The Man of Steel Wants Gold


A union ironworker for eight years, Scott Smith quit his job for a business that somehow seems more dangerous than carrying rebar while tightrope walking. A business where being punched in the face is the point, where blood not reaching the brain is technique -- a business where he tears down skeletons rather than building them up.

The Californian's no-nonsense haircut and soft, unassuming voice illustrates the compelling contrast in him: the nice roughneck.

The work ethic he honed in his hometown of Elk Grove, Calif. -- about 20 minutes south of Sacramento -- as a man of steel has translated into Smith's MMA career.

Even as a full-time fighter in the post-boom MMA world, the Nevada-born striker is still training like a throwback.

Three days a week he journeys to San Francisco to refine his muay Thai at the world-renowned Fairtex gym. It's an hour and 40 minutes away if he's lucky enough to bypass the Bay Area's unwavering traffic clusters. It's a 40-minute drive to Roseville, Calif., where he trains in his own gym, Ultimate Training Center, alongside James Irvin (Pictures) and Mark Munoz (Pictures). Additionally, he ventures to Roseville to teach -- a supplement to his fight purses. Another three days a week he drives 35 minutes for private Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons.

The only training he can do in Elk Grove is weightlifting and cardio. Endless miles on the road reflect Smith's skidding seven-year career.

He started as a heavyweight, gradually dropping weight throughout his career. A one-night light heavyweight tournament in the WEC saw him assert himself as a star in California's always burgeoning fight scene. It was on that night in 2005, as he stopped Tim McKenzie (Pictures) and Tait Fletcher (Pictures), that his father collaborated with WEC matchmaker Scott Adams on the nickname "Hands of Steel."

A knockout win over Justin Levens (Pictures) for good measure gave him the credibility to go along with the nickname to shine on the big stage.

That's when the UFC happened. After moving to his natural weight of 185 pounds, the Nevada-born fighter would lose a strange encounter with David Terrell (Pictures), parlay it into an unsuccessful stint on "The Ultimate Fighter: The Comeback," finish Pete Sell (Pictures) in one of the UFC's most dramatic endings and then lose his next two UFC tangles.

Undeterred by a 1-3 UFC record, Smith was ready to come back. Then, for lack of a better term, the UFC cut him.

"They wanted me to get a couple of wins before I came back. So I had taken a couple fights. I had taken a fight and got injured, so I had to take another one," he explains. "I asked if I could sign a multi-fight deal [with Gladiator Challenge], and they said they'd have to let me go if I did that."

His stoppage of Jeff Morris (Pictures) last December caught the attention of fledgling promotion EliteXC, which signed Smith to a multi-fight deal. Smith obliterated prospect Kyle Noke (Pictures) in his debut with the organization, which marked a startling return to MMA's consciousness after years of frustration. The second-round knockout over the Australian was a nice addition to his highlight reel, too, but it signaled something greater for the father of two.

"There are so many people willing to do anything to fight in the UFC and fight for nothing," he says. "Unless you're one of the top dogs, you're not getting recognized. EliteXC is giving us our push."

With vaunted knockout power, Smith wants to return to cutting down opponents for a living. He hopes to make EliteXC middleweight champion Robbie Lawler (Pictures) next.

"It's going to be one of those fights where people are gonna talk about it and want to have it on Tivo, have it recorded and go back and watch this fight over and over again," says Smith of the clash on Saturday. "That's what I'm going out there to try and do. Just put on a great show and show that I'm an exciting fighter to watch."

The fight is power puncher versus power puncher, two fighters who prefer to stand and fall instead of looking for a takedown.

Smith concedes Lawler has "a little more of the technical edge," but says the ability to smash opponents falls in his own favor. He also gives Lawler the edge with knees despite not having kicks to match.

"It just makes for a good standup matchup," he says.

EliteXC matchmaker Jared Shaw sees it in a similar light: "You have an incredible matchup between two prominent strikers in mixed martial arts. You know, Robbie reminds me of a throwback fighter like Jack Dempsey. He's in your face and he's throwing power shots, so he takes you out. Scott has the uncanny one-punch knockout power, which has been evidenced more than once in his career."

This is the ideal bout for Smith, who has seen mixed results in the spotlight. Pressure has subsided since his last fight, a do-or-die for his career. Increased media engagements have not distracted him. He handles them on his way to training and also views the attention MMA neophyte Kimbo Slice receives as a positive -- it means more viewers for his fight too.

The prospect of fighting on a live primetime network broadcast is not shaking the UFC veteran. There are two fans he really wants to put on a show for -- his sons. An 11-year-old and a 5-year-old will tune in and root for their dad, who claims he is "at the top of his game right now."

"Hands of Steel" loves being the underdog against Lawler. Training at Big Bear with Tito Ortiz (Pictures), Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures) and Joe Riggs (Pictures) for a month has instilled confidence in the Northern Californian. But nothing is more empowering than his preparation with maniacal power puncher and training partner James Irvin. If he can survive the onslaught of "The Sandman," he believes he can survive Lawler's.

When Smith spars with Irvin, they fight.

"Everybody stops at the gym to watch us spar," Smith says. "People … will ask one of our coaches, ‘Are these guys mad at each other? What's the deal?' We're just so used to sparring so hard. When we get into a fight, no one is going to hit us and kick us like that."

Despite Smith's underdog status, there are many factors working for him. Lawler has had a nine-month layoff, a shoulder injury and an arm injury that kept him from two Icon Sport title defenses. He has also broken away from long-time mentor Pat Miletich (Pictures).

Perhaps the most telling card in Smith's deck is the fact he has only been knocked out once in his career -- a 2004 loss against Irvin. Countered with a clobbering right hook, Smith went reeling. Irvin -- a heavyweight at the time -- punished Smith until he slumped over. It doesn't happen anymore.

With 11 of his 13 wins coming via TKO or KO, Smith is ready to forge his tools in the fire that is Lawler, whose 12 out of 15 wins have been stoppages or knockouts.

The explosive energy involved in the contest is perfectly summed up by the challenger.

"I don't even know why they got it set for five five-minute rounds. There's definitely no way it's going five rounds," Smith says with a laugh. "They might as well make it no time limit."

Fighting for the EliteXC 185-pound title is Smith's biggest shot yet. It is also his most dangerous opportunity, as proven by Lawler's destruction over Murilo Rua (Pictures) -- a finish so violent it couldn't be drawn in comic books. A dramatic conclusion in this title clash is as close to a guarantee as there is in MMA.

And that's why Smith wants to be there in the cage: to prove he is made of steel, the material he labored over, the characteristics he may have absorbed into his own chemical makeup.

Millions will be watching on CBS. Lawler wears the title, but Saturday night Smith will try to take it -- iron in his past, gold potentially in his future.

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