Simi residents mourn the loss of mixed-martial arts fighter

By Zeke Barlow

When opponents stepped into the cage with mixed-martial arts fighter Mark “The Bear” Smith, they quickly realized how this 6-foot-1-inch, 290-pound man got his nickname.

But outside the cage, it didn’t take long for people to realize why he was thought of as a stuffed bear more than a grizzly.

“On first appearances he looked like a mean guy, but up close and personal, he was a teddy bear — that’s what he was, a teddy bear,” said Bill Payne, one of Smith’s many good friends from his hometown of Simi Valley.

Smith, 36, was found dead May 14 in his dad’s house in Maui, where Smith had been living for the last few years. Though an autopsy has not been completed, Smith’s mother said early results showed his heart was twice its normal size.

Since his death, friends in Simi Valley, the mixed-martial arts community and the world of off-road motorcycling have been mourning the larger-than-life man.

More than 625 people have signed up on Facebook’s “Remembering Mark ‘The Bear’ Smith” page, sharing memories and posting photos of Smith goofing off for the camera, Smith towering over opponents in the fight cage and Smith riding motorcycles. The diversity of friends speaks to Smith’s many interests.

He rode motorcycles and loved the brutal world of mixed-martial arts, but was also a born-again Christian at a church that caters to tattooed fighters like Smith.

“The loss of you can not be described, you meant so much to so many,” wrote Daniel Artran on the Facebook page.

Smith was always a big guy growing up in Simi Valley, which didn’t serve him well on the playgrounds of youth, but was an asset as he started exploring the world of mixed-martial arts. As he trained and made a name for himself, he earned a 10-9 record. He said he loved the challenge of the fight as much as the respect the two fighters had for each other as they battled for supremacy.

“He saw fighting as a sport,” said Brian Deegan, who started the popular Metal Mulisha motocross team and clothing line. The two became good friends and Deegan credits Smith with helping him get in shape for a 1997 supercross race that jump-started his career.

Smith worked as Deegan’s bodyguard when he traveled. He was great to have around not just because he pushed him to train harder, but Smith was always cracking everyone up, Deegan said.

“He was a funny dude and he always looked out for me,” Deegan said.

In 2003, Smith’s oldest sister died in a car accident. Her death hit his family hard and Smith hit a rough patch, said Payne. He was working as a bouncer in strip-clubs, hanging out with biker gangs and dabbling with too many drugs, Payne said.

Then Deegan introduced him to Pastor T.J. O’Donnell, whose church caters to an unorthodox crowd, many of whom are into MMA and motocross as is apparent by their tattoos.

“He had a rough past,” said O’Donnell, “but his heart was so tender.”

Smith moved to Maui with his dad in recent years, where he was training other fighters and hoping to make a comeback of his own after years out of the cage. But his lifelong struggle with weight continued, Payne said, and Smith was approaching 350 pounds.

When Payne visited his friend last year in Hawaii, Smith took him to his favorite fishing spot, and out of nowhere, he said it was the spot he would like his ashes spread when he died. Payne registered the thought, but didn’t think anything more of it.

Last weekend, some of his ashes were put there.

Smith’s mother, Patti, is still coming to grips with losing the second of her four children.

“I’m just numb,” she said. “It’s just been awful.”

A memorial is being held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Cornerstone Church, 2080 Winifred St., Simi Valley.

Mark “The Bear” Smith had a 10-9 professional career record, fighting from June 1999 to May 2009. Notable opponents include Ron Waterman, Siala "Mighty Mo" Siliga, Dan Severn (twice), Kerry Schall, Remco "Grizzly" Pardoel.