Colton Smith (left) kicks Mike Ricci during their welterweight bout Dec. 15 in the Ultimate Fighter Finale at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Smith won by unanimous decision. (Josh Holmberg / USA TODAY Sports)
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When Army Staff Sgt. Colton Smith got the nod to represent the Army on Spike TV's reality mixed martial arts competition "The Ultimate Fighter," he had to burn through two years' worth of personal vacation to be on the show. "Sixty days of leave in order to go get punched in the face," he says with a laugh.
Of course, he's laughing all the way to the bank.
The two-tour Iraq veteran and Ranger-tabbed infantryman is the first active-duty fighter to win "TUF," beating Canada native Mike Ricci in the show's title fight Dec. 16 in Las Vegas with a unanimous-decision win.
Three days later, Smith was back to work at Fort Hood, Texas, where he serves — appropriately — as a hand-to-hand combatives instructor. That's where OFFduty caught up with Smith during a break in training.
Q. First off, congratulations. Going into the fight, you were seen as the underdog. Did you have any doubts you could pull off the win?
A. I relished being called the underdog. Honestly, it kind of takes the pressure off your shoulders when people think you're going to lose and you know in your heart you're not going to lose. Win, lose or draw, I knew it would either be a fight that I won or an exciting time trying to win.
Q. Going to live and work with a bunch of people you don't know is nothing new for anyone who's been in the military. What was the biggest surprise for you living in the "TUF" house?
A. What surprised me most were these tough fighters who were breaking mentally in the house. We were all tough athletes, but there was a lack of mental toughness. Some broke under pressure. Some had never been away from their families. They just broke mentally.
Q. You had about two months to prepare for your final bout. What did you do to get ready?
A. Tim Kennedy [an Austin, Texas-based Army National Guard soldier and pro MMA fighter] played a huge role in my training camp. The second I came out of the ["TUF"] house, he took me under his wing and started showing me the way a real pro fighter trains. I had never really trained full time for a fight. … I was in Austin three or four days a week, where Tim is co-owner of Austin Muay Thai. The rest of the time, I was training with my jujitsu coach and my striking coach, as well as Chris Perkins, my boss here at the combatives facility.
Being hit by Tim and training with Tim constantly is definitely trying. A lot of guys quit when they start training with him. You can't always be the hammer — you have to be the nail sometimes. When I'm training with Tim, I'm usually the nail.
Q. You've got about 16 months left on your current enlistment. Any chance you'll stay in the Army?
A. I love the Army. The Army has always been phenomenal to me. If I can figure something out to where I can still stay competitive in the mixed martial arts world, as well as fulfill my obligations as a leader in the Army, that would be the ideal situation for me ... maybe representing the Army on a larger scale. I understand duty and mission comes first. I feel like I could serve well, maybe, telling young people my story. For now, I'm in the wait-and-see mode. I'd just like to know what my options are.
Q. Your winnings include a three-year contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship that could mean more than $300,000. That's got to feel pretty good.
A. I'm the same person I was before the show started. I drive the same car, live in the same house. Our status hasn't changed in any way. No new electronics, no new boat. I'm not going to do any of that. You know, you're only as good as your last fight, so I'm looking at investments — investments in small businesses.
Q. How big a role does faith play for you as a soldier and in the octagon?
A. It's a huge part of my life. I give all the glory to God and Jesus, my Lord and savior. Becoming a mixed martial arts fighter was a God-birthed dream. I think we all have a God-birthed dream inside of us, and it's our duty to seek the will of God out and follow what he's set before you. I go to a nondenominational church off post called Faith Temple. They don't judge anybody; you can go in there wearing bike shorts and a T-shirt on Sunday. The pastor has a great sense of humor. He prayed over me before I went to the "TUF" house. He didn't pray for victory, just courage under fire.
Q. What advice do you have for anyone in uniform who wants to follow in your footsteps as an MMA fighter on active duty?
A. Duty always comes first. Don't think you're entitled to anything other than being a soldier and doing your job as a soldier. After the chain of command realizes you're an asset to the team, that's when you can start chasing your dreams. Then, it's all about sacrifice. The Army combatives program fueled this for me. I wrestled growing up in Iowa, so I had a decent base — all we do in Iowa is wrestle — but MMA started for me after I was in the Army. Every chance I had, I'd go train. At lunchtime, I'd leave post and go train. After work, I'd leave and go train. When other guys were going out on Friday night, I was going to train. During deployments, when the other guys were going to the Internet cafe to call their loved ones after a patrol, I was hitting the heavy bag, doing wall pushups, picking up sandbags. So, you have to be dedicated both to the service and to your sport.
Q. So, you're now officially a pro UFC fighter. What's next?
A. I haven't talked to anyone in UFC yet about who I'm fighting next, but the next fight should be in three to four months. There's no one in particular I want to fight. I'll fight anyone they put in front of me.