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Cole Smith went from pulling all-nighters to watch Bibiano Fernandes to training with him

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Ottawa-Gagnon vs Smith
Cole Smith (pictured) fights Miles Johns in a bantamweight bout at UFC Vancouver on Saturday
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

A proud native of British Columbia, Cole Smith has bounced all over the province to stay sharp as his MMA career has progressed.

What Smith didn’t know is that before he even started, there was a world class training partner that was less than a two-hour drive away from him.

Smith, who trains primarily at The Sound Martial Arts in Squamish, has put in rounds with bantamweight star and current ONE champion Bibiano Fernandes, who has been a mainstay at Revolution Martial Arts & Fitness in Langley. It was a surreal experience at first for Smith after being a fan of “The Flash” for so long. The 30-year-old recalls having to wait until the wee hours of the morning to follow Fernandes’s exploits over in Japan.

“It’s funny because about 10 years ago I used to stay up all night just to watch the Dream events, Japanese MMA, and I remember watching him live at six in the morning winning the Grand Prix and all that,” Smith recently told MMA Fighting. “Then I remember hearing that he just lives right down the street in Langley and I just thought that was so weird how this guy in Langley who’s from Brazil is fighting in the world stage and winning and dominating. I thought that was pretty cool, but it took me a few years to actually man up and go up and train with him. I have been for the last year or two.

“It’s a great experience, he is so good. I’m not being biased just ‘cause I train with him, but he’s got to be one of the best in the world. That guy slaps submissions on so fast, it’s ridiculous. Fighting him for the first time must be brutal because he takes your back so fast and just chokes the s*it out of you. It sucks.”

As much respect as he has for Fernandes, Smith can at least claim one achievement that Fernandes doesn’t have: A UFC victory. “The Cole Train” made a successful Octagon debut in May, stepping in on short notice for an injured Brian Kelleher to fight Canadian veteran Mitch Gagnon.

Smith (7-0) defeated Gagnon by unanimous decision and afterwards made it clear he wanted to fight in Vancouver, British Columbia, if the UFC was planning to visit the city this year. Shortly after, a card was officially announced for Rogers Arena and Smith was matched up with recent Contender Series contract winner Miles Johns. The two meet in a bantamweight bout this Saturday.

Adding Gagnon to his list of conquests propelled Smith to a new level on the Canadian MMA scene, though he was already fully committed to the fight life. A pro since 2016, Smith has simply made sacrifices in other areas so that he can focus solely on training.

“I’ve been fighting full-time for a long time. I just make it work,” Smith said. “I do whatever I can, I don’t pay phone bills, I don’t have a cell phone, I’ve just been making it work. I teach classes and I do privates, but I haven’t had a full-time job in years and years and years because I’ve been putting all my work and effort into this.

“I’ve just been grinding and grinding for the last 10 years, now that I’m in the UFC I’m financially able to start paying rent and get a cell phone.”

With names like Fernandes, Rory MacDonald, and Sarah Kaufman among others having roots in B.C., Smith sees himself as being a leader for the next wave of fighters to come out of the province (a group that includes teammate Tristan Connelly who got the call this week to fight Michel Pereira as a late replacement on Saturday).

And unlike some of his peers, Smith is eager to take part in the promotional side of things, knowing that representing himself well outside of the cage will only hasten the speed with which he climbs the UFC ranks.

“I love it. Bring it on. Bring the cameras, bring the people, I want to talk to everybody, I want all the interviews, I want it all,” Smith said. “That’s the whole point, that’s what I’m here for, that’s what I’ve been working my ass off for. I feel like you have to enjoy the whole process. You get to the UFC, you don’t want to just fight and get out of there. I want to embrace everything. I like being in front of the camera, I like the interviews, I love it all.”

“I’m being a little more realistic here,” Smith continued, talking about his upcoming career benchmarks. “It would be nice to be top-20 by the end of the year. But in terms of next year, I want to have enough money financially, I can buy my own house and have a life with my girlfriend, and be in the top-10 by the next summer.”