Cole Smith and Hunter Azure are in a similar boat as they sail into Las Vegas for their matchup Saturday night.
Canada’s Smith (7-1) and the United States’ Azure (8-1) will both look to bounce back from their respective first career losses when they meet in a bantamweight bout at UFC on ESPN+ 34.
Smith’s last outing in the cage was a split decision loss to Miles Johns at UFC Vancouver last September, which was being held at Rogers Arena, less than one hour away from his hometown of Squamish, B.C.
Smith, 31, said he didn’t perform to the best of his ability that night, which he said was largely due to being too caught up in the moment.
“That last fight, there was a lot on me. There was a lot of pressure; it was my second fight in the UFC, I was fighting in Rogers Arena, I was representing Canada, and just had so many people messaging me,” said Smith in an interview with MMA Empire.
“I was just in my own head a bit too much, and you could easily tell in the fight. I was rushing things; I was just looking for the finish right away. I didn’t enjoy the fight. I didn’t lose to Miles because he was better than me. I lost because I just went out and lost; I didn’t fight to the best of my abilities.”
Azure, 28, enters Saturday’s contest coming off a second round knockout loss at the hands of Brian Kelleher at UFC Jacksonville.
Despite tasting defeat for the first time since his amateur career in 2014, Azure said the loss was a strong learning experience for him, and one that has made him a better fighter overall.
“I felt great in there and put on a good performance, but, in this sport, one little slip up can cost you your night,” said Azure in an interview with MMA Empire.
“The main thing, I just took experience from that fight. It’s knowing I can’t focus just on my hands or just wrestling. I have to be well-rounded, use all aspects of my game, and just let that setup everything.”
No big deal for Smith
With the exception of a few rarities, such as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Israel Adesanya, undefeated records are difficult to maintain at the highest level of the sport.
While the loss itself was hard to swallow, Smith said he’s not caught up in the thought of no longer being undefeated.
“A loss is a loss, it’s no big deal. All the best fighters in the world have a loss, except for Khabib,” said Smith.
“I feel like people put a lot of pressure on the undefeated, but everyone loses. I’m early in my career, that was my eighth pro fight, so it’s no big deal.”
Throughout his MMA career, Smith has proven to be a threat wherever the fight goes, with three submission wins, another via knockout, and several dominant decision victories.
Smith said he respects the skill-set Azure brings to the cage, but believes he’s the more well-rounded fighter between the two of them.
“I think I have a few more tools than he does. He does throw kicks, he does a lot of that stuff, but he doesn’t do it that well. But he does throw his hands very well, and he’s obviously a good wrestler,” said Smith
“I just think I’m going to be a little taller and longer, and be able to use my range a little better.”
Since signing with the UFC in early 2019, Smith’s hometown of Squamish, as well as nearby Vancouver, have garnered plenty more attention from the UFC. Shortly after Smith’s signing, his teammate, Tristan Connelly, also earned the UFC call, while two of his other training partners, Jamey-Lyn Horth Wessels and Achilles Estremadura, are set to make their DWCS debuts in a few weeks time.
Smith said the intensity and motivation levels in the gym have never been higher, and it’s nice to see more of his teammates being noticed now.
“Once I got in, people really saw that it was possible because I spend so much of my time at all the local gyms here, whereas some of the other guys from here who have made it to the UFC spent a lot of time in different countries at different gyms,” said Smith.
“Once I made it, I think everyone just realized they have a chance here. The motivation and the training has been lifted up for everybody, and it’s been great for everybody.”
Azure feeling extra motivation
Fighting for the top promotion in the world against the best fighters in the world, Azure said he doesn’t need any help getting motivated for fight night.
But coming off his first loss since 2014, Azure said he feels an extra boost of motivation this time around.
“It’s put that extra drive in me,” said Azure.
“A loss is a loss; it’s part of the sport. Some people deal with it well, and some people don’t.”
This will be Azure’s second time competing in the UFC since they began running events with no fans in attendance due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Having already been through the increased health and safety protocols, as well as the no-crowd experience, Azure said he feels more of a sense of comfort this time around.
“I just kind of showed up to that last fight, went with it, and see what happens. This time, I know the situation and they take care of us pretty well,” said Azure.
“We have the UFC Performance Institute and the UFC Apex to workout in this time, so we’ll have a lot more things to do here in Vegas, compared to Florida.”
Much like Smith, Azure has proven to be a well-rounded force inside the cage with three victories by knockout, one by submission, and the rest via decision.
Heading into Saturday night, Azure said he’s confident he can win the fight anyway he pleases, and feels he’s better than Smith everywhere.
“I feel like I have the edge in all areas of this fight. I’m pretty confident in what I’ve been working on, I’ve been growing as a mixed martial artist, and getting better everywhere,” said Azure.
“Not taking anything away from him, but looking at his last two fights, I feel I have the edge over him in all aspects.”
“I’d like to thank the town of Squamish, Sunny Chiba’s, and Allen Golaiy at True Grit Drywall.” Follow Smith on social media: FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM
“I’d like to thank my team at Fight Ready for having me prepared for this.” Follow Azure on social media: FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM