Staff. Sgt. Colton Smith, top, serves as chief combatives instructor at III Corps and Fort Hood, Texas. (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
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Less than five years after volunteering on a whim for a mixed martial arts fight, Army Staff Sgt. Colton Smith is one of 16 men vying for a contract with the sport's top promotion.
Smith, a two-time Iraq veteran, defeated the 8-0 Jesse Barrett in a two-round decision to land a spot on the new season of "The Ultimate Fighter," airing Friday nights on FX. The winner, to be determined in a live fight Dec. 15, will win a three-year contract with Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"It's a dream come true," Smith said. "I want to reach the pinnacle of my fight career, and the pinnacle is to be in the UFC."
Smith isn't allowed to say how he did but described the experience as "phenomenal."
"I learned a lot about myself as a fighter and as a person, and I networked with a lot of people," he said. "It's huge notoriety for you as a fighter and as an athlete."
The 25-year-old is an infantryman by trade and has earned the Ranger, Sapper and Airborne tabs. He now serves as chief combatives instructor at III Corps and Fort Hood, Texas.
The Ankeny, Iowa, native began wrestling at age 4 but didn't discover MMA until 2008.
"I was at a weigh-in and someone didn't make weight, and they asked if there were any 185-pound fighters in the crowd," Smith said.
Seven days off his second Iraq tour, he raised his hand. "My dad and I were sitting there eating a burger and drinking a beer, and he said, ‘How about you?'" Smith said. "I said, ‘Screw it. I wrestled. I can do it.'"
The next day, Smith knocked out his opponent 52 seconds into the first round.
"After that win, I got hooked, and it was like wildfire for me," he said. "I trained every day."
The young husband and father trains at Matt Larsen's Combat Fitness Center in Killeen, just outside Fort Hood, Texas.
Smith is an intense and fast-paced fighter, said Kris Perkins, III Corps and Fort Hood's director of combatives.
Having him on "The Ultimate Fighter" is good for the Army, Perkins said.
"You're going to get to see what a really good soldier is like," Perkins said. "[Smith] is the kind of staff sergeant I'd want being responsible for my son."
"The Ultimate Fighter," in its 16th season, puts 16 unsigned fighters in a house for six weeks to duke it out in a tournament format. Smith applied in November — one of 5,000 — and was among the 500 invited to try out.
The contestants were cut off from the outside world during filming, which wrapped in mid-September.
"It's a $5 million mansion in Vegas — no TV, no Internet. The only time you get to leave the house is in a blacked-out van to training and back," he said.
"You're very secluded, [but] you've got the best food in the world, the best training in the world, and you live in a house with 15 other dudes who want to beat your ass."
Smith credits his Army training for helping him through the six weeks.
"I knew I had the advantage, and I thrived on that because of my prior experience in the military," he said. "I expected loneliness, being away from my family, but I knew I was stronger mentally than 99 percent of the guys in the house."
The fighters were allowed to train in the gym for only two hours a day, so to pass the time, Smith trained on his own.
"I ran, I did pushups, I did situps — the whole Army workout thing — in the yard," he said.
Smith used up almost all of his personal leave to participate in the show but said he has no regrets, regardless of the outcome.
"You can be an active-duty soldier and do your job efficiently, as well as chase your dreams as an athlete," he said. "Whenever I fight, I fight for our brothers and sisters in arms who are overseas."
As for the future, Smith, whose enlistment is up in 2014, said he'd like to stay in uniform.
"If the Army continues to support me in my fight career, as well as my career as a soldier, yes, I'd like to stay," he said.