme Fighting 3’. I had just wrapped up watching the two events prior to this one and was in awe of heavyweight champion Marcus ‘Conan’ Silveira. A monster of a man, he appeared unbeatable and I pondered how amazing he would match up with the fighters competing in the UFC at that time.

‘Conan’ was a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu beast, unstoppable and destroyed everyone in his path. He was another example of the evidence I needed that my days of training in boxing and American kickboxing were obsolete. The ground game was where it was at, so at the time, I heavily invested my time training with the gi and learning as much as I could about the submission game.

Oh how naive I was, as a twenty-something-year-old in Toronto, unaware of how my ignorant bubble was about to burst. It was a kickboxer from Seattle, Washington who gave me the reality check that I needed, and it came in a shocking manner.

Smith was matched up with ‘Conan’ in the main event for ‘Extreme Fighting 3’ and my rudimentary analysis was the same as most BJJ die-hards: the Brazilian will get the fight down to the ground and submit his way to a successful title defense.

It’s safe to say the complete opposite happened, as Smith landed a high kick in the third round, tumbling the giant Brazilian to the mat, shocking everyone in attendance and sending yours truly into momentary denial.

I watched that fight over and over and over again trying to figure out what happened. How could ‘Conan’ not defeat this one dimensional striker. And the more I watched, the more I saw that Smith’s skills balked at the notion that BJJ was the superior martial art over striking. Perhaps, in a style vs. style battle, one could make that argument, but this was the evolution of MMA happening right before my eyes. A striker, who had solid takedown defense, coupled with the ability to get the fight back to the stand-up realm, should he get taken down to the mat.

Smith game planned and trained differently than the vast majority of strikers back then. He understood distance from a defensive perspective. He knew the cues that were evident when a fighter was aiming to take him down. He was always one or two steps ahead of his opponents.

I needed to learn more about Smith, so I dug deep and did some research. I quickly found out he had the best 3-6 record one can imagine (perhaps even to this day). From 1993 to 1996, he plied his trade in Japan, mainly under the Pancrase banner fighting the likes of Bas Rutten (twice), Ken Shamrock, Minoru Suzuki (twice) and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. Smith was as seasoned as one could be and was more than an exceptional match for Silveira.

Having won the EF Heavyweight Title, and with the promotion eventually folding, Smith found his way to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1997. He was granted an immediate title shot at ‘UFC 14: Showdown’ vs. champion Mark Coleman, widely considered the most feared fighter on the planet. While I did give the edge to Coleman, it was a slight one. In fact, it may have been the first time I realized that a fight is a fight and anything can happen. Smith could pull it off but it would not be easy.

Before the bout, Smith surprised me again. In his pre-fight banter, he stated Coleman punched “like a girl”. Nobody talked about the monster that was Coleman in that manner. Your life was on the line when you were locked in the octagon with that beast, but Smith wasn’t scared. In fact, he was so confident he was right, he was going to prove it to the world. And he did just that, defeating ‘The Hammer’ via unanimous judges decision.

Smith would go on to successfully defend the title once vs. Tank Abbott but eventually losing it via majority decision to Randy Couture at UFC Japan. His career then saw him go back and forth with the promotion while also doing stints overseas in Japan.

Smith’s career ended with a 14-14 record, but his pivotal performances paved the way for not just strikers in MMA, but for every single mixed martial artist moving forward. He wasn’t the only one who did it, but was one of the few who did it at the highest level. The importance of having a well rounded game paid dividends for the kickboxer.

What is common place in MMA, was not the case 20 years ago. Today, to call yourself a Mixed Martial Artist, you need to have a mix of sound striking, wrestling, grappling, submissions and be able to defend those skills sets as well. Maurice Smith was one of the first to showcase the well rounded game, which deviated from the single discipline(s) most of his peers had.

He is the true definition of an MMA Pioneer but also a game changer whose fingerprints are all over every single MMA bout and athlete’s arsenal today.

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