LAS VEGAS — Colton Smith was born into two worlds — wrestling and service — both of which he immediately fell in love with.
He never imagined he’d get to pursue both professionally at the same time. Smith attempts to win the 16th season of "The Ultimate Fighter” on Saturday when he faces Mike Ricci at the reality show’s finale card at the Joint inside the Hard Rock while still serving as an active-duty Army Ranger.
“They can call me up and tell me I’m deployed and I have to do my job, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Smith said. “I will do my job as a soldier, but the Army has been great letting me go after my passion as an athlete.”
Smith joined the Army seven years ago upon turning 18, following in what he called a “lineage” of males in his family. He built up two years' worth of leave to compete on the UFC’s tournament-formatted reality show, where he made the most of his opportunity.
Despite being one of the least experienced fighters on the show, Smith won four bouts in six weeks to make it to the finals. He credits his background for the success.
Secluded from all contact with family and any entertainment, many fighters lose their minds living in the “TUF” house. Ricci said it was such a trying experience that he considered suing the UFC for emotional distress.
Smith smiles when he hears those horror stories. His experience on the show was something different entirely.
“I realize I’ve been in a lot worse situations with deployment, being away from my family and in the Army,” Smith said. “Being in a mansion with all the best food and all the best training you can get with no distractions, it’s a positive. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives.”
Smith kept that in mind as numerous fights and arguments played out in the house. He always distanced himself from the drama.
Even Ricci, who admitted to not getting along with many cast mates, spoke highly of Smith. Roy Nelson, his coach on the show, said Smith was one of only two people on his team who came on “TUF” with a goal and the heart to chase after it with conviction.
“It was something I got frustrated with the other guys,” Nelson said. “I wanted it more than they did themselves, which was weird. If you want to go on 'The Ultimate Fighter,' you go on and say, ‘Hey, I want to be the Ultimate Fighter.’”
Smith knew this was what he wanted for the past three years, from the moment he competed in his first amateur fight. It wasn’t planned.
A day before Smith was leaving the country for another deployment, he accompanied a friend to a weigh-in for an MMA card. Another fighter dropped off, so Smith jumped into his place with no training aside from high school wrestling.
Smith won the fight by first-round TKO. His obsession with fighting grew from there, as he started to use all of his free time to practice and learn new techniques.
“When I was deployed, I would find some mat space in the gym and find guys who wanted to roll around — college wrestlers or guys who knew jiu-jitsu,” Smith said. “And I’d hit the heavy bag. That’s what my training consisted of for the past three years.”
Smith’s role in the Army took him all over the world, to more than 20 countries. He spent time at the usual stops like Iraq and Afghanistan, but also worked deployments all over Asia and Central America.
Until taking the extended time off for “TUF,” Smith would leave for fights for a day or two and return to duty right away. He’s looking to become the first active-duty military member in the UFC if he wins a contract with a victory Saturday.
Although middleweight Brian Stann earned a Silver Star as a Marine, he was a full-time fighter by the time he joined the UFC. Smith envisions no problems doing both.
He thinks they strengthen each other.
“Any time I’m hitting some adversity in a fight, my team yells something that reminds me of the things I’ve been through,” Smith said. “I get flak for talking about the military a lot, but it’s what’s driven me to get to where I am today.”