Rashad Evans was a rising star in the UFC. It was 2007, and Evans was coming off winning the second season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, followed by a victory over Sean Salmon that was a Knockout of the Year candidate.
Evans was being booked for meet-and-greet sessions with fans, and sometimes he would bring his godson, Devin Smyth. Inevitably, Smyth, a preteen, would get bored and start signing people’s shirts, posters and action figures too. When Evans chided him for ruining his fans’ merchandise, Smyth just shook his head.
“No, they’re gonna want my autograph — watch,” Smyth told Evans. “One day, I’m gonna be in the UFC. Watch. I guarantee it.”
More than a decade later, Smyth has a chance to turn a 12-year-old’s wisecrack into reality. With Evans in his corner, Smyth will fight Brok Weaver on Tuesday’s episode of Dana White’s Contender Series. With an impressive victory, Smyth could earn a UFC contract.
“He did it,” Evans told ESPN.
Smyth didn’t have a direct path to reaching his goal. Things were hard for him from an early age. He was raised by a single mother and never knew his father. He grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, in a predominantly white neighborhood. As an African American, he was bullied for being different.
Smyth was always an athlete and started wrestling when he was young. It was at a wrestling camp at Michigan State University that he met Evans, who was on the team there.
“I wasn’t really around any black people when I was growing up,” Smyth said. “So I went to [the camp], and I saw Rashad, and I just gravitated to him. I was young and ignorant, and I just knew he looked like me. He was my favorite person on the team.”
Evans noticed the attention from Smyth, who was around 7 years old at the time. After interacting with him a few times at camp, Evans asked Smyth’s mother if he could take him to the movies. His mom agreed. That became a regular weekend occurrence.
Evans saw something familiar in Smyth. “My father wasn’t around growing up,” Evans said. “I love my father to death, but he just wasn’t around, for whatever reason. That was always something that stuck with me and was always something that I wish I’d had — that relationship. So when I seen Devin in the same position that I was, I was like, it would suck for him to go through his whole life never feeling that feeling of having that male in his life who is really, really there for him. I just wanted to be there for him, even if it was picking him up here and there and giving him a different life, just a different view of life.”
As the relationship grew stronger, Evans asked Smyth’s mom if he could be her son’s godfather. She told him she and Devin would be honored.
After he graduated from Michigan State, Evans started in mixed martial arts. In 2005, he debuted on “The Ultimate Fighter,” and Smyth got to see him on television.
“He was amazing. He was a hero to me,” Smyth said. “When I saw him on TV, it was just amplified times 10. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s beating people up.’ He’s really a real-life superhero.”
Evans and Smyth have been tight ever since. Smyth said Evans is “like my dad,” and he’s one of the people in his life that he trusts the most.
In 2013, Evans invited Smyth to live and train with him in South Florida, where he was with the Blackzilians team. Smyth had recently graduated high school and run into some issues at Olivet College, where he had been recruited to play football. Smyth said he failed a drug test and got into a fight with his coach.
While in Florida with Evans, he trained with the likes of Eddie Alvarez but admittedly “wasn’t taking it seriously.” He said it was a good experience to see how a top-tier UFC fighter lived and trained. Smyth knew it was something he wanted for himself one day, but he wasn’t mature enough for it as an 18-year-old.
Smyth ended up getting a call from a friend in Michigan to be in his wedding party. He told Evans he was going to head home; Evans told him he knew he would not be back. Smyth didn’t believe him at the time, but that’s exactly what happened.
“When I seen Devin in the same position that I was, I was like, it would suck for him to go through his whole life never feeling that feeling of having that male in his life who is really, really there for him.”
“I wanted to really, really put him in a good position to do his thing and get him the best training,” Evans said. “But what I’ve learned as a parent … is that you can’t give somebody something [if] they’re not ready to succeed. No matter how much you want it for them, you can’t give it to them. Even if you do give it to them, they’ll find a way to squander it.”
Smyth fell in with a bad crowd in Michigan. He started drinking more and doing more drugs. Selling them too. He was the life of the party. Evans said Smyth was “spoiled” in East Lansing because everyone there knew him as Evans’ kid, the godson of the former UFC light heavyweight champion.
In 2016, on the day after his birthday, Smyth was arrested with cocaine in his car. The charge was possession with intent to sell. Smyth said at that point he was snorting seven to 10 grams of cocaine and drinking five days a week.
“I remember I’m sitting in jail thinking my life is over,” Smyth said. “I think I’m going to prison, and this is how it ends.”
It wasn’t nearly so bleak. Smyth spent a week in jail and agreed to sign up for a transitional living program. He took a plea deal and got probation.
Smyth kicked the cocaine habit but still partied. In 2017, he got a DUI on his birthday, and his probation was extended. However, he says he has been clean since then and finished paying his fines in June.
Smyth believes he fell into that lifestyle because it gave him a way to fit in. When he was selling drugs, people would flock to him. He was no longer the kid who got bullied because he was different.
“I realized very quickly that as soon as the drugs all went away, so did the people,” Smyth said. “I definitely figured out who was real in my life and who was fake, which was a blessing.”
The talks with Evans during that time were not easy. “There wasn’t anyone in the world I hated disappointing or letting down more than Rashad,” Smyth said. “When I would talk to him and tell, I could hear the disappointment in his voice. It would tear me apart, man.”
Evans jokes now that he had to let Smyth “hit his head for a little bit.” But at age 24, Smyth is rounding into the man Evans always thought he’d be.
“It was through his hardships that made him break out of it,” said Evans, who was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame last month. “It was hitting rock-bottom and then seeing all those people who were being one way toward him being a totally different way toward him. It gave him that perspective. I couldn’t give him that by telling him. He had to see it.”
Evans was there for Smyth from an early age through the tribulations. He’ll be alongside him Tuesday when he tries to follow his godfather’s footsteps into the UFC.
Smyth said that without Evans, he isn’t sure where he’d be now. Certainly, he wouldn’t have a 9-1 record and a chance at a UFC contract. The pair talk about everything. But the one thing Smyth never really asked Evans was why. Why did Evans decide to take him under his wing when he was a child?
“To be honest, we both don’t care,” Smyth said. “We know whatever it was brought us together and put us in a position where he was able to change a young kid’s life. Now, I’m in a position where I could probably do the same for somebody else.”
Dana White’s Contender Series, Week 8
Welterweight: Devyn Smith (9-1, 24, Michigan) vs. Brok Weaver (13-4, 27, Alabama)