This summer, when the UFC has their annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony, it will include one of the promotion’s earliest successful striking specialists.
The thing about sports history is, it’s not all about records. That’s a point that’s obvious enough when said. But in the world of professional athletics, where players are almost always reduced to a set of statistics and achievements, its something people tend to forget. Enter Maurice Smith.
The UFC announced, during their Nashville Fight Night broadcast, that they would be inducting Smith into the promotion’s Hall of Fame at the 2017 ceremony in Las Vegas during International Fight Week. To look at his career on paper, it’s an odd induction. While Smith carved out his spot in history by winning the newly created UFC heavyweight title from then champion Mark Coleman back at UFC 14 in 1997 (Coleman himself having only won the belt a few months earlier), his overall record of 14-14 with just one title defense, doesn’t scream “All Time Great.”
That misses a broader picture of the sport, however, which Smith’s achievement at the time helped paint. While Bas Rutten was having success with Pancrase in Japan, on the state-side MMA front, a no holds barred hierarchy had been firmly established: Wrestlers and grapplers were at the top, strikers were at the bottom. Mark Coleman, a former Olympic wrestler, charged into his MMA career and the UFC, going 6-0 over the course of three events, with all of his wins coming by stoppage. His run to the title had turned him into a seemingly unbeatable figure in American MMA. Smith changed all that.
Training with Frank Shamrock at the Lions Den, Smith learned to adapt his professional kickboxing more firmly to mixed martial arts (something he’d struggled with early in his move to NHB). As T.P. Grant put it in his exceptional MMA Origins: Revenge of the Striker article:
“Frank helped Smith learn the basics of grappling, with the goal being to survive on the ground and then use his superior striking skills. Smith would test out his new skills in a North American competitor to the UFC, Battlecade Extreme Fighting, and in a Heavyweight title fight against Carlson Gracie fighter Conan Silveira. Nearly everyone thought Silveira would clearly devour the kickboxer. Strikers did not defeat grapplers in this sport, it was known.
“But Smith turned the tables on Silveira. He survived from the bottom position and actually reversed the Carlson Gracie black belt. In the second round, Smith landed a head kick that ended the fight. Ken had once told Smith that he wasn’t a fighter, rather he was a specialized fighter, and Smith had embraced his strength and maximized it with some help from Frank. It was with that embracing that he became the first kickboxer to beat a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt in American MMA.”
That wasn’t the only point where Smith became an MMA innovator, though. In a time where most MMA fight training revolved between hard sparring and weight lifting (and maybe a few chemical supplements) Smith was one of the few notable talents to invest heavily in conditioning. Against Coleman, that was his silver bullet. After spending most of regulation time surviving off his back, Smith turned the tables on the severely depleted champ, landing enough offense to win a decision from the judges.
Smith picked up wins over Tank Abbott, Marco Ruas, and Branko Cikatic in the years following his win over Coleman. His win over Abbott netted him his only title defense, as he lost the belt in December of ‘97 to a new breed of wrestle-boxer in Randy Couture. Still, even if you reduce Smith’s MMA career to just that year, from October 1996 when he beat Marcus Silveira to October 1997 when he beat Tank Abbott, Smith’s contributions to the development of MMA are worth memorializing.
Smith will be entered into the Pioneer wing of the UFC’s hall of fame (dedicated to fighters who turned pro before the adoption of MMA’s current unified rules in ‘00). The ceremony is scheduled for July 6th. Urijah Faber is also set to be inducted.