Everybody wants a home—especially athletes. In some professional sports, athletes may find a big payday resulting from free agency, but, at the end of the day, if they have nowhere to play, they receive no pay. That notion sounds very cut and dry, but there are different levels to it. If they’re going to play, it needs to be in the right organizations.

There aren’t a lot of NFL free agents looking to play in some arena league, just as very few MLB players are looking to drop to the minors. The same goes for professional mixed martial artists. MMA, though, is a bit different than the other mainstream sports, because some of the lesser-known promotions can be as good, if not better, for a fighter than being in the big show. Some of the best examples lie in the ranks of past contestants of The Ultimate Fighter reality show.

Great fighters like Sam Alvey, Joseph Henle and Josh Burkman made appearances on TUF, didn’t make it to the finals and, in one respect or another, were eventually released from the UFC. This doesn’t mean that they don’t belong in a top organization, which is where promotions like Maximum Fighting Championship, World Series of Fighting and Bellator come in. The nice thing about these options is that they bring in top talent, have a decent amount of marketing dollars, air the events live on television, and the top fighters in these promotions can make equal to or more money than they can in the Octagon.

Recently, Gilbert “Jamal” Smith, a contestant from the 17th season of TUF, was without a home. After losing to odds-on favorite Luke Barnatt in the elimination round, Smith was brought back by the UFC to fight a teammate from the show, Robert “Bubba” McDaniel, in the season finale. Smith lost that fight via third-round submission and was subsequently released from the promotion. Getting right back in action, he recovered with wins over highly respected regional competitors Jason Lee and Donnie Liles, bringing his 2013 record to 2-1. Then, the wait set in.

Smith’s fight against Liles was in September, but it wasn’t until late November that he finally found a home, and a great one at that. Right around Thanksgiving, the Colorado-based fighter signed a three-fight deal as a welterweight with MFC, a Canadian-based promotion run by the Pavelich family. Smith couldn’t have been more relieved.

“It feels good to finally have a home and quit searching for fights and dealing with other promotions,” said Smith in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “It feels good to be settled.”

MFC has a roster of very talented fighters and has been putting on some amazing shows. Smith will be joining top fighters like Henle, Alvey, Anthony Birchak and rising prospect Jason South in the promotion, and he’s very comfortable with the idea of dropping from middleweight to welterweight, a 15-pound cut.

“I really think it’s good for my career,” Smith intimated. “I think I’ll be able to perform a lot better. It’s taken some sacrifice, but that’s the name of the game.”

Weight cuts have offered a mixed bag of tricks in pro MMA. Some guys make big cuts fairly easily, but others have missed weight while only dropping 10 to 15 pounds. Smith was walking around well over 200 pounds as a middleweight, but after signing the deal, he knew he had to do things right. His first fight is set for Friday night, less than eight weeks after entering the promotion, so he wasted no time getting his body ready.

“My first goal was to get close to 190 [pounds] and walk around at 190, over four weeks, up to about two weeks out,” explained the Coloradan. “I’m right at 190 now, so I’m really doing better than I thought I was going to be doing. The only thing I changed is that I really upticked my cardio, so I’m running a lot more. I’m running so much, and I’m not lifting as much, which is good. Me lifting will just bulk me up. I’m doing a lot more cardio work, a lot more road work, and I definitely cleaned up my diet.

“My body is so used to certain things that I had to do it in phases, just break it down. Now that I hit 190, my next goal is to hit 185 or below about two weeks out. Then, I have two weeks to cut the last 10 or 15 pounds. I can do a slow cut, and my body is adjusting to the weight losses.”

There are fighters in the UFC that don’t even take their weight cuts seriously, and in smaller, regional promotions, opponents are often holding their breath during weigh-ins, just hoping the other guy made it. For Smith, no matter how much weight he needs to cut, he will get there, because he is a true professional, and that’s what pros do.

Smith’s last fight against Liles was a barnburner, but Smith controlled the action for the majority of the fight. It was a pretty dominant performance for a short-notice fight against one of Colorado’s best middleweights.

“I took that fight last minute, about two to three weeks out,” Smith stated. “I actually didn’t even have a game plan—just go in there and fight. My goal was to be the better athlete and to be the better fighter, and I was able to accomplish that.

“As for things I can take away from that fight, there were some mistakes on my part that I made. When I dropped him with a body kick, I should’ve went in and finished him. I actually allowed him to recover. He was able to grab my gloves and slow me down. Those things won’t happen again. If I get somebody hurt or I see an opening, I’m going to get the finish. Besides that, I think I did everything well. It was actually good to go three rounds against somebody as experienced as Donnie Liles. It tested out my cardio, my endurance and my intestinal fortitude.”

Smith is a very seasoned pro, as well as an instructor, so he is very good at identifying flaws and capitalizing on them going forward. This will come in handy against his next opponent, Jason South. South is a BJJ expert who trains out of The Pit Elevated on the other side of the Rocky Mountains in Orem, Utah. He is 10-1 as a pro, with his sole loss coming in the MFC middleweight championship fight in October against Alvey.

South’s first 10 fights ended in nine submissions and one TKO. His BJJ gym is Unified BJJ, where he currently holds the rank of brown belt. He has competed in many grappling tournaments, in addition to his MMA career. Prior to South’s MFC debut against Alvey, all of his fights had taken place inside Utah.

“He’s very similar to Donnie Liles, because Liles was also a really good grappler,” explained Smith. “He definitely has a really good record. I know he’s coming off a loss, and I think he’s making his 170 debut, too. I don’t know too much about him. I checked out his style, and he seems to have a quiet style. He throws a lot of kicks and stuff like that. He probably has some good boxing. Truth is, if you are 10-1, you’re a good fighter, so he’s probably pretty much well-rounded, doing everything relatively well. I do understand he’s got grappling skills. He’s a brown belt, I’m a brown belt. So, he’s got good skills on the ground, and we’re going to see who’s the better person.”

Smith knows a little bit about South, but it’s not his opponent that he’s focused on. His primary focus is to be the best all-around fighter that he can be.

“I keep all my fights relatively simple, man,” Smith elaborated. “My goal is to punch the guy more times than he punches me. I never really have a true game plan. I always think I’m going to go in there and be the better athlete and be the faster, stronger, more agile guy. I have my techniques dialed in.

“I don’t think that he’s going to have the ability to stand up with me, and, truth is, even if he is good on the ground, I don’t think he has the ability to take me down. I think my wrestling is good—my wrestling takedown defense is really good—so, if the fight goes to the ground, it’s going to be on my account. It’s going to be because I want to take it to the ground, and from there, I’m going to dictate the pace, be heavy on top and control the different positions. I plan to beat him everywhere. I know he’s a really good guy, so I have to be very articulate about my movements, but I believe I have the ability to beat him.”

Smith may have gotten knocked out of the TUF competition fairly early, but his confidence does not go unwarranted. After the TUF 17 Finale, he knew he needed to expand on his coaching staff. Smith already had great boxing and BJJ coaches in Carlos Ibarra and Curtis Hill, respectively, but he had been his own head coach for a long time. Something needed to change. So, last summer, he added Marc Montoya, owner and head coach at Factory X Muay Thai in Littleton, Colo., to his coaching staff.

“I think my time at Factory X has really benefited me a lot,” Smith said. “I’ve grown so much. My whole team, together, is just awesome. I just have a really strong team. I’ve also got my own team [at Victory MMA], my own guys, and we push hard every day. I feel like I’m surrounded by the best.”

Smith already has a great team, and now he has a great home at MFC, too.

“I have three fights with this great promotion, and I plan to knock out all three fights this year,” Smith stated. “I think my next fight after this will be in April or May, and I hope to have the next one in September. As far as going for a belt, everybody wants to be a champion, and so do I, but my goal is to go out there and fight, and do whatever the promotion wants me to do. My goal is to go out there and win three fights.”

Three wins would be a great way to kick off 2014, but, as with any other professional, it’s one fight at a time, and Smith’s next fight is against South in his welterweight debut this Friday night at the Northlands Expo Center in Edmonton, Alberta for MFC 39: No Remorse. Ready to make a big splash in his new promotion, Smith knows fans are in for some awesome MMA entertainment.

“I’m always about having fun. I think this fight is going to be a great fight. It’s going to be an awesome night. This fight is for the fans. You have two tough guys headed up to Canada—my first time in Canada—and we’re going to go to war, man.”

Smith would like to thank all of his coaches, training partners and gyms, including Castle Rock BJJ, Factory X Muay Thai, Victory MMA, Curtis Hill, Carlos Ibarra, and Marc Montoya; his sponsors Chirocare, including David Lauritzen, Kineo Fit, CENergy, Rocky Mountain Rehabilitation, including Jeremy Snyder, and Panino’s Restaurant, including A.J. Frasca; Mark Pavelich and all of the staff at Maximum Fighting Championship for giving him a shot; and, as always, his wife and kids for standing behind him. Follow Gilbert on Twitter: @JamalSmithMMA