Devonte Smith knew the time had come. To quit his job as a truck driver in Cleveland delivering construction material. To stop bouncing around random gyms with sparring partners that were “scared to go against me.” To focus all of his energy on pursuing his dream of becoming a top UFC fighter.
He had his mind set on joining “Factory X” in Colorado, a place with top-tier teammates and a respected coach in Marc Montoya.
The only problem? He couldn’t afford the flight and expenses for staying out there.
Smith had no choice last year but to empty his 401K account to make it a reality. But one of the toughest decisions of his life ended up being one of the best.
“When I came out here, there were people even smaller than me who I would hit and they wouldn’t back down. I love the competition here,” Smith said. “My opponent [at UFC 234] is not like my teammates. I work with nothing but elite. I have a great coaching staff.
“Every day I learn something new. Every day something clicks. It’s a constant growth. I was blessed to have the opportunity to come out here.”
Smith (9-1) believes the difficult choice of going into his hard-earned savings and joining Factory X paved the way to where he is now: headlining the main preliminary card on ESPN against Dong Hyun Ma (16-8-3) at UFC 234 on Saturday in Melbourne, Australia.
Legendary UFC middleweight Anderson Silva will take on Israel Adesanya just a few fights after Smith. Silva, who reigned atop the division for a UFC-record 2,457 days, was one of Smith’s idols growing up. When “The Spider” lost to Chris Weidman at UFC 162 in 2013 — his first loss in seven years — Smith nearly cried.
“My heart sunk down to my stomach,” Smith says. “That s— hurt.”
Flash forward to this weekend and Smith is competing on the same card as Silva. It’s surreal for the 25-year-old. That fact alone reassures Smith that his sacrifices have been worth it. He just needs to keep pushing forward and not get complacent.
“There’s a TV in the back so when [Silva is] hitting pads or taking his 30-second break and looks up and sees me, I can’t wait,” Smith says. “It’s a big step up. I’m just excited.”
He is expecting an even more raucous scene than at his UFC debut in November. “The Denver fight, there were some bodies there and it got loud,” he recalls. “But by the time the PPV comes, it’s going to be filled. I cannot wait to hear the rumble of everybody screaming. I got goosebumps just thinking about it.”
When asked about the matchup with Ma on Saturday, Smith says his opponent has the tendency to be a brawler. A guy who is willing to go in and fight.
If both fighters let loose in the Octagon and continually trade shots, fans are in for an offensive treat. Smith, however, has other plans.
“I’m not a brawler,” Smith says. “I like to get in and get out with the win. I don’t like to stand there and bang and get tired.
“I’m not going to go out there and say, ‘I’m going to stand right here and just go at it.’ Then it’s a 50-50 and you’re getting hit with stupid s— you shouldn’t be getting hit with. If he wants to brawl, he’s going to be brawling by himself.”
That isn’t to say fans won’t be entertained. Of Smith’s nine wins, eight have come by either knockout or TKO. When he competed on Dana White’s Contender Series against Joseph Lowry last August — hoping for a contract from the promotion — he was pressed up against the fence midway through the first round. Smith landed powerful elbows to Lowry’s head, sending him to the ground and ending the bout.
Then, in his UFC debut, Smith knocked out Julian Erosa 46 seconds into the November matchup. After one of his lightning-quick jabs forced his opponent to the mat , Smith finished with hard punches from above.
Could that streak of first-round stoppages continue on Saturday?
“It’s all about keeping it simple,” Smith says. “[Ma] comes to fight. But he’s just another obstacle. Another person in my way that I will move.”