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The first openly gay male fighter

If the huge Tapout tattoo on Shad Smith’s neck didn’t spell it out for you, here it is in writing from the New York Times: he’s gay. Like, really really gay.

I asked Smith why he spent so much of his youth looking for trouble. I expected some sort of clichéd, though possibly true, explanation — a difficult childhood or a Napoleon complex. What I didn’t expect him to say was, “You know, bro, the sexual-preference thing.”

Smith is gay, and I know of no other professional fighter who is openly so. “I was always scared that my mom and dad would find out and wouldn’t like me, and my brothers wouldn’t like me,” he said. “I was petrified, because I didn’t want anyone to find out. And I would try to be the toughest person around. That way, no one would suspect, no one would ever say it, no one would think it.”

Thus begins a nice long 7 page article talking about Shad Smith, felony fights, and the UFC. It’s a great article worth a read if you’ve got 15 minutes. If you don’t and are just interested in reading more about Shad’s sexuality, here’s everything regarding that distilled into one place:

We drove back to Smith’s modest-but-roomy single-story home, which he shares with his boyfriend. Recently, his parents, one of his brothers and a niece moved in — despite Smith’s adolescent fears, his family seems now to fully accept his sexual orientation. We walked into the green-carpeted den, decorated festively with a Christmas tree and other holiday knickknacks. Smith’s father, in pajama bottoms and shirtless, was sitting in an armchair in front of the television, watching football.

Smith’s boyfriend, Jesse Empey, also joined us. Younger than Smith, Empey has an angular face and dark features and looks a little like Keanu Reeves. He’s a makeup artist and used to live in New York, and he met Smith through a mutual friend.

At one pint during the evening I spent with Smith at his home, he asked me if I wanted to play Scrabble. Sure, I said. We moved into the kitchen, and Smith asked his boyfriend to fetch us drinks. Smith said fans occasionally taunt him during his fights for being gay, but the other fighters never do. “It’s like a fraternity,” he said, and you’re treated well “once these guys see you in the cage, as long you don’t make a fool out of yourself.”

I asked Empey if he was worried when he watched Smith fight. He said he was at first. “But then, once you know about the sport, you realize it’s not that dangerous. It’s a lot safer than boxing.” Empey may be right. For all the blood spilled in mixed martial arts — in both its sanctioned and unsanctioned forms — it’s difficult to determine just how dangerous such fights really are.

Outside of the classes he leads, Smith rarely trains. “Some of those guys, you can feel their intensity,” he said. “I wish I could be like those guys, because I’d be unstoppable.”

Perhaps he could have been, Smith said, but somewhere along the way he lost his edge. Among other reasons, he used to fight because he was gay and wanted to hide it, he said. But in prison, out on the yard one day, he came out to a friend, who said, “What you do with sex, that’s your business — just don’t try to kiss me or nothing.” After that, Smith said, he didn’t care who knew it, and it changed him as a fighter.

What he misses about the fighting thing, he said, is that he “used to be so aggressive, so ruthless. I couldn’t lose a fight.”

I’ve been waiting a while to hear about the first gay guy in MMA. We’ve joked about Rory Singer being openly gay and Frank Shamrock punked Josh Thomson by announcing he was gay during a Strikeforce broadcast. But past that being gay was something only female MMA fighters were willing to admit to. I’m sure there’s several dozen openly gay girls … off the top of my head I know of Tonya Evinger and Shawn Tamiribuchi (who’s about as hardcore as it gets).

On a personal level, this isn’t that big of a story. While the New York Times article ‘outs’ Shad on a worldwide basis, pretty much everyone around already knew he was gay so it’s not about to affect his life all that much. But when you look at this as a step in the right direction for MMA, I think it’s huge. I mean, you’re talking about a sport where tricking people into thinking a fighter is gay results in him losing sponsorships and bookings. That’s fucked.

If I was a gay fighter, I’d keep my mouth fucking shut and my ass pounding top secret. There’s just way too many ignorant bastards out there who are likely to try and do something about my sinful ways. Of course, I guess I’m more of a pussy than Shad Smith. When you’ve spent your entire life beating the shit out of people and being in prison, you don’t have to worry so much about what people think of your sexual orientation. So props to you Shad for having the balls to step up and out yourself. Here’s hoping it gives some other fighters the strength to come out as well.

  • Hywel Teague

    It took you 15 mins to read that? jk ;)

  • Jemaleddin

    Yeah, that took a lot of courage for Shad. Now that the gay thing is covered, can we talk about his 9-9-2 record? Keep those hands up and stay out of trouble, Shad!

    Of course, now the IFL’s Shad Lierley is going to be ducking gay rumors for the rest of his career…

  • Smitler

    “Smith’s father, in pajama bottoms and shirtless, was sitting in an armchair in front of the television, watching football.”

    Well that’s just lovely.
    I’d be more offended that a person couldn’t be bothered to get dressed when I come round to interview their gay son than by their son’s gayness.

  • scorchamatic

    shit….i though ivan salaverry was the first gay fighter?

  • Zurich

    “Sexual preference”? Get with the times, Shad! You of all people should know it’s not a “preference”! As an aside…. $20 says he’s a pillow biting nelly bottom :p (couldn’t resist)

  • JJ Edwards

    Finally, an out gay MMA fighter. I’m out at my BJJ school in NYC, nobody cares because I wipe the mat with them. LOL

  • fightlinker

    Shad doesn’t have a great record, but as far as his resume goes, it’s not too shabby. He’s fought Bang Ludwig, Joe Boxer, Crazy Horse, Manny Tapia, Dominic Cruz, Poppies Martinez, Chance Farrar, Nam Phan. Lots of recognizable names. Looks like he was always one step below the WEC or EliteXC in skill.

  • Chris

    Good for him. Hopefeully we will get to a point in combat sports where this type of strory won’t be a big deal.

  • operator

    With that record he might have a chance for TUF. That would at least bump the ratings as far as gay viewers.

  • Hywel Teague

    Shad’s greatest moment is still entering the KOTC cage wearing a pair of Vans, and then getting kicked in the face by Bang Ludwig.

  • Zurich

    #9, you don’t need a gay fighter to attract gay viewers to TUF. The show is already pretty much “Guys Gone Wild”…

  • RL Dookiefuck

    I’d actually imagine there are other gay fighters who haven’t come out because they’re more prominent and worried about their careers. Shad isn’t exactly going places in the sport, so coming out could just be a ploy to get some notoriety and maybe even a few paying fights.

  • RL Dookiefuck

    Also if Fightlinker had any balls they would out a few more gay fighters like Don Frye and Cyborg Santos.

  • esther

    I really enjoyed that article, though every one I talk to about it seems to think gay fighters should keep it to themselves. If the fighter trains hard and fights well, who gives a shit who they have sex with? Besides, that’s more audience and a wider acceptance of MMA, and hopefully less closet violence — so many guys hiding their orientation are angry angry dudes.