Imagine being 27 years old, deep into an eight-year professional athletic career. Right around the time you solidify a real contract with the top organization in the game, something doesn’t quite feel right. Weakness and fatigue set in. All of a sudden, you can’t even catch your breath in training. You know something’s wrong, but you have the heart of a lion, so you try to shake it off. It won’t go away.
At this time last year, Anthony “Lionheart” Smith was battling a rare bacterial infection, but he didn’t even know it. His red blood cell count, iron and hemoglobin were all unusually low. He had no idea what was going on, so he took three fights just in the first half of the year. It wasn’t until he was in line for his second UFC fight, under his new contract, that the promotion’s doctors flagged him.
Smith was riding an eight-fight winning streak at the time and had finished all but two of those opponents. He was preparing to enter the cage for the 37th time in his career to face Brazil’s Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira, but he was almost pulled from the fight. Ultimately, Smith was able to get clearance, but lost by unanimous decision. After he was able to get his body right, December rolled around and he was back in action against Elvis Mutapcic in a showdown that was a long time coming. Smith, feeling better than ever, showed up and scored a second-round knockout.
“It pretty much went exactly the way I said it would,” Smith told Combat Press. “I figured he’d be a motherfucker to deal with for a couple of minutes. I knew, once I settled into the fight a little bit, I’d pick him apart and knock him out. It just took a little longer than I expected. I wasn’t expecting to be on my back so much in the first round, and I could have gotten up a little earlier, but I could feel him working really hard and gassing himself out, so I just kept working from my back and it all worked out.”
Mutapcic is a fellow Midwestern fighter that had been on Smith’s radar for quite some time. There was a lot of talk and animosity from both sides. After multiple cancellations of previously scheduled bouts between the two men, Smith was finally able to check the fight off his list. This Saturday, at UFC on Fox 24, Smith will be back in action against another guy who he has called out in the past.
In the fall of 2015, Smith was pretty much willing to travel anywhere in the country to collect as many belts as he needed to get back into the UFC. After previous stints in Strikeforce, Bellator and the big show, he knew where he needed to be, but his phone wasn’t ringing. During this time, he made an appearance in the Resurrection Fighting Alliance, where Andrew Sanchez, a future winner of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, was the middleweight champ. Smith called out Sanchez, but Sanchez had moved up. This weekend, the two will finally collide in the Octagon at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
“The UFC is pretty good with me,” Smith said. “They know I’ll fight whoever. I don’t give a fuck. It doesn’t matter to me. As long as I’m healthy, I’ll fight whoever. We went to them and said that I wanted to be on this Kansas City card. It’s close to home, and the UFC said that they would do what they could, so they came back a week later and said I had a contract on the way. First, they re-signed me to a brand-new four-fight deal. About a week later, they called and gave me the match-up. I didn’t really ask any questions.”
In preparation for Sanchez, Smith, who knew he would be facing a grinding wrestler with a high level of cardio, made his way back out to Englewood, Colo., to get some high-altitude training with one of the top camps in the country at Factory X Muay Thai. Smith had trained out there in the past, so it only made sense to travel outside of his hometown of Omaha, Neb., for a few weeks to get some different looks.
“It’s good, man,” Smith said. “You go to Factory X. There are 30 to 40 killers there, you know? You just need that push. I’ll do the first three weeks of training camp at Factory X. I’ll train in Omaha with Matt [Bentley] and Scott [Morton] in the middle and then I’ll do the last three weeks at Factory X. That’s the plan moving forward.
“Between the altitude and the fact that it’s just full of a bunch of really good guys, their team atmosphere is great, and everyone just really cares about everyone else. In Omaha, the landscape for training partners is pretty scarce. I need push. I need push in every wrestling practice, I need push in every jiu-jitsu practice, and I need push in every striking practice. I just haven’t been pushed in my last couple fight camps. I just need those monsters. I need those killers in front of me, day in and day out. That’s the main reason I’m there.”
If there’s one thing Omaha is not short on, it’s great wrestlers. Like any typical Midwestern town, wrestling is a beloved sport, and Sanchez is a very high-level wrestler. While Smith was very interested in Sanchez in the past, he’s not as excited now. He knows he needs to get through anybody the UFC puts in front of him to move up the ladder, but he’s hoping this fight will lead to a bigger opponent.
“[Sanchez] has a little bit of a name, but I was looking for more of a household name,” Smith explained. “I know I wasn’t going to get a top-10 dude, but I’d like to get a Rashad Evans, you know? I asked for Rashad. I asked for Dan Kelly. I just wanted someone a little closer to the top 15. Everyone’s tough, but I wanted someone just a little more known.
“I think [a win over Sanchez] puts me in line to fight a guy who is ranked in the top 15, or at least getting me close. That’s all I want. I’m not saying I just want to be ranked, because I need to put that work in, but I don’t want to be fighting these nobodies. Everybody’s tough, so if I’m going to be fighting someone who’s a tough dude, I might as well fight someone who’s got a name behind him too. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I don’t want to fight the newcomers. I want to fight the guys that are tried and true and tested.”
Normally, when a 28-year-old fighter starts calling out big names, it is easy to take his words with a grain of salt. However, Smith is nearing his 40th professional fight, and he needs to be tested to see where he really fits in the division. Sanchez may not be the test he’s looking for, but taking on a TUF champion who is currently 2-0 in the Octagon is not a bad place to start. Sam Alvey has made a career out of spoiling the hopes of TUF contestants, and he is now in the top 15. There is no reason Smith can’t follow suit in the course of 2017.
“I believe that between me, Scott, Matt and Marc Montoya, that we came up with a pretty foolproof game plan to beat Andrew,” said Smith. “And I’m in really, really good shape. My conditioning is the best it’s been in a very long time, and I think it’s going to be a pretty methodical breakdown. I just got my bloodwork back, and everything is good. My levels were all back in the normal range. All my red blood cell count is back up, my hemoglobin is back up, my iron levels are up, and I’m good. I can feel it, too.”
Smith, like any fighter, is very motivated to put up another win so he can continue to climb the UFC rankings. However, sometimes that’s not enough. In this day and age, a fighter needs all of the little motivational extras that he can bring to the table, and Smith has a couple pretty big ones in his corner right now.
During his post-fight speech in December, Smith announced that he and his fiancé, Mikhala, are expecting their third baby daughter. With one more mouth to feed, the motivation levels tend to go up quite a bit. While a new baby brings a ton of joy, on the other end of the spectrum, someone has rubbed him the wrong way. It has Smith damn near boiling over.
In February, while Smith was deep into his fight camp, the wishy-washy lunacy of UFC veteran Diego Sanchez came to a head, once again, when Sanchez came out in social media and claimed that he had a new nickname. This is not the first time Sanchez has done this — he previously changing his moniker from “Nightmare” to “Dream” and then back to “Nightmare” — but this recent one was a bit of a problem: Sanchez chose the nickname “Lionheart.”
This moniker may not be as unique to Smith as “DC” is to Daniel Cormier or the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” is to Tito Ortiz, but a quick search of “Lionheart” will show that there has only been one man sporting the nickname who has graced the upper echelons of MMA. That man is Smith.
“Man, I’ll tell you this: Diego Sanchez better change his nickname, or I’m going to beat it off of him,” Smith said. “That motherfucker. That’s total bullshit. That’s so bullshit. You’re nickname is supposed to be given to you. That’s how it works in this sport. Inherently, over time, it’s something that’s given to you, and it sticks.
“It’s something that’s supposed to be part of your personality, you know? This dude’s had like three nicknames. Just pick one and keep it. All of your nicknames, you’ve just given to yourself. There are some nicknames that are pretty unique to the UFC. What if I just wanted to be Anthony ‘The Iceman’ Smith? Nobody’s going to be cool with that. If he came in and that was his nickname, that’s fine, but you can’t just change it. My nickname is very unique and it means a lot to me. My kids think their last name is Lionheart, and it’s been branded all over my life and has been for a decade. What if Sanchez changed his name to ‘Rampage’? Rampage would blow his mind.
“There’s something wrong with his head, man. If I see Diego, we’re going to have a conversation. He can get his eyes all big and beady, like the douchebag he is, but Diego Sanchez doesn’t scare me.”
Diego Sanchez doesn’t scare Smith. Neither does Andrew Sanchez. When someone truly has the heart of a lion, they don’t get scared. They don’t back down under adversity, either. With his blood in check and people poking at the lion, fans can be sure that, come Saturday night, the real Lionheart is coming for a win.
“I’m going to beat the shit out of Andrew Sanchez,” Smith said. “There’s no secret to either one of our game plans. You know what I mean? I’ve got a couple things up my sleeve for him that I think are really going to throw a couple zingers at him. He needs to take me down. We’re going to be up there banging for a little bit, and he’s going to shoot for takedowns. I’m pretty confident I have an answer for his wrestling and grappling game. He’s probably sure that he’s got an answer for my striking, and we’re going to find out who’s right. I’m pretty sure that it’s me.”
Smith has gone down a very long road in his career. He’s still over a year away from his 30th birthday, though. He is 9-1 in his last 10 fights. He is kicking off a newly minted UFC contract, has a baby on the way, and has someone trying to swaggerjack his moniker. Smith has his sights set on the UFC middleweight rankings, and he’s hoping a win over Sanchez will get him one step closer to the top.
“I want big fights that are important,” said Smith. “I think I’m a big star in hiding, and they just need to give me that opportunity. I want to climb the ladder, but you need to put me on the ladder first. If I fall, that’s on me.”