When Malik ‘FreeSmoke’ Watson-Smith makes his official GLORY Kickboxing debut later this month against fellow Chicago welterweight Richard ‘Maximus’ Abraham, it won’t be his first time in a GLORY ring.
That occasion came last summer, on the GLORY 44 CHICAGO undercard, when he secured a first-round stoppage win by way of leg kicks and thereby caught the attention of the GLORY matchmaking department.
His kicking game is accomplished: Watson-Smith spent over five years living in Thailand and competing in Muay Thai, where kicking is the key point-scoring technique. In an interview last week, Abraham predicted that ‘Free Smoke’ will be relying heavily on that kicking prowess in their co-main event clash at GLORY 50 CHICAGO.
“He would have been right about that, if he was talking about before my last fight!” laughs Watson-Smith. “But I’ve been working a lot with professional boxers and on Dutch-style kickboxing for the last year or so. The emphasis for this fight has been on boxing and you’ll see that.
“Im looking forward to getting in there and showing what I can do. Richard’s a good dude, I like him. He’s one of the name guys in the division and its a good first fight for me to start my GLORY career with and make my own name in this organization.”
Abraham, a born fighter if ever there was one, has also confessed that he is somewhat envious of Watson-Smith’s long sojourn in Thailand, in particular the frequency with which he was able to compete and the amount of training he was able to get out there.
“I moved to Thailand when I was 18,” recalls the 25-year-old Watson-Smith. “I had no responsibilities - no kids, no car payments, nothing like that, so I was able to just do it.
“I lived all over Thailand man - Phuket, Chiang Mai, Isaan, Hua Hin. At one time I didn’t actually live anywhere, me and my buddy were just driving around with our stuff in the car, training and fighting in different locations.
“I speak Thai fluently. About a month after I landed I was living in Isaan province in this village and I just had to start learning it because that’s the jungle up there man, its a really rural province and nobody really speaks any English or anything.
“Isaan is where the champions come from - Yodsanklai, Saenchai, Buakaw, all those guys. It’s a hard life up there, not much money in that region, so guys fight their way out of it.”
In Thailand, becoming a Muay Thai fighter is a route out of poverty - or at least, towards some form of income - for many young boys in the poor rural areas. To be poor in Thailand is to be poor indeed. Isaan in particular is plagued with poverty, hence its reputation as a producer of champions.
There is a long tradition of westerners moving to Thailand and attempting to “live like a Thai” as part of their Muay Thai training. There is an equally long tradition of most of them failing, because it is extremely difficult for the average Westerner to adapt to that living standard.
Watson-Smith isn’t the average Westerner. He stuck it out and lived the same life that his Thai training partners were living, year after year. It could reasonably be assumed that there would be some measure of grudging admiration from the Thai fighters for a display of such self-discipline.
That assumption would be wrong.
“They thought I was crazy!” laughs Watson-Smith. “They were like, ‘What are you doing?! Go home and go to school!’ They said ‘If I was from the USA like you, I would never fight Muay Thai! I would go to school and be a doctor!’
“I was like, well, some people are born to heal people and others are born to break them, and I am one of the latter. We all have different callings in life!”
After spending years as an honorary Thai, Watson-Smith is now back in his home city and preparing to make his official GLORY debut on home soil. His journey started in Chicago when his father, a martial arts practitioner himself, brought him to the dojo as a four-year-old. Now, twenty-one years later, it brings him full circle, for the most important fight of his life to date.
GLORY 50 CHICAGO takes place Friday, February 16 at the UIC Chicago in Chicago, Illinois.
The card is headlined by welterweight champion Murthel Groenhart defending his title against Harut Grigorian. This rematch follows their highly publicized encounter last year, which ended with Groenhart scoring the most controversial knockout in GLORY history.
GLORY 50 Chicago will be carried live on ESPN3 at 11 p.m. ET / 8 p.m. PT on Friday, Feb. 16, with a replay on ESPN2 at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 18.