On Thursday, April 5, Cincinnati mixed martial artist Chris Smith was killed in a car accident on State Route 73 near Henley, Ohio. A passenger in the car, Dominque Steele, was taken to a local hospital and later airlifted to Cincinnati. His injuries were non-life threatening.
The two men were traveling to West Virginia for Steele's scheduled match on a local MMA fight card. According to the Ohio Highway Patrol, a car making an illegal pass forced oncoming driver Joshua Bach to swerve head-on into Smith's vehicle. The police are still searching for the car that caused the crash.
Two days after the accident, Smith's friends and family met up at his gym, Vision MMA in Cincinnati, to both mourn and celebrate their fallen comrade. It was there that I learned what kind of man Smith truly was. Smith was the heart and soul of the gym and its fight team. Everyone gravitated toward him. He held them all together, and they became a big family.
It was through the conversations that I had about Smith with everyone at Vision MMA that I understood why some people in the UFC refuse to fight their teammates. The men and women of this gym have formed a bond and would never try to take opportunities away from each other. They are there to help one another, and it didn't take long for me to figure out that it was Smith who built that unity in all of them.
"He was the glue that kept everyone together," said teammate Jim Davis. "Sometimes, some of us would bicker back and forth and have our issues with each other, but he always kept us together and kept us as a team."
One thing that Smith's teammates admired about him was his willingness to serve. Smith was well-known for working with local underprivileged kids at Changing Lives Youth Services and at elderly homes in Cincinnati. He even took some of the youth to Vision MMA in hopes of giving them something to do.
"There was this one time he brought in these underprivileged kids, and it kinda backfired," teammate Victor O'Donnell said. "These kids came in, and they thought they were tough. They were cursing everybody, but Chris didn't think about that. He just saw underprivileged kids that needed help."
Smith's impact on the community and in the gym affected his teammates as well. To many, he was like a brother; to others, he became a father figure.
"I'm known for making bad mistakes and bad decisions and he's kinda always been my guide," teammate Chris Curtis said. "He's always saved me from myself and talked me through before going too far. He kinda kept me on that path. I mean, he was my older brother."
Curtis was just one of many people who Smith mentored at Vision MMA. In fact, he'd had a significant impact on the young man he was in the car with on Thursday night.
"You could say that he was a big brother, but I think he was even a dad to the younger guys coming in," teammate Marissa Caldwell said. "And Dom [Steele] especially. He gave Dom a lot of moral guidance in things that he should have been doing. I just think he was what everybody needed him to be, you know?"
There are many people out there who believe mixed martial artists are nothing more than barbarians. However, that's not what I found when I spoke to the fighters at Vision MMA. To the casual local fan, Smith was just a mediocre professional fighter. But to certain people in the Cincinnati community and at Vision MMA, he was an inspiration. And Smith is still an inspiration.
Smith didn't have much money, and he often gave what he had away or used it to help supply his fellow teammates' needs. That's why Vision MMA has started a fund to pay for his funeral. If you wish to help, just click the link here. Eventually, the gym plans to start a scholarship fund in Smith's name to help give local underprivileged kids a chance to succeed.
Vision MMA is also going to step up its service projects. Smith's teammates know that community work is what Smith lived for every day, and they are aiming to follow in his footsteps. Vision MMA was part of Chris Smith's family, and even though he's gone, his team is doing everything it can to preserve his memory.
"When I think of family, I think of unconditional love, and that's what Chris showed everyone," Caldwell said. "Whether he met you that day or if he'd known you for years, Chris showed you unconditional love. He wanted to show you how to be a better person and help you in life."
Now his teammates have vowed to pick up Smith's torch and carry that unconditional love forward. His death may have been tragic, but it has spurred his family at Vision MMA into action. They realize now that if one man can have such a powerful impact on them and the community, then their entire gym can make a real difference in Cincinnati.
Derek Ciapala has been following MMA since the days when Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie fought in the octagon. You can follow him on Twitter @dciapala.
Source: Personal Interviews
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