Glancing at a synopsis of his MMA career up to this point, one might assume that Devin Smyth is still getting his feet wet in the sport. He’s just 24-years-old, his professional career began in 2016, and all of his fights have taken place at the regional level.
But unlike most other fighters who get shots at UFC contracts three years into their professional careers, “The Prodigy” is no rookie.
Smyth’s whole life led him to this point. MMA has been his focus since he was 10-years-old, the age in which he first strapped on the gloves. Four years later, he was stepping into a cage across from full-grown adults.
“I was definitely nervous,” Smyth told John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock about his first fight. “I didn’t want to get like manhandled or something, but I had confidence in my coaching.”
His confidence and preparation produced victories, and Smyth quickly progressed in the sport. Starting at age 14 and compiling a 15-0 amateur record, it’s no wonder he dons the nickname “The Prodigy.”
“I’ve been beating people up since I was 14-years-old,” Smyth said. “I was the youngest in the game, in the state doing it, and I continue to do it to this day, so I guess it just stuck, you know. And I liked the name. I even got it tatted on my shin so I never forget where I came from.”
Devin Smyth’s amateur career
Though experience is rarely viewed in a negative light, fighting from such a young age can yield negative results long-term. Bellator champion Rory MacDonald, despite being just 30-years-old, has years of wear and tear on his body after beginning his professional career at the age of 16 and engaging in a number of memorable wars.
Smyth doesn’t see that as an issue for himself.
“I didn’t get hit that much,” Smyth said. “When I started training, I learned how to not get hit before I learned how to hit people… My head movement was really good, and times I did get hit, they were sort of grazing punches and maybe like grazed my top of my head or my chin or something like that.”
Avoiding heavy blows is a critical part of combat sports. It’s what allows athletes like Floyd Mayweather to have lengthy, storied careers.
Still, Smyth feels like he missed out on the experience of going toe-to-toe trading leather at least once as an amateur.
“When I look back on my amateur career, I wish I would’ve gone through a couple of wars as an amateur, so when I turned pro, I could’ve known what that was like,” Smyth said. “It took me a while to adjust to pro fights because I blew through everybody. I think I went out of the first round like one time in my entire amateur career, and that one went to the second round or third round.”
Devin Smyth turns pro
The inexperience of going the distance bit him quicker than he imagined. In his debut as a professional, Smyth went the full 15 minutes and wound up on the losing end of the scorecards for the first time in his career.
“It was definitely humbling,” Smyth said. “I still think to this day I won that fight, but it is what it is. I didn’t fight my best. I wasn’t in shape. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. I didn’t take anything seriously because my head was too big.”
The experience taught Smyth a lesson that many fighters wait years to learn.
“Don’t leave it in the judges’ hands,” he said. “A lot of the times they’ve never fought before. A lot of times they’ve never been in the cage before. A lot of the times they don’t know really what the f**k they’re talking about. They’re just going off criteria or stuff like that. So don’t leave it to the judges. Don’t leave it to people to call a fight who don’t know what they’re doing.”
“The Prodigy” took the lesson to heart. Since falling in his pro debut, he has built a nine-fight winning streak, with only three of his fights going the distance.
A huge opportunity
In his most recent fight in March, Smyth won the Total Warrior Combat middleweight title. Two months later, he would receive a very special call.
His godfather, newly inducted UFC Hall of Famer Rashad Evans, broke the news to Smyth that Dana White planned to bring him on to fight on the third season of Dana White’s Contender Series. The only catch? Smyth had to keep it a secret.
“It was hard not being able to tell nobody,” Smyth said. “I told my mom obviously. I told my mom, and my coach obviously knew. He was on the phone and s**t, but that’s it. I didn’t really tell nobody else, and it was hard, man. Because I just want to let everybody know like, ‘Hah.’ I wanted like to give a middle finger to all the haters, and I wanted to tell everybody that loves me and has always supported me like, this is dope, you know, this is what I want to do.”
The waiting period was painful, but once the news broke, Smyth witnessed the outpouring of support from all different sources.
“When it came out, man, it blew up,” he said. “I was surprised. It was a lot of people that I thought was going to hate on me that didn’t hate… I had a lot of support that came out of Michigan and came out of everywhere.”
Devin Smyth vs. Brok Weaver
Smyth was pitted against Brok Weaver. Weaver was originally set to fight Leon Shahbazyan on the first Contender Series card of the summer, but the fight was canceled after Shahbazyan wasn’t medically cleared.
Matchmakers originally expected to have Smyth compete on August 6, but once Weaver became available, the fight was booked for August 13.
“The Prodigy” likes the matchup. He believes his ability to counterpunch and wrestle will be the key to victory and a UFC deal, but his flexibility as a fighter is where he truly shines.
“I’m very unpredictable, as a lot of people have told me,” Smyth said. “That’s how I like to keep it. I might come out and be a straight wrestler. I might come out and be a kickboxer. I might come out and tear your legs apart like a Muay Thai fighter … Whatever I feel like is most necessary to win the fight, that’s what I’ll do. So has anything changed? No. I’m gonna continue to do me and that’s what’s going to get me my contract.”
For Smyth, the Contender Series fight presents a chance at validation. All of the work he has put in since age 10, all of the rounds he put in at Murcielago MMA with his teammates and coach Joaquin Rodriguez, all of the anticipation for this moment will culminate on Tuesday night.
And while it’d be easy for him to hate Weaver — the man standing across from him, hoping to take away his chance at reaching his dream — Smyth is simply glad to have a willing opponent to make his UFC aspirations possible.
“It’s all respect to him, man. It’s all respect. And this, you know, it ain’t personal. It’s just business,” Smyth said. “I’m sure he’ll be back. I’m sure he’ll be able to fight again and fight on and do what he gotta do. And maybe he’ll get there some other way, but he’s not gonna be able to get there going through me.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.