The 16th installment of the UFC’s famed reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, may not have received the same number of viewers of seasons past, but the show’s winner, Colton Smith, is out to prove that he’s just as worthy of a place in the Octagon as anyone else on the roster. That is, once he realizes what he has accomplished.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Smith said with a laugh in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner.

The Army veteran dominated the show’s final bout, earning a lopsided win over fellow finalist Mike Ricci at The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale on Dec. 15 in Las Vegas. Although the 25-year-old was confident he’d come out with a victory, he didn’t think it would come in the manner that it did.

“People said it was a classic striker versus grappler, and I knew my wrestling and pressure would definitely beat him,” declared Smith. “However, I did not expect to dominate him. I expected him to stuff a couple takedowns and for me to have to utilize my striking. I was definitely prepared for that; it didn’t happen.”

The key to Smith’s victory was exploiting a glaring weakness in Ricci’s game—takedown defense. The Team Nelson fighter saw the flaw in his opponent’s attack while on the FX-broadcast series.

Smith (R) works to choke Ricci (Tracy Lee/Yahoo! Sports)

“The biggest thing is that he always had a really wide stance,” Smith said of his castmate. “I didn’t give him a chance to set his feet and move. I came in and pressed him against the fence and you saw what happened.”

Despite the impressive performance, Smith feels like he could have done more. After opening both his amateur and professional career with stoppage after stoppage, Smith won by decision in every fight on the reality show.

“I was beginning to think I was in a slump,” he explained. “I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t finishing fights. Even in my amateur fights, I had finished everybody in the first round. I go to all these grappling tournaments and beat high-level dudes, but I couldn’t get Ricci. I had his back the whole time, but instead of transitioning to mount and raining down punches, I kept going for that choke.

“I got a ‘W’ but I’m not happy with my performance. I would’ve liked to finish him or at least bloody him up a bit.”

One of the factors in Smith’s streak of going to the scorecards was the reality show itself. While he managed to come out on top, the enormity of the situation threw Smith off his game at first.

“Every time you fight in the house, it’s weird,” he said. “Your vision is different, your depth perception is bad. I got caught a couple of times in the [Eddy] Ellis fight because my chin was high and my hands were down. I wasn’t really awake in there until the second round. I was beating myself in the first round.”

Once Smith got past the first fight, he relied heavily on his military background to cope with the six-week hell that is the TUF house. And although he conceded cage experience to most of his fellow fighters, his mental toughness gave him an edge.

“Without a doubt, my Army experience gave me an advantage,” said Smith. “Going into the tournament, I knew I was one of the least experienced fighters on the show. I’ve only been a professional for about two years, and I knew that would be a factor against guys like Eddy [Ellis] and Igor [Araujo] that had been pros for a decade.

“I also knew that they were civilians and they had never served in the military. Being away from your family is not something you ever get used to, but it’s something that I’ve had to deal with and cope with at a young age.”

Further helping Smith’s transition from the military to MMA has been Strikeforce veteran and Army Ranger Tim Kennedy. Smith credits Kennedy for a large portion of his success.

“Tim has really played a big brother to me,” explained the Iowa native. “He has shown me what avenues to go through in the military and in the mixed martial arts community. He’s taught me to be smart inside and outside of the cage. He showed me the way a soldier can become a professional fighter. He’s a guy to look up to for a lot of guys in my position.”

Smith (L) exchanges kicks with Ricci (Tracy Lee/Yahoo! Sports)

Unfortunately for Smith, Kennedy wasn’t in his corner during the reality show. Smith won’t make excuses, but having another experienced fighter/veteran in his corner may have helped him avoid a mental gaffe he made during the elimination fights—ducking under a glove touch to secure a takedown.

“To be completely honest with you, it wasn’t done maliciously,” said Smith with obvious remorse. “I didn’t do that to get a one up on my opponent. My nerves were flying a million miles an hour and it felt like an eternity that my hand was up in the air. I closed my eyes and shot a double leg.

“I realized what had happened right away. It’s something that I have to live with, and I feel like a turd for it. It is what it is. I’ll take the blame.”

Now with the title of TUF winner attached to his name, Smith is prepared to put the reality show experience in his rearview mirror. The catch? He needs to determine whether he’ll stay at the weight at which he won the show (170 pounds) or drop to lightweight.

“It’s up in the air right now,” Smith said of his weight class. “I’m talking to my nutritionist. I walk around about 195 [pounds] and I don’t carry a lot of body fat as it is.

“Can I make it? Absolutely. I just have to get my walk around weight down. We’ll see what happens. I’ll either bulk up to stay at 170 or drop down to 155.”

With his weight class still undecided, the fighter is just as uncertain about who his next opponent might be. Even as he soaks in his recent win, the prospect of another challenge has him thinking ahead.

“My wife was already getting on me about my next fight,” he admitted with a laugh. “I’m the new guy, I’ll fight anybody. I’m not here to pick fights. I’m not going to talk shit or fabricate any drama. Whoever Joe Silva and Dana White throw my way, I’m here to fight.

“I just like to fight, I like the competition. I don’t do it to get rich, I do it for the challenge.”

With just four professional bouts on his resume, there are plenty of fights awaiting the Army vet. And no matter which division he chooses, there will be plenty of challenging battles in his future.

Colton would like to thank his coaches, his family, the United States Army and Jesus. Follow him on Twitter: @ColtonSmithMMA

Top Photo: Colton Smith (Tracy Lee/Yahoo! Sports)