Severe war wounds no impediment to Tenn. cage fighter
The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.
Anthony Smith was pronounced dead in April 2004 after a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through his right side. Bloodied and inanimate, he was pulled from the rubble by medics who tried, unsuccessfully, to revive the Army captain.
Smith ended up in a body bag, along with the other four victims of the attack at Camp Taji, a U.S. airfield north of Baghdad. It wasn’t until a nurse came to retrieve his dog tags 45 minutes later that anyone suspected the dead man might not be as dead as they thought.
“All of the initial reports from the attack said that there were five dead, but one person lived. That was me,” said Smith in the living room of his Blytheville, Ark., home.
Smith, 50, was in a coma for 62 days and remained hospitalized for more than three years after the blast. He lost most of his right arm, a hip and a kidney, is blind in one eye, has a plastic plate in his head, a titanium femur, and suffers from Bell’s palsy on the right side of his face.
He is also a lethal cage fighter who spends much of his time teaching martial arts to both kids and adults at one of his four dojos along Interstate 55.
Once an avid mixed martial artist, Smith hadn’t planned on getting back into the cage to fight as an amputee, though he had already distinguished himself as a disabled athlete in sports ranging from downhill skiing to triathlons.
But Smith wanted to teach again, and the only way he could convince parents to let a man with one arm and a limp teach their kids martial arts was to prove he could still fight.
It wasn’t an easy road for Smith, who is adamant about fighting only able-bodied men despite his own disability.
“I lost my first three matches because I was trying to fight like a two-armed guy,” Smith said. “But then I started working my nub, and breaking boards with it.”
Trained in Jiu Jitsu from a young age, Smith said “it’s going to be your worst nightmare” to take him down to the mat in a fight. If his opponent prefers to exchange punches, that’s fine too.
“I can catch ‘em here,” he said, showing off the an intimidating reach with his left fist. “Or I can catch ‘em here,” he said with a few close-range jabs of his nub.
The sleeve of his Superman T-shirt is only a few inches shorter than what remains of his right arm, which tapers off below the elbow. Though they couldn’t save his arm, the doctors did save his tattoo — a Chinese proverb about determination now flipped upside down on the nub where they had to fold the skin over.
“When I get into the cage, there are no extra points if I get my butt kicked because I’m disabled ... there’s just win or lose,” he said.
Although Smith certainly has the edge of a lifelong athlete, he has the easy laughter of a man who’s learned to let the little things go.
“If God put me in this situation, there has to be a reason,” Smith said, eschewing any suggestion of bitterness. “Once I got back to martial arts, I knew I’d found my reason.”
Smith likes to tell his students that he went to war and got blown up so he could come back home and inspire them to achieve. If they’re ever not certain they have the talent or dedication to become a great fighter, he gets in the cage himself to show them what determination looks like.
Every so often he’ll run up against a fighter who tries to go easy on him or treats him differently because he’s disabled. But, he says, “that’s when I knock ‘em out.”