You know what the difference is between a bandwagon fan and a fair-weather fan? Absolutely nothing.

Fair-weather fans suck, and bandwagon fans are a joke. Unfortunately, both are very rampant in today’s age of social media. It happens in every sport, constantly, when the love-hate relationship, or sometimes no relationship at all, takes a 180-degree turn on a dime. Most athletes expect it, but it’s a lot easier if you’re an athlete in a team sport than in an individual sport like fighting.

Three years ago, Anthony “Lionheart” Smith was in a dark place. He had a rough transition from Strikeforce to the UFC, and followed up back-to-back losses with a tough loss to longtime regional rival Josh Neer. However, Smith’s fans knew he was better than that, and he obviously knew that as well.

Smith had to make some changes. He was still under 30 years old, had a family to feed, and understood more than most that no one hands anyone anything in MMA. He moved his camp over to Mick Doyle’s Kickboxing Gym in Omaha, Neb., retained his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach Scott Morton, and went on an amazing climb back to the top.

After stringing together seven wins in a row, including two regional titles, Smith was back in the UFC, and his fans were all-in. Last February, Smith, back in the UFC, took his winning streak to eight with a decision victory over Leonardo Guimares. Then July rolled around and he dropped a decision to Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira, but there was an ugly medical issue that had been bothering him for his last few fights. It was more serious than originally thought, and the UFC’s doctors were actually the ones to figure it out.

“My red blood cell count was really, really low, and the UFC flagged my blood work, and they weren’t going to let me fight,” Smith told Combat Press. “We had to go through a little bit of a fight to even get to the fight. After the fight, I ended up going to a bunch of different specialists and ended up getting a bunch of blood work and a bunch of scopes — trying to figure out where I was losing iron. When it comes to red blood cells, you need to have a certain iron level to make red blood cells.

“They found that I have a rare bacteria, and I’ve probably had it for a very, very long time, and it’s creating small little bleeds in my intestines, so I was slowing bleeding internally and have been for three, four, maybe five years. They can treat for it, and they did treat for it, but even after they’ve treated for it, you can still test positive for it for up to two years. There’s actually no way of going back and testing me to see if I still have it, but they double-dosed me twice to get rid of it, so I would hope I don’t still have it, you know?”

Red blood cells carry oxygen, physical activity exerts a ton of oxygen, fighters have a very high level of exertion, and the rest is history. Smith had a couple less-than-desirable outings to kick off his new UFC contract, and it was largely due to a medical issue. However, what he saw on social media, and in life in general, is that his “fans” turned pretty nasty pretty quickly. The Midwestern fighter did not take this lightly.

“Fuck those fair-weather fans,” Smith said. “I’m way over that. I was a rising star, but then I had some medical issues. I bust my ass and put my heart out there for everyone. Now, it’s like, ‘Anthony sucks. He has no takedown defense. His ground game sucks,’ and I’m like, ‘What the fuck? Are you fucking serious?’ It wasn’t that long ago that people were talking about how great my ground game was, and how dangerous I am off my back. Come on, now. I’m just over it. Fuck the ‘fans,’ fuck the crooked-ass media people, and fuck the other fighters in the UFC. I’m done being the guy that’s cool to everyone. You know what I mean?

“In the UFC, and MMA as a whole, you have to work kind of hard to get along with everyone, because there are so many weird relationships and weird friendships. Fuck all that. Fuck you guys, too. I’m taking the fucking Marshawn Lynch approach. I’ll do what I have to do so I don’t get fined, but, other than that, I’m putting my nose to the grindstone and doing some different shit in my own training. I’m done talking about it. I’ll just do it.”

In October, Smith found out that his next fight will be at The Ultimate Fighter 24 Finale on Dec 3. Long before the fight was announced, he had already begun preparing to get back in the win column.

“I’m just doing extra shit,” Smith explained. “This is going to sound pretty silly, but I have a strength-and-conditioning coach now, and I’ve never had one my entire career. I’ve never felt the need to. I’ve never gotten tired in fights before.

“Her name is Lauren Barefoot. She used to fight, herself, but she put the fighting aside and went back to school to finish her degree in sports science, and she is fucking phenomenal. The thought and effort that she puts into me is absolutely amazing. I’ve actually known her since she was like 15. She kind of fell off the radar, and she put a ton of time and effort into breeding a strength-and-conditioning program that’s just directed at athletes. She works with arena football players, she works with high school and college volleyball players, she does jiu-jitsu players – she’s actually a blue belt in jiu-jitsu herself, and she’s pretty fucking tough, too.”

Barefoot reached out to Smith after she saw his last two fights. Without knowing the extent of his medical condition, it was obvious that he needed some help with his conditioning, and she was positive she could help.

“I jumped in feet first, and it’s been one of the smartest moves I’ve made,” Smith admitted. “It’s taken my game to a whole other level.”

The other bugaboo that Smith has had issues with in his previous UFC outings was his jiu-jitsu game. After a couple submission losses in 2013 to two of the highest level BJJ players in the MMA world and a rough outing against Ferreira in his last fight, he felt he needed to get some different looks, so, in addition to his regular work with Morton, he sought out some additional BJJ training.

“I’ve been bouncing over to Lincoln to train with Greg Lawson,” Smith said. “He’s a black belt, and he’s really just a different kind of look, you know? Me and Scott have been training together for a really long time, so it’s cool to have another really high-level black belt take a look at your game. He’s not trying to change anything or whatever. He’s more just giving me options.

“That’s the way the game is moving. You see in MMA a lot that trends change, and that’s the way it’s headed. Slowly, in maybe six or seven months, or even a year, single-leg X guard players, traditional X guard, and you’re going to get all these de la Riva motherfuckers who are catching everybody out of nowhere. I realized that the single-leg X guard that I’ve been playing is going to translate super well to my MMA game. You can attack the leg, you can sweep from it, you can come up on top, you can submit from there – all of which you can do without being punched in the face. How many other jiu-jitsu positions are like that?”

What Smith said is very true. BJJ techniques are arguably advancing much faster than anything in MMA, and the really good players are continuously catching power punchers in precarious positions. MMA is still “mixed” martial arts, so Smith is doing everything he can to improve all aspects of his game. The mix of Doyle’s striking, Barefoot’s strength and conditioning, and the BJJ training he is getting from Morton and Lawson should prove to be one hell of a dangerous cocktail come the TUF 24 Finale – all for an opponent that has been a long time coming.

Standing across from Smith next Saturday night will be fellow Midwesterner Elvis Mutapcic. Mutapcic fights out of Des Moines, Iowa. He has held regional middleweight titles, and has been set to collide with Smith on multiple occasions. However, for one reason or another, the two have yet to meet. Now both guys are badly in need of a win, and, more than ever, this fight needs to happen.

“My manager called me and told me we’re heading to Vegas, and when I asked him who we’re meeting he said Elvis,” Smith explained. “I said I’ll believe it when we get there. Like I said before, I don’t really train for anyone specifically, so it is what it is. If it’s him, it’s him. If it’s not, it’s not.

“He’s a meathead brawler with a chin. I mean, he’s super tough, but I think I’m better than him everywhere. I think he’s been exposed a little in his last two fights, because his style is super rudimentary. He doesn’t have the ability to adapt, and he hasn’t changed in five years. I love the match-up. There’s not any significant amount of danger anywhere.”

Regardless of the implications of the fight, Smith always wants a win, and he feels really good about his chances against Mutapcic. With the new UFC owners and the amount of high-level cuts that have been taking place, both guys need this win, but Smith is trying to pay the least amount of attention to the 800-pound gorilla in the room. He just wants to prove to all the fair-weather fans that he is the fighter that he has always claimed to be.

“Honest to God, I don’t give a fuck,” Smith intimated. “As long as I get back on a winning streak and continue to win, it doesn’t matter what they think. As long as I leave it in my hands, I’m not at the mercy of the matchmakers. That’s what I’m trying to avoid. I don’t want to be in the position where I have to ask somebody to let me keep my job.”

Smith has never relied on anyone else to be one of the best fighters in the world, but, for any athlete, it’s always nice to know that you have a strong fan base. At the end of the day, though, Smith’s success comes from his coaches, his training, his natural abilities and, of course, his heart. Next Saturday night, his primary focus is getting back in the win column, regardless of who’s got his back.

“If they like me, they like me. If they don’t, they don’t.”

Smith would like to thank Mick Doyle, Scott Morton, his manager Train, Heavy Hands Fight Gear, Big Brain Tattoo, his fiancé Mikhala, his kids, and the fans who do like him. Follow Anthony on Twitter: @LionheartSmith

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Manager

Dan Kuhl has been following MMA since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. He holds belts in multiple martial arts disciplines, and currently trains in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under a decorated black belt. Dan has an M.B.A. in Finance and Investment Management and a B.S. in Horticulture. Prior to joining Combat Press, his work appeared on The MMA Corner.

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