The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced life to slow down in myriad ways, and even high-octane activities such as mixed martial arts (MMA) aren't exempt.
That's what local Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitor Cole Smith has experienced, noting that he's benefitted greatly from the chance to take a step back and approach the sport with a higher-level view.
About 12 years ago I started at a little random gym in Squamish with Scott Strachan at Squamish Martial Arts. He was my first instructor. My career, my life choices, everything depended on this mans character. Was he a dick? Would he make me love or hate BJJ? Clearly, he was awesome because I’ve stuck with it ever since. I then moved onto train with @adamryanmma and Dynamic MMA. Just really beginning my love for the sport he showed me what it was going to take to become a professional athlete, inside and outside of the cage. I can’t thank him enough for giving me my black belt and the trust he has in me. I moved out to Thailand for a few years to train with @musclefussell170 at @teamquestthailand where I was taught the discipline and necessary wrestling techniques that compliments BJJ so nicely. Thank you brother 🙏 Coming back and fourth from Canada and Thailand I was also under third degree black belt @brunobccarvalho at @fairtextrainingcenter. Bruno was more than a coach to the team, he showed in his techniques how patient id have to be to some day be a black belt. You’re the man Bruno. Coming home I fell in love with Gi bjj at @rollacademy with @filipmatosjj, even tho I got my ass kicked there every time, I kept showing up, teaching me that there’s always always always someone bigger and badder then you’ll be. There I finally met @haydenjitsu. His coaching and love for BJJ has taught me to fall back in love with the sport, too slow things down and enjoy the ride. @mmatristan has always been there to watch over everything, my main training partner I can’t thank enough. And of course my brother @smalls00000009 for putting everything together and believing in me from the start, I love you ❤️ - All these men have had a huge impact on my life. They have all taught me valuable lessons that I one day will teach my sons. BJJ is an amazing sport, and you meet amazing people. I’m just glad I got the opportunity to meet some of them. - - - Now @mmatristan isn’t the only shitty black belt in the city, you guys got one more! - -THANK YOU TOO ALL MY TRAINING PARTNERS OVER THE LAST 12 YEARS! Love you all ! ❤️ - @iridiumsportsagency - #BJJ #🇧🇷 #BJJblackbelt
Though in the early weeks of the pandemic, he still trained regularly with brother and coach Kasey, Smith also delved into studying the intricacies of martial arts.
"I was forced to stay home and study, watch video after video and do techniques and drills over and over again," Smith said. "My old schedule was driving to Langley twice a week, driving to North Van once a week, driving to Richmond once a week and just grinding and grinding.
"I wasn't really sitting down and learning.
"It really slowed things down. I wasn't just beating up my body and sparring hard and going home."
By placing drills in context, the 31-year-old Smith started to put some additional pieces together. It culminated in a surprise at his home Squamish gym, The Sound, on Saturday, July 18, as he received his jiu-jitsu black belt.
Adam Ryan of Richmond came to present the belt, bringing four other black belts with him.
"It was a big thing having all those black belts come up and give it to me," Smith said. "Adam Ryan is a legitimate black belt and he's pretty known throughout the city, so getting one from him isn't easy."
Smith acknowledged that he wasn't anticipating being up for his black belt for quite some time and was surprised it came this quickly
"I was expecting a black belt, but I was hoping I was going to wait another year. I like to be overqualified rather than under qualified," he said. "I was very, very happy that I got it, but I'd have liked to have waited a little bit longer, if that makes sense."
As well, Smith knows he can't be complacent — just the opposite, in fact — as he has to prove himself worthy of the belt each time out.
"It's just a belt. It doesn't mean too much. I still have to perform at that level," he said.
"I still have to work hard and be there for it."
The Sound owner Jamie O'Connor said Smith is the first athlete to earn his jiu-jitsu black belt starting in Squamish and seeing it all the way through.
"We're hugely proud of that. It's a long process and it's a lot of hard work," he said.
If Smith is home in Squamish and not training in Las Vegas or Thailand, he's a common sight at the gym, O'Connor said.
"He's there pretty much every day," O'Connor said. "It's really quite something. To be able to see someone from a small town like this that basically started cradle to grave to make it to the pinnacle of the sport in mixed martial arts, not to mention getting a black belt in jiu-jitsu along the way, our students at the gym are incredibly fortunate."
Smith started training at Squamish Martial Arts under Master Scot Strachan over a decade ago, saying Strachan went above and beyond to set him on his UFC journey.
"He's a great guy. He's a great instructor," Smith said. "He was always motivating and he saw something in me."
About four years ago, though, Smith branched off to help create The Sound in order to take on high-level training.
As for what's next, Smith said the UFC told him to be ready in August for his next bout, and he's still hoping to make it to Fight Island, the Abu Dhabi location where events are held during the pandemic. It would be Smith's first match since a loss to Miles Johns on Sept. 14, 2019.
"I'm itching to fight here. It's been almost a year," said Smith, who has a 7-1 UFC record. "I'm ready to get in there again."
Smith adds that he appreciates the love and support he gets from Squamish and has received throughout his career.
"It feels good to represent Squamish on the big stage and I'm glad to be here," he said.