For a while, it seemed like no matter what Louis Smolka did, he couldn’t lose.
Four years into his pro MMA career, he’d had a dozen pro fights and just one defeat, a close split-decision call to Chris Cariaso. Outside of that, Smolka was untouchable and one of the most exciting fighters at 125 pounds. He dispatched Richie Vaculik with a side kick that evoked legendary pro wrestler Shawn Michaels, and submitted Paddy Holohan with a rear-naked choke in the Irishman’s hometown of Dublin.
In July 2016, he provided more hometown heartbreak, stopping South Dakota’s own Ben Nguyen in Sioux Falls via second-round TKO. It was Smolka’s fourth consecutive UFC victory, and just three days ahead of his 25th birthday, it seemed a title shot was all but guaranteed for Smolka in the near future.
Then the bumps in the road began to pile up. First, a shocking first-round submission loss to short-notice replacement Brandon Moreno. Then a lopsided unanimous decision loss to Ray Borg, who one year later would receive the championship opportunity that seemed destined for Smolka.
Two more losses on the scorecards completed Smolka’s reversal of fortunes as he went from contender to afterthought, from four up to four down.
From world title contender to free agent.
Smolka was released from his UFC contract last year to little fanfare, which wasn’t surprising given his tumble down the rankings. If you ask him, the descent started long before being upset by Moreno. Smolka had long been losing the battle with the bottle, to the point that even after others recognized he had a drinking problem, the suggestion that he practice moderation would only frustrate him.
And it was easy to keep going when his reckless habit appeared to have no effect on his performance.
“I would think that every time, like every fight and then I would win,” Smolka told MMA Fighting, explaining how absurd it was that he was drinking so heavily during his time with the UFC. “So for a while I was just drinking and still winning. When I was on that four-fight win streak, I was, like, drunk for most of it. I would still win, so when I started losing, I was still trying to rationalize it because I loved drinking.
“I was trying to rationalize the loss as something else other than drinking and then make it about that, because I couldn’t accept the fact that, ‘Okay, you can’t drink now.’ I would freak out taking away the thing that I wanted to use.”
Now 26, Smolka made the decision to cut back on alcohol prior to his last fight in the UFC, which took place in December, and while the outcome didn’t go his way, he committed to making this lifestyle choice a more permanent one.
Smolka is closing in on four months of sobriety ahead of his return to competition on Saturday. He’s fighting Ralph Acosta in a flyweight title bout at a Gladiator Challenge show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Though it’s a far cry from the bright lights of the arenas he’s fought in previously, it’s a fresh start for “Da Last Samurai”, one that seemed unlikely just 12 months ago. In pinpointing when his personal life began to turn around, Smolka recalls a pivotal conversation he had with manager Jason House that took place shortly after Smolka made the move from Hawaii to California to train with Team Oyama.
“You know what really got to me, actually, was when my manager Jason, he told me at one point — I can’t remember exactly what he said — but I was complaining, right when I got up here I wanted to drink. I was like, ‘Dude, I’m bored, I want to drink. Really, there’s nothing to do.’
“And Jason’s like, ‘Well, what do you want to drink for?’
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I’m bored.’
“And he goes, ‘No, I don’t think you should be drinking right now. We have nothing to celebrate. There’s no reason to be drinking.’
“Just the way it was worded, I guess drinking should be a celebration. I’ve been kind of using it to fix problems. It wasn’t a celebration, it was something to kill time, to kill emotion, or to not think about anything. Escape responsibility, essentially. It was just like a way to escape reality for a little bit and that kind of hit me and I realized I’m drinking way more than a pro athlete should. I was like, ‘Oh f**k.’”
Smolka’s fiancee Yumi echoed the same sentiment, pushing him to take care of himself and not end up like so many other athletes who had squandered their potential. It was Yumi who recommended the move to California in the first place, seeing that Smolka needed a change of scenery, and along with their daughter Lucy they made the 2,500-mile move to The Golden State.
“She’s just been really helpful to me to just get my s**t together and take things seriously,” Smolka said of his fiancee. “I need to understand that this is my job and I need to actually do things — like, my body is essentially my way to make money right now and I can’t be an A-class fighter if I’m f**king around. She’s been helpful supporting me, I’m making some changes in my camp and my lifestyle.
“She’s taking care of the kid every night and it’s not easy for her, but she’s helping me through it. So I couldn’t thank her enough, she’s the best.”
But as Smolka cleans up his act, he’s also had to face the sobering reality of no longer competing on the grandest stage in MMA. For him, there’s nothing romantic about building his reputation again from the ground up.
He’s an adult now. A father with bills to pay. A fighter looking to get back to the big show as soon as possible.
“There’s no reason for me to be doing this if I can’t do it in the UFC,” said Smolka. “I need to make cash for my kid. If I’m not making money, forget it, I’m out.”
Whether it’s the UFC or Bellator or another major promotion, Smolka knows winning is the only thing that’s going to get him back in the pay grade he’s aiming for. And while Saturday’s fight may seem minor in comparison to the ones that came before — and the internal battle with temptation that he now understands is part of his life — the stakes are as high as ever for Smolka.
“Now, if anything, there’s more pressure because I need to make some cash,” said Smolka. “Nobody pays anything except the UFC. If you’re not signed to the UFC then what are you doing? You’re not making any money. There’s no reason for you to be doing this, unless your financial future’s in jeopardy, unless you’re doing it on the side because you like it, but for most of us this is how we pay our bills.”