Friday’s Bellator 162 card includes a welterweight bout between Gilbert Smith (12-5) and Ricky Rainey (11-4). It will be the second fight in Bellator for Smith, who lost a close split decision to Fernando Gonzalez at Bellator 151 in March of this year. He’s probably best known to casual fans for his stint on season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, but he came to Bellator after winning and defending the welterweight championship of the Resurrection Fighting Alliance.
Smith came to MMA relatively late, having wrestled in his younger years, and then training in Brazilian jiu jitsu. As he explains, “I wrestled throughout most of my life. So, obviously going from wrestling to jiu jitsu to MMA is like a typical traditional transition. That’s basically what got me into the sport. I love the fact that the challenge is one-on-one. I’ve never been a big team sports guy. I loved basketball back in the day, but I love when just you are able to dictate wins and losses. How much work you put in. It’s all about you. So MMA was right up my alley.”
In between, he served in the Army. “I was a 35 November, which was wire equipment system repair,” he says. “We fixed phones, switchboards, and radios, things like that, and I kind of moved to 94 Foxtrot, where you work in the C&E shop, which is communications and electronics. As far as competing in the Army, no, I never really did that too much. I was able to wrestle at CSU Pueblo, but I didn’t quite compete in the Army, or for the Army.”
After leaving the Army, he began his MMA career in 2009, amassing a 5-0 amateur record before turning pro in 2011. By late 2012, he was selected to compete on season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter. While he lost his only fight on the show to Luke Barnatt, and subsequently a fight with Bubba McDaniel at the TUF 17 Finale, he does see his time on The Ultimate Fighter as worthwhile. “My time on the show was awesome. I have no complaints. The Ultimate Fighter has been the biggest benefit to my career. It’s been a blessing.”
Since then, he has developed quite a bit, fighting in several organizations and eventually becoming the RFA welterweight champion. The increased experience brought him to Bellator earlier this year. “It is about moving up to the larger promotion. It’s also about getting paid more money,” Smith stated. “Ed Soares, the owner of RFA, he told me I’d kind of reached the ceiling of his company. Because his company is not about staying there forever; his company is about sending guys to bigger organizations. It’s a good transition. It’s like the college leagues, the NCAA, or Triple-A for baseball. To keep fighting in RFA, financially it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. I fought tough dudes and got paid relatively small. But it wasn’t about the pay, it was about the promotion and marketing, to get myself prepared for an organization like Bellator. It was a gradual process, and it was something that needed to happen.”
“When I was fighting at middleweight, man, I was fighting some big dudes. To change up that paradigm benefits me. There’s a difference when you get hit from a guy that comes in at 213, 220, compared to when you fight a guy who is 190, maybe 195.”
An early part of that process was a move down in weight. On The Ultimate Fighter and for his first few post-TUF fights, Smith competed in the 185 pound division. In 2014, he moved down to welterweight, which so far has proven to be a good move. “Well, I wouldn’t say it improved my overall game,” he says. “I think what it did was it improved my overall chances of success. When I was fighting at middleweight, man, I was fighting some big dudes. I’m not saying there are not big dudes in the welterweight division, but I’m relatively huge for a welterweight, but I was a very small middleweight. To change up that paradigm benefits me. There’s a difference when you get hit from a guy that comes in at 213, 220, compared to when you fight a guy who is 190, maybe 195.”
“The training is relatively the same. I just don’t lift as much, which sucks, but a lot more cardio to cut the weight, which is good, honestly,” Smith says on the difference for him between the two divisions. “I feel just as strong, just as athletic. I spar with a lot of big guys, I spar with small guys, so I get a good look at the strength and size, and from the speed and agility part of it.”
Losing his Bellator debut on a close split decision adds some motivation to finish in his fight against Rainey. “It puts pressure in the sense that I definitely don’t want the fight to be close,” Smith explains. “Like, man, if you’re going to beat me – beat me. If you’re going to beat me, let’s not make it razor thin. Those are the hard pills to swallow. Every so often, you’re up against a guy that was just a better guy than you, and you accept that. You have to go back to the drawing board and make adjustments. But the worst thing is when you know you won the fight, and the judges give it to the other guy. My job is to make it easy on the judges, and that’s what I didn’t do in that fight. I’m not mad at the judges. I definitely think I won, but at the end of the day I made some bad decisions that made that fight too close and gave the judges a second thought. So in this fight, we’re definitely going in there with the thought process that we’re going to make the job for the judges very easy.”
“The thing about boxing, it’s about hitting and not getting hit. The whole thought process, which I really hate about MMA, is ‘Oh, let’s just bang it out.’ It makes it look so sloppy. I want to bring more of the art of striking.
— Gilbert Jamal Smith (@JamalSmithMMA) October 6, 2016
When I asked how he’d like to see the fight against Rainey go, he said “That’s pretty simple. I’d like to go in there, swing the first punch, knock him out, a 10-second knockout and go home with a check. That’s the way I want it to go. My game plan is pretty simple. I want to punch him more times and harder than he punches me. There it is.” Still, Smith realizes that it probably won’t be that easy, but remains confident in his skills, “There’s no part of his game that I worry about. I worry about no part of his game, but I respect it. I’m prepared. I’m never going to stand and bang. That’s ridiculous. What you’re going to see is a refined striker versus a not so refined striker. The thing about boxing, it’s about hitting and not getting hit. The whole thought process, which I really hate about MMA, is ‘Oh, let’s just bang it out.’ It makes it look so sloppy. If you watch boxing matches, you see these guys go in there slipping and ripping, bobbing and weaving, and that’s what I want to do. I want to bring more of the art of striking, you know what I’m saying? In the end, I’m going to outclass him.”
One thing that is apparent about Gilbert Smith is that he has a lot of irons in the fire. Over the past several years, in addition to an active fighting career, he has earned two Master’s degrees. He also founded and still runs Victory MMA in Colorado Springs, named after Camp Victory, where he served in Iraq. Some might see so much activity as a detriment to his MMA career, but Smith disagrees, “With the fight with Fernando Gonzalez, I actually just took over this new location, and there was so much going on. We were trying to get things squared away. Now I’m in a position where the gym is kind of running on its own. We’ve got things streamlined, everybody is on the same page. So now it’s a lot of fun, man. I come here, and I do things that I have to do, and I’m able to leave without having to stress out too much. It does keep me in the gym a lot, so it keeps me training. I get up to go to work, and my work is training. I love helping people, and I love seeing other people grow. So running the gym is definitely not a hindrance to my career. If anything, it is my career.”
“Bellator gave me the same deal that basically the UFC would have given me. And now I have the ability to go out there and get my own sponsors.”
Smith won’t discuss what he has in mind after this fight, preferring to concentrate on beating Ricky Rainey. “Honestly, my only goal right now is beating Ricky Rainey, and that’s it,” he says, adding that he’s happy with his Bellator career. “Bellator gave me the same deal that basically the UFC would have given me. And now I have the ability to go out there and get my own sponsors. I’m going to make more money off sponsors than people in the UFC, so I can’t complain too much. In comparison, when it comes to sponsors, I do think you can probably benefit a little more in Bellator, depending on who you are, what’s your name, and how hard you’re willing to hustle.”
Smith is certainly no stranger to hustling and hard work, “For me, it’s about being at the gym, working hard, making sure I’m doing everything I need to be doing outside the gym. Keeping my life healthy, drama-free, and trying to reduce the amount of that stuff as possible.” We will find out Friday if the most recent work pays off with a win and a step up on Bellator’s welterweight ladder.