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Smith's journey back to TUF defines redemption

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All it takes is a few minutes with The Ultimate Fighter 25’s Gilbert Smith to realize that he’s one of those glass half-full kind of guys. But recently, in the space of 24 hours, that optimistic nature was threatened, even if only for a moment.

In April 2013, Smith had his one and only UFC fight, losing to Bubba McDaniel on the TUF 17 season finale card. Four years later, he has a philosophical take on the whole experience.

“That was a gift and a curse,” he said. “Obviously, the curse was that I lost that fight to Bubba McDaniel, and when I look back there were ways I could have won. I had my moments and I feel like I mentally broke. And I just wasn’t ready. I went from fighting locally in Colorado Springs to fighting in Mandalay Bay. And there was no middle ground. It was a lot to deal with. But it was a gift because it sent me back to the drawing board and I had to rebuild myself. I can only imagine that if I had won that fight and went back into the UFC, I would have had a worse showing because I really weren’t ready.”

After the fight, Smith was 5-2 as a pro, but still has enough upside that he was optimistic that the call back to the UFC would come after a few wins. And he got more than a few, seven to be exact, but the four losses that were sprinkled in among those victories kept the Colorado Springs product from returning to the Octagon.

Yet just when he thought he would never get another shot, The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption appeared. But he didn’t make the cut for the season that premiered on Wednesday.

“I’m a planning-type person,” he said. “I always have a Plan A and a Plan B and I’m also a workaholic, so I’m always thinking about the next step. So when I got the call that I wasn’t on the show, I called LFA and said I wanted to fight for them the next time they were out in Colorado and have my retirement fight.”

From a second shot at glory to retiring at the age of 35, Smith still loved fighting, but after two consecutive losses in 2016, he didn’t want to begin again.

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“Fighting is my life,” he said. “I train if I have a fight or not and I love it. But one thing I didn’t want to do is start over. I didn’t want to make it to the UFC, get cut, make it to Bellator, get cut and then have to start all over in the lower organizations, fighting studs and making pennies. At that point, I was like, ‘Okay, maybe it’s time for me to move on.’”

Admitting that he was, “Pretty bummed out,” Smith still took himself back to the gym the next day, even getting a cake from one of his students, “For me to eat my worries away.”

Then the phone rang.

“Do you still want it,” asked the TUF 25 producer.

He did. And on Wednesday, Smith won his first fight in the TUF 25 tournament, defeating Seth Baczynski. It was a victory that moved him one step closer to where he always felt he belonged, but in his eyes, “redemption” on the show isn’t what most would define it as.

“People feel like redemption is something like righting a wrong or trying to correct something, and it can mean that for somebody else,” Smith said. “But for me, redemption is nothing more than cementing my legacy, just going out there, living my life and doing the best that I can do. I’m happy, I don’t need to redeem anything. Everything happened for a reason.”

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