He would go on to become the Arturo Gatti of mixed martial arts (MMA), but at the time, Scott Smith was pretty much just scaring the hell out of traffic.
It is early Oct. 2005, and the sounds are unmistakably those of a man well equipped for violence.
Pop! Pop-pop-pop! Standing in the middle of a huge church lawn in Roseville, Calif., abutting a major street filled with evening traffic, trainer Dave Marinoble is taking Smith through a final, grueling workout before the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) Light Heavyweight tournament. Smith bashes out a seemingly endless string of combinations on the mitts, till the point of exhaustion.
Then, he turns and busts out a brutal wind sprint to the edge of the lawn and back.
I wonder what the people in the idling vehicles must think as they see the shirtless Smith speeding toward them, some guy in flamed-up boxing gloves at a dead run, before he touches the sidewalk with his foot and speeds back to Marinoble for more tortuous pad work.
"Good god. I hope he really isn't running at us. I pray that he turns around."
For the motorists' sake, Smith did.
"Hands of Steel" keeps blasting the mitts, then busting out more sprints. Each time he appears as though he's about to drop from exhaustion, he gets another surge of energy, and the mitts suffer audibly. You can hear the impacts from fifty yards away. He is hungry to make his mark in the tournament, as the opportunity is simply too big to leave any stone unturned.
Entered as a dark horse into the WEC tournament, Smith wasn't as well known as the other three competitors. But he broke into the big time with a kind of high-octane violence that makes for instant appeal.
Knocking out Tim McKenzie and late substitute Tait Fletcher, Smith fought tournament favorite Justin Levens after Levens was unable to meet him in the finals, scoring an impressive first-round stoppage after a lively back-and-forth battle. It was then that he began building his reputation as a guy who was most dangerous when the more he was hurt.
That's how I want to remember Smith, a hungry, capable and eminently committed fighter who really did live and die by the sword that carried him to many a thrilling comeback victory. I don't want to have any more memories like those of Smith's recent fights, where it's obvious he's on the downside of his career and putting his health further at risk by competing.
After losing in Saturday night's Strikeforce card to Lumumba Sayers via first-round submission, Smith's defeat was his fifth in his last six fights. A two-bout foray to Welterweight saw him terribly sapped making the 170-pound limit, as he absorbed a horrific knockout loss to Paul Daley followed by a listless decision loss to Tarec Saffiedine.
Thrilling knockout wins over Pete Sell, Benji Radach and Cung Le put Smith in rare territory as one of the most dramatic comeback artists the game has ever known. Those three fights had a common theme: Smith in dire trouble, getting pounded, seemingly on the brink of disaster, only to roar back with the kind of comeback knockout that makes an indelible mark with fans. It doesn't matter that rematches with Le and Robbie Lawler, whom Smith had a technical draw with, were brutal one-sided defeats. There was always an element of sudden danger with Smith, and it made for great fights.
It's cliche to call it the "Eye of the Tiger," a la Rocky III, but that sequence of Smith hitting the pads was what convinced me that he was destined for a bigger stage. There are some fighters who just exude a primordial vibe, that they will literally have to be destroyed to be beaten, and will wage one hell of a battle before being sufficiently broken. The problem is, the very source of will and commitment is what makes it incredibly hard for them to stop once they can't compete safely against given opposition. And with the long-term health risks of concussions now emerging as a huge concern for athletes in impact sports, it's as much about their personal health as it is doing what is "right" for the sport's image.
Fast-forward to June 7, 2009.
Along with several other MMA media, we are milling about in a Sacramento hotel after the WEC, where Mike Brown has defended his title in a five-round decision over Urijah Faber. A throng of fighters and assorted fight game handlers move through the lobby as video interviews are shot and everyone talks shop. Sitting in a chair is Smith, who, the night before, took a frightful beating from Nick Diaz in Strikeforce. The two-round bout was ended via rear-naked choke but that was merely academic, as Diaz landed seemingly endless waves of punches off Smith's head during the violent brawl.
I say hello. Scotty, looking like he's just been pulled from a car wreck, has a torrent of welts and bruises on his skull. Low moans drift from his mouth as he seemingly fades in and out of consciousness. He's barely cognizant and doesn't recognize me, despite the fact that we've done several interviews and spoken on numerous occasions. He's one of the nicest fighters in the sport, an easy guy to talk to who is a refreshing interview with his blend of humility and candor.
I'm starting to wonder who the hell took him down here and parked him in a chair, and this is a full day after the fight. Is this the norm, I wonder? Are fighters merely to be placed in there for our entertainment, and then, once they're no longer capable of supplying it, discarded as chattel? Who the hell took him down here when we should be seeing a doctor, or be given treatment for the obvious concussion he's sustained? What's as disturbing as his obviously dire physical situation is the fact that everyone in the room doesn't seem to notice.
We make nonsensical small talk, with Scotty barely able to string together coherent sentences. It is too painful to endure for both of us, and I wonder if my years of covering boxing and then leaving it for the "safer" sport of MMA was just a well-crafted illusion to justify its own ends. Ashamedly, I, too adhere to the "code" and don't suggest to someone that maybe Scotty needs some help. I move along and talk to Brown instead, who is jazzed at beating Faber for the second time. Another fighter enjoying the view from the high side of the mountain.
Ironically, Brown, who cemented his claim as the world's top featherweight on that night, would endure a rough patch immediately following the Faber rematch. Decimated by Jose Aldo in his next bout, he's been 3-3 since that night. Time at the top of the game is a fleeting thing.
Since then, it didn't get any easier for Smith, whose slide in recent bouts is a stark reminder of what fighters face on the downside. At some point, over a long enough timeline, all of them face a crossroads; meanwhile, promotions don't do themselves any favors in letting them continue when they're unable to do so safely.