Anthony Smith wasn’t happy. The light heavyweight contender heard that his teammate, Zak Cummings, was planning to walk away from the sport after this Saturday’s meeting with Ed Herman in Kansas City, and after practice at the Factory X gym in Colorado, he had a bone to pick with his buddy.
“You can't retire until I retire,” laughed Smith, 34, a veteran of 53 pro fights. The 38-year-old Cummings has logged 31 bouts since his debut in 2007, returned a laugh.
“We were joking around and we kind of smiled,” said Cummings. “Man, we're the last of a dying breed.”
They are. Members of the last generation who entered the game shortly after the TUF explosion of 2005, Cummings and Smith didn’t have the benefit of the UFC Performance Institute or other modern training methods, and they weren’t elite athletes before turning pro. They were tough guys who were willing to learn on the job and fight anyone and everyone at a moment’s notice.
“We were just mentally tough, grinding, ‘mean in there’ type guys,” said Cummings. “And we don't break mentally, even though we might not be the most athletically gifted person. Obviously, you can't make it to this level without being a good athlete and I’ve been in sports my whole life, but there's some very high-level athletic people, especially as this sport grows, and it's kind of becoming more of this ‘top athletic guys’ stuff.”
Yes, elite athletes are everywhere in the UFC, but there is still a place for fighters like Cummings, Smith and Herman, and their track record proves it. Look at Cummings as an example. He’s won three of his last four, defeating Trevor Smith, Trevin Giles and Alessio Di Chirico, with the only blemish a decision defeat to Omari Akhmedov. The only problem? His last fight against Di Chirico took place in August of 2020, with back surgery sidelining him since. That made his decision to call it a day a lot easier.
“There was a point where I thought my new normal was being stuck in bed and unable to pick up my kids,” said Cummings, a father of two. “Honestly, at that point I didn't give a s**t about fighting or training. I cared about my daughter. I thought my new normal was basically being bedridden and not being able to do much of anything. So the fact that I overcame that and started coaching and moving more and training and then getting back to competing at the top level in the world, yeah, there's a lot of stuff that I didn't think I'd ever see again. So yeah, my life is good.”
But like Rocky Balboa, there was still something left in the basement for Cummings, and while he didn’t have plans to make a title run, he did want to make one more walk to the Octagon, and what better place to do that in but his hometown of Kansas City?
“When the shutdown and all the COVID stuff happened, I had one fight, but during all the craziness I had to shut the gym down and then really didn't do much,” he said. “I was going to the lake, hanging out, being with family. That gave me a little glimpse of retirement life and I loved it. I've done nothing but sports since I was five years old, and then that time kind of slowed life down for me and it was nice, and it made me okay with being done. And then I had a fight and then the injury happened and I was okay, as I knew I was towards the end. But I had to do this one more time and get back. I had to overcome all this craziness for me, personally, for my own mental health. So even if it made sense or not for anybody else, it's just something I knew I had to do. And then to be able to get that opportunity to actually do it and then do it in my hometown, I just can't think of a better way to actually have a comeback.”
I notice that he says comeback and not retirement fight. Cummings laughs, knowing that retirements don’t often stick in the world of combat sports. So he clarifies what’s coming up this weekend and beyond.
“I want to say it’s about 90% sure I'm retiring,” he said. “I really needed to come back and I really needed to overcome all of this, just this downside of stuff and injuries in my body and everything. I knew I had to come back. My body's feeling good and I'm okay with being done and I can't think of a better way to come back, but I also can't think of a better way to go out than in my hometown after all this craziness. But the way training's going, we go in there and maybe things work out, I will see, I don't know.”
In other words, a big win over Herman, coupled with the roar of the crowd and his body feeling good might prompt him to put retirement to the side for a minute. Hey, he’s human, so it’s understandable. But there is something poetic about going out on top, on his own terms, and exactly six years since his last fight (and win) in Kansas City against Nathan Coy. That’s closure of the best kind.
“It's special,” Cummings agrees. “I have traveled the world multiple times and I've got to meet people and make relationships and see different cultures that I would never see in my life if it wasn't for this sport and for the UFC, and each trip has been special, but being able to do the thing I love and be able to compete in the UFC with the highest-level competitors in the world, it's hands down the best, and to be able to do it in my backyard is pretty cool. It really is special. And the last time (against Coy), I was the first local fighter to do it, and then I got a first-round finish, and I really couldn't see it going any other way.”
That win over Coy was Cummings’ sixth in the UFC after arriving in the promotion after season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter. Cummings and Kelvin Gastelum are the last men standing in the UFC from TUF 17, and the Kansas City product should be proud of that longevity. More importantly, whether he fights again after Saturday night, he should be proud that he’s always conducted himself like a gentleman, leaving a good example not just for his peers, but his kids.
“Growing up, I've seen a lot of people making bad choices and bad decisions,” Cummings said. “And then I also had some really good people in my life to guide me the right way, so I don't want to say I was a straight rule follower, but I really wanted to be a good person. Ever since I was a little kid, I think I was a natural leader. I've always wanted to help people and I always wanted to lead by example. And you really can't do that if you are making really bad decisions outside, away from what people see. So I'm okay with knowing that everything I did is a thousand percent authentic and I am who I am. The people that love me and want to have me in their life or follow me or whatever it is, they know what they're going to get and they know it's all coming from a very honest and truthful place.”
UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Allen took place live from T-Mobile Center in Kansas City on April 15, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!