Maurice Smith's listed record of 14-14 hardly looks Hall of Fame-worthy. But it's impossible to argue he’s anything but an overall combat sports Hall of Famer and a significant historical MMA figure.
The UFC on Saturday night announced Smith as the second member of its 2017 Hall of Fame class, following the announcement of Urijah Faber. The two, along with a couple of others to be named over the next few weeks, will be inducted on July 6 during International Fight Week in Las Vegas.
Smith was 35 years old, and had what today is listed as a 5-7 MMA record, although nobody looked at win-loss records back on July 27, 1997, when he debuted in the UFC in a championship match in Birmingham, Ala. He was a heavy underdog, although in those days there were no listed odds or widespread gambling on fights, when he faced UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman. Coleman was 6-0 at the time and had destroyed everyone he had faced.
It should be noted at least one, if not more of Smith's so-called MMA losses at the time were actually pro wrestling matches with the RINGS promotion, which did mostly pro wrestling matches and some real matches, on the same shows, for most of its existence until it turned into a totally legitimate competitive group years later. For reasons unclear, many pro wrestling matches of that era are listed as part of older fighters' MMA records.
MMA was a grappler-dominated sport with strikers looked at as flashy but easy meat for the wrestlers and jiu-jitsu stars who dominated the game. However, Smith had already broken the game of grappler domination nine months earlier when he came from behind to knockout Marcus "Conan" Silveira with a head kick in Tulsa, Okla. to win the Extreme Fighting Championship, which at the time was UFC's main competitor. After Smith retained the title with another knockout win over Kazunari Murakami, a fighter who later became a pro wrestling star in Japan, the EFC folded.
Smith was brought to UFC for a battle of champions. Coleman took Smith down right away, as expected, and pounded on him with punches and head-butts (which were still legal at the time), as expected, for nine straight minutes.
In those days, most UFC fights were short, explosive, and went to conclusive finishes. Stamina wasn't something even talked about. And striking credentials weren't taken seriously inside an Octagon.
And the next nine minutes changed all of that.
Smith escaped from the bottom, and the monstrous Coleman was exhausted. Smith picked Coleman apart with punches and low kicks for the rest of the 12-minute regulation time, as well as through two three-minute overtime periods, and scored an easy unanimous decision. While today it's talked about as the night striking beat wrestling for the first time in a championship fight, it was really stamina and game planning that were the key aspects of Smith's win.
Smith vs. Coleman was the MMA match of the year in 1997, as Smith was named Fighter of the Year.
Smith was named an inductee in the Pioneer Wing of the UFC Hall of Fame, which is for fighters who started their pro careers before Nov. 17, 2000, when most of the current unified rules of MMA were adopted.
"It will be an honor to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame and be forever connected to the sport," said the 55-year-old Smith. "I was the first world-class striker to win a UFC title because I worked with the great training partnes to evolve into a well-rounded fighter. I'm proud of the titles I won in MMA, but helping advance the game toward the mixed martial arts of today is my greatest accomplishment in the sport."
The UFC title was Smith's fifth different combat sports world championship. The UFC title followed the EFC title. Preceding that, he had held the World Kickboxing Council (WKC) world light heavyweight championship in kickboxing, the WKA (World Kickboxing Association) world heavyweight championship in kickboxing, a title he held for ten years, and the ISKA (International Sport Karate Association) world heavyweight championship in Muay Thai.
His UFC title came several years after his fighting heyday which was from 1983 to 1992, a period when he went undefeated in kickboxing.
It was his kickboxing fame that brought him to Japan, first in 1983 losing a decision to Don "The Dragon" Wilson in what would be his last loss in that sport until the new generation of kickboxers emerged and he lost a decision to Peter Aerts in 1992.
It was the exposure in Japan that brought him into pro wrestling as an outsider, doing matches at the Tokyo Dome against later MMA pioneers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. When Pancrase, Japan's first MMA organization was formed, Smith knocked out Suzuki on one of the company's earliest shows in a kickboxing rules match, and then lost in a rematch in 1994 under Pancrase rules.
Smith trained at the time at the Lion's Den, the first major U.S. mixed martial arts camp, headed by Ken Shamrock, which also produced early UFC and Japanese stars like Frank Shamrock, Guy Mezger, Jerry Bohlander and Pete Williams.
Smith, Frank Shamrock and Tsuyoshi Kosaka, a Japanese pro wrestler who had a strong judo background and was one of the early Japanese MMA stars, later formed a group called "The Alliance," with the idea it was three fighters from completely different backgrounds who trained each other in their specialties. It was the beginning of well-rounded fighters as most of the early fighters were one sport specialists testing out their sport in the Octagon.
Smith made one successful UFC title defense, beating Tank Abbott with leg kicks, before losing the title via decision to Randy Couture on Dec. 21, 1997, at the Yokohama Arena in Japan. Smith fought regularly through 2000, trading wins and losses, and then did several nostalgia fights from 2007-13 between the ages of 45-51.