No one would have blamed Scott Smith if he opted not to give Cung Le an immediate rematch after knocking him out in December. Even the most pitiless of MMA fans would have understood why, and they would have been forced to admit that there was some wisdom in the decision.
Instead, Le (6-1) and Smith (17-6) will meet again in the Strikeforce cage Saturday (Showtime 10 p.m. ET/PT) in San Jose, Calif. The first time they met, Le dominated all but the final few seconds of the fight. Unfortunately for him, it's those few seconds that mattered most, as Smith rallied to floor him in the third with a short left hand before finishing him off with a barrage of right hands to seal the improbable upset victory.
Smith is the kind of fighter who goes into every fight with a lottery ticket in his back pocket. He can knock you out with either hand, at any point in the fight, no matter how much punishment he has to absorb in order to get a good look at your chin.
But the thing about a lottery ticket is, if you hit the jackpot, you don't turn around and buy another ticket six months later. You take your money and run. You quit your job, buy a big house with a built-in movie theater and nightclub, and then you bask in your good fortune.
Unless, that is, you're convinced that you hit it big because of skill instead of luck.
Perhaps no active fighter has had so many of his wins discredited by the "lucky punch" accusation as Smith. Observers said it when he knocked out Pete Sell with a Hail Mary after being hurt by a body shot in 2006. They said it when he dropped Benji Radach to end a fight he'd been losing on the scorecards in April 2009. They certainly said it when he KO'd Le after spending 10 minutes getting knocked around like a Hollywood stunt man in a kung fu movie.
But that makes you wonder -- if it's just dumb luck, how come it keeps happening to him?
Smith's gift isn't simply the ability to put his fist on your chin and make you fall down. At this level, and with four-ounce gloves, just about every fighter can do that. His great strength is that he can do it at any point in the fight, no matter how badly things have gone up until that point.
This is a psychological strength more than a physical one. It requires a certain resiliency of spirit. And, OK, a hard head doesn't hurt either.
But how many times have we seen a fighter get dominated early and turn his focus to self-preservation at the expense of offense? When that happens, you can see it right away in his body language. He knows he's in over his head, and he's just hoping that the end will come without too much embarrassment or pain.
That's a rational reaction. It's human. It's also a state of mind that is totally foreign to Smith. No matter how many times you kick him in the head, he's still standing right in front of you, waiting for that one open look at your chin.
If a fighter can adopt that approach, and if he can actually make it work as well as Smith has (even if he's not doing his looks any favors), that's not luck -- it's stubbornness. It's the place where implacable will meets knockout power. It's Smith's career in a nutshell.
Whether Smith can pull off another knockout against Le in the rematch doesn't change the fact that his first win was every bit as earned and deserved as anyone else's. He may not have been the more technically sound or aesthetically pleasing fighter when they first met, but he was the one still standing by the end, which is all that matters.
To do that in this sport, and to do it as many times as Smith has done it, you need more than just luck. You need an obstinate spirit. You need a mind that won't ever break. You need to like, or at least not really mind, a little bit of pain and suffering.
If a guy can take that difficult path to victory over and over again, he deserves the dignity of his choice. He also deserves to be thought of as good -- not lucky.