Former EliteXC middleweight contender Scott "Hands of Steel" Smith was set to face Cuban Judo Olympian Hector "Shango" Lombard at Elite XC "Night of Champions" on November 8 live on Showtime from the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nevada.
It was supposed to be the last event for Elite XC in 2008 … and it was shaping up to be perhaps the promotion’s best offering to date. Two world title fights were on the line, including a 185-pound showdown between division champion Robbie Lawler and Joey Villasenor and a 160-pound dream match up between Nick Diaz and Eddie Alvarez for the vacant lightweight crown.
Smith had trained hard and was prepared to make the most of the opportunity, until a late night phone call changed his career forever.
"I was hearing rumors and I actually got a call from a guy that works for the UFC and he was like 'Hey, what's going on?' and I was like I don't know, you probably know more than I do. Then my manager called and said it was pretty much a done deal."
Little more than two weeks after its biggest star, Kimbo Slice, lost in just 14 seconds to replacement journeyman Seth Petruzelli in front of 4.5 million people on CBS, Elite XC was forced to close its doors forever.
"When I saw Kimbo lose (to Seth Petruzelli) I thought oh this isn't good for EliteXC, they've got all their eggs in one basket. Then when I saw the controversy I knew it was just a matter of time at that point. We were kind of hoping for the November card just to get one last payday but everybody knew it was inevitable, it was just a matter of when."
That payday was one that not only Smith, but hundreds of other EliteXC employees were probably counting on. What made it even more difficult for Smith was the timing of the collapse. The closer he got to 'Night of Champions,' the more hopeful he became about the event still taking place.
"I've been in camp for over eight weeks and I've been pushing myself hard. It's one thing if [it happens] two months out from a fight, but two weeks? It's devastating. Even if I lost, worst case scenario, (including sponsorship money) I would still be out close to $40,000. Until all the paperwork and everything is done I'm not going to be cleared to fight somewhere else before the end of the year. It's close to the holidays, I got a mortgage to pay, I've got two kids, it's tough."
The company dug a deep $60 million hole of which it was never able to climb out. Obviously, no money — investors who were supposed to keep the company alive at least until the end of the year never materialized — equals no events, especially when there’s not even a pay-per-view (PPV) deal to fall back on.
"It was purely financial." Smith explains. "They had to have funding by a certain time, I believe it was Sunday or Monday night. If they didn't get that funding the next day they were filing for bankruptcy. Everybody pretty much knew they weren't going to get the funding. Supposedly CBS backed out because of the controversy with the [Petruzelli] fight, they were going to buy the company, but I personally think it was because of the whole Kimbo thing. He's not nearly as marketable now that he got exposed. I think they're using the controversy as an excuse. I talked to Showtime and they invested too much money in EliteXC and they had to draw the line and this was the line and they couldn't put another penny into it."
In the end, the talent was there near the top … it just wasn’t enough to compensate for all the other shortcomings and struggles that upstart mixed martial arts promotions face attempting to get off the ground.
Especially one that builds a promotion around a fighter that has never been tested against real competition - something that Smith believes was their downfall from the beginning.
"[Kimbo] was getting a lot of attention. He was definitely worth fighting and putting on cards and promoting, but they were getting too much away from the Robbie Lawlers and the Jake Shields of the company and just focusing too much on Kimbo. I've remained friends with a lot of people from the UFC and they were really upset about [the Kimbo push] calling it a joke. All I can do is support the company I'm working for and hope for the best. I do like Kimbo as a person, he's a great guy. I have no problem with them promoting Kimbo and building him up because he does have potential to be a great fighter but it was [too much, too soon]."
For a company that was plagued with rumors of poor decision making and gross mishandling by its executives, Smith defends the EliteXC management's handling of the fiasco, specifically by Head of Fight Operations Jeremy Lappen.
"Jeremy Lappen actually called me last night. He was very professional, very nice. He apologized for having to cancel the card and I kind of felt bad for the guy, that's a tough phone call to make. (Lappen) said they even offered for upper management not to get a paycheck for this fight to try to make (the November card) happen. I consider Jeremy a friend and I really appreciated that phone call, it was very professional of him."
Despite the financial loss, the sudden end and subsequent unemployment hasn't soured Smith on his experience under the Pro Elite banner. In fact, Smith considers his tenure with EliteXC to be one of the best of his career.
"I'm happy I did it. Everybody from EliteXC treated me great, they took care of me, they paid me well - better than what I was getting at the UFC. I got great exposure, gained some great sponsorship including Affliction which I would have never gotten had I stayed in the UFC. Even how things turned out, I would do the same thing again. I made more money in 2008 then I made - ever."
With the experience behind him, Smith must now concentrate on an uncertain future. While he has been approached by smaller organizations who are interested in his services, Smith still has to wait for the paperwork to be sorted out.
In the interim, he's optimistic that one of the bigger promotions will be ready and waiting for him when that time finally comes.
"The hard thing is I just don't know what's going to happen. All I can do is keep training. And if I've ever said anything bad about Strikeforce or the UFC or Affliction, I take it all back. I love all those guys!"
For more on Scott Smith and the demise of EliteXC, check out his interview on MMAmania's exclusive presentation of Pro MMA Radio by clicking here.