Most of the guys—and now girls, too—that make it onto The Ultimate Fighter reality show, a program that Zuffa, LLC launched to give newcomers a chance for a UFC contract, are fighters with established records of 10 or more fights who train out of one of the big camps, like The Pit, Jackson’s MMA, American Top Team or Team Quest, among many others. Other smaller camps will occasionally see a few of their guys at least get a shot to make it onto the show, but occasionally a guy will make it in on his own training merit. Gilbert “Jamal” Smith is one of those fighters.

Smith has a solid background in jiu-jitsu, and did some wrestling and boxing as a kid. He began training people in the fighting arts in the United States before heading over to Iraq to train soldiers and civilians. He trained people under the name Victory Top Team, named after Camp Victory, and upon returning to Colorado Springs, Colo., he changed the name of his team to Victory MMA, which is his gym and home camp.

At Victory MMA, Smith has done an excellent job of working with and training people in MMA, but he has also racked up a nice pro record for himself. After amassing a 5-1 mark in just 18 months, he was given a shot on TUF 17. With UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones as his coach, Smith gained some life-changing experience.

Smith (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

“To me, it was really great to get to train, spar and compete against 13 other middleweights,” said Smith in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “You can go to any school in the world and not find 13 guys in your weight class, at your skill level, if not better, all in one spot. That was a big confidence builder for me, and there was a lot of knowledge that I was able to take from that.”

Although Smith made it into the house, he lost his elimination bout to Luke Barnatt, one of the coaches’ favorites to win. However, the UFC liked what he was all about and gave him a chance to prove himself again. On The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale, Smith was given a spot on the main card to face off against fellow TUF 17 contestant—and Jones’ training partner—Robert “Bubba” McDaniel.

In one of the most exciting fights on the card, Smith and McDaniel put on a great show all the way into the third round, until McDaniel pulled off a submission to take the victory. While this loss wasn’t what Smith had hoped for, he definitely learned from it.

“There was some good, there was some bad, you know?” admitted Smith. “The good parts were that I got to experience being on a main card in the UFC. That was a daunting task, believe it or not, at the time. It was so huge, and I don’t think I was as mentally prepared as I could’ve been. It was something that me and no one on my team were really prepared for, especially being on the main card.

“It was a good experience, because next time, when I make it back to the UFC, I will be better prepared for such a situation—main card, prelims, whatever. It was a good fight. We threw a lot into that fight, and people don’t realize everything we did. From the ground game, submissions, to kickboxing and cage work, wrestling, we were just everywhere. Bubba, with all of the experience and the team and coaches he has, it was a big confidence builder for me. I was able to push Bubba and prove that I have a deep skill set.”

It was an amazing performance and both fighters really put on a show. However, as it goes with TUF, those losses can set a fighter back and release is almost guaranteed, and that’s eventually what happened. But, in the valuable experience that Smith gained, one thing that really came shining through is that he needed a coach. Being his own coach worked great for him up until that point, but once on the big stage, that was the biggest hole he had identified in his game.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that when I fought Bubba, I was my own coach,” Smith explained. “I was my own trainer. I was everything. I had people I went to go see, like my jiu-jitsu coach, my boxing coach, but together all-around, I was the man. Nobody came up with strategy. Nobody took care of my training. In my last fight, I missed out on a couple different things. So, I stepped out and talked to coach Marc Montoya and said, ‘I have to give up the reins.’ I had to let somebody else coach me. I couldn’t just coach myself.”

Montoya is the head coach and owner of Factory X Muay Thai in Englewood, Colo. Former TUF contestant and current UFC fighter Chris Camozzi trains out of Montoya’s gym along with a whole stable of other seasoned and up-and-coming professional mixed martial artists. While still calling Victory MMA home, Smith got a different kind of training setup by expanding his camp and giving up control of his coaching.

“Factory X really allowed me to just become a better fighter, being around other competitive guys that have made it to the UFC and Bellator and other big promotions,” Smith elaborated. “A coach like Marc Montoya has allowed me to develop more confidence. I love my team that I have in Colorado Springs. Those guys have always had my back. Factory X just took me to a whole new level. I’m just the best fighter I’ve ever been. I’ll tell you what. If the Gilbert today fought the Gilbert that fought Bubba, he would destroy him. It’s as simple as that.”

Smith (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

Unfortunately for his next opponent, that’s really dangerous news. Smith came onto the TUF scene as a trainer first and a fighter second. Yet he still managed to make a big impact and went into the third round on a UFC main card against a guy that already had 26 fights under his belt and was on a six-fight winning streak.

After getting himself into a position where he is a fighter first, Smith will now face Jason “The Dragon” Lee. On Saturday, July 13, at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver, Smith will be headlining the card against the local favorite, who he has actually faced in the past in a BJJ setting.

Lee, who is 5-3 as a pro, trains out of Grudge Training Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo., home to the likes of UFC vets Brendan Schaub, Shane Carwin and Eliot Marshall. Lee has won in just about every fashion, but has been knocked out three times, with the most recent coming courtesy of Chris Holland, who also happens to be one of Smith’s training partners at Factory X.

Even though he had just come off of the big stage, Smith had no reservations about joining the regional promotion to beginning his climb back up.

“When I got back from fighting Bubba and everything, after I got the official release, there were a lot of promotions that reached out to me, and, to me, Prize Fighting Championship, with Seth Daniels and Fight To Win, they really came out with a genuine plan for what they wanted to do,” Smith explained. “When I looked at the card and what they were willing to compensate me with, it was just a really good situation. It was relatively quick. It takes a couple weeks to negotiate things. But I lucked out, and I’m really happy that I took this.”

Happy to be back in the saddle in just three months, to the day, Smith doesn’t have much to say about his familiar foe.

“I don’t feel anything about Jason Lee,” Smith intimated. “Jason Lee is a body and just another fighter I’m going to have to fight. He’s not somebody I’m overlooking, and he’s not somebody that I’m terrified or afraid of. He’s a fighter that I just have to go out there and be better than him on July 13.

“As far as [the] match-up—and I don’t want to sound cocky, but I’ve got to be realistic and I believe in myself—I believe I beat him everywhere. We’ve been grappling against each other in a tournament before—in a grappling tournament—and I beat him there. He can’t beat me in grappling or jiu-jitsu. That was about three or four years ago, but I’ve gotten better at that and I’m sure he’s gotten better. But, striking-wise, I think I’m more technical and have more variations. With my wrestling, I think I can be a little bit more tricky. Strength-wise, I’ve felt his strength before, and watching his other fights, I don’t think he can totally out-power me. Experience-wise, I’ve been on bigger shows and fought tougher guys. Don’t get me wrong. Jason has fought some tough guys, but I’ve fought guys with a little bit more experience. To me, I think I have a lot more going my way right out of the gate. It’s all about who shows up July 13. I just have to show up.”

Show up and win, that’s all Smith is looking to do. He’s had a taste of the big show and wants more than anything to get back in the minds of the UFC brass. This is not just some pipe dream. Smith is a realistic guy and has taken all the steps to show he’s serious. He got himself a head coach and is getting right back into action with a big future ahead of him. Smith is only 31 years old and knows exactly who he needs to impress.

“It’s simple,” Smith stated. “This fight game is all about winning. People love you when you’re winning. Nobody gives a damn about you when you’re losing. My goal is to fight and to win decisively. Each time I fight, each time I win, I’m going to text Joe Silva and let him know, ‘Hey, I got another one on the books, just in case you need somebody on short notice or you want to give me a second chance.’”

First things first, he has to get back to winning. McDaniel might have been a setback, but as he stated, that was a different Gilbert. The new Gilbert is focused and on plan.

“I want people to know that I sacrifice a lot for this sport. I sacrifice time with my family. You know, I sacrifice having a good time when everybody’s out there partying, drinking, living life. I’m out there training, beating myself up. I want people to realize I’m serious about this. Give me a shot. Believe in me. Don’t write me off because I was on some TV show. At the end of the day, I know what I have to do. I have to prove myself.”

Top Photo: Gilbert “Jamal” Smith (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)