Duck, duck, duck, goose!
Well, this is not a reference to a children’s game. Although, sometimes, in the fight game, it seems more like a children’s game than a business.
In the game Duck, Duck, Goose, one person, “the picker,” walks around a circle of people sitting on the ground and says “duck” for each person he does not want chasing him, until he picks the “goose,” who needs to get up and, hopefully, tag the picker or risk getting replaced in the circle. It’s a very simple children’s game that gets played out pretty regularly in the fight game.
UFC middleweight Anthony Smith is almost always the duck. He’s the guy that people do not want coming after them. He has regularly called out everyone from Rashad Evans to Uriah Hall to Vitor Belfort, but none of those fights have come to fruition. In fact, he even tried to fight Lyoto Machida on the Brazilian’s home turf in Belem, Para, Brazil, this weekend, but “The Dragon” chose up-and-comer Eryk Anders instead. So, what gives?
“Everybody turns down fights with me,” Smith told Combat Press. “I know people think that when I say that, it means, ‘I’m the scariest guy in the division.’ I’m not. I’m the most dangerous guy in the division, and that’s because I don’t have the big name. But, I’m just as good as any motherfucker in that whole fucking division.
“Just because the casual fan and the guy flipping through the stations don’t remember my name, every single guy in the back knows that I’m just as dangerous as any person on the roster at middleweight. That’s why guys like Vitor and Uriah Hall and Machida don’t want to fight me. I’m just a big risk with little reward.”
It’s easy to assume why someone would duck Smith. He’s a 6-foot-4, super rangy middleweight. He’s only 29 years old, but he is a 40-fight veteran who didn’t go to a single decision until his 30th pro fight — and only twice since. After entering Strikeforce for his 21st pro fight over six and a half years ago, he has gone 2-2 in that promotion, 2-0 in Bellator, 4-2 in the UFC, and picked up a couple regional straps along the way. He also holds 15 knockout wins and 10 submissions. When a fighter comes in with that type of pedigree, maybe these other guys are justified to chicken out.
Smith is currently on a three-fight winning streak in the UFC, all by late-stage knockouts. He may be slow to start, but when he turns it on, he’s quick to finish. He attributes this success to a few different factors.
“I think I’m coming into my own, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “I think I’ve always been capable of being right there with the who’s who of the division. Some things had to come together. I think it was age, maturity, and coming into my prime. I think USADA coming in and doing their comprehensive drug testing [was a factor]. You know, a lot of these guys who used to be on drugs are not on drugs, and I think you’re seeing a big change of scenery in the UFC as a whole.”
Age, maturity and USADA are some factors, but Smith also attributes his more recent success to a change of camps. After bouncing around a couple gyms in the Omaha, Neb., area, the Nebraskan found a new home by way of some of his fight-life acquaintances, like Brian Rogers and Chris Camozzi. Smith started bringing his training camps to Factory X Muay Thai in the Denver area, where coach Marc Montoya is at the helm.
“Marc Montoya is a fucking genius,” Smith said. “He’s an absolute genius. I think he’s one of the unsung heroes in the sport. He’s been in the game a long time. I put Scott Morton in that same category. He’s an O.G., man. Scott’s been around since the way back, early Pat Miletich days. Both of those two guys are so knowledgeable. And, they just work for me.
“I think, a lot of times, coaching is not always about having the superstar coach or whatever. I think it’s about having the best coach for you. I think I got lucky, because those two guys are the best fit for me as far as personality, mindset, and what their vision is for me. We all work together really well. It works out for me that Marc and Scott also work well together, because they’re similar type of people. So, my game is just elevating.”
Morton is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and longtime grappling coach to Smith and several other professionals in the Omaha area. He and his business partner, boxing coach Danny Molina, are Smith’s primary coaches at home. Montoya is Smith’s MMA coach in Denver. While guys like Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson can take a light amount of coaching and make gold out of it, Smith feels he needs a more rigid approach.
“Marc is systematic in his breakdown, very systematic in his coaching, very systematic in his game-planning for each fight, and I’m the type of guy that needs hard and fast rules,” Smith admitted. “Everything needs to be very clear. I don’t do very well in the grey area. I need those hard and fast rules.”
All of these improvements are coming together nicely as Smith prepares for his next fight. While he may not have gotten Machida in Belem, he will be fighting another Brazilian when he meets Thiago Santos at UFC Fight Night 125. On their recent paper records, Santos and Smith are nearly the exact same fighter. Both men have mostly won during their respective stays in the UFC, and most of their wins have come by knockout.
“I like the fight,” Smith said. “In the fans’ eyes, I don’t think that one’s going to do a lot for me. Thiago’s a gangster. He will fight anybody. He wasn’t the first choice, obviously, but I had two guys turn down the fight. Three guys, total, actually turned down the fight for this one. At the time that I took the fight, he was ranked. I think he got pushed out of the rankings by Paulo Costa, which blows my mind. I like the match-up. He’s a gangster, so I like it.
“I think if you look at our last five fights, I’m the one who’s getting better. Honestly, I don’t have any interest in starting any beef with Thiago. I respect that guy a lot. He’s a lot like me, man. The dude just shows up to fight. He’ll get nasty if he runs into somebody he doesn’t like, but I haven’t seen anything. There is no talking about this fight, because neither of us has shit to say. We both know what we bring to the table, and there is no amount of talking that is going to change that. We both know what is about to happen. Between the two of us, in the last six fights, there have been six people left unconscious and none of them were us.”
For the first time in a long time, Smith does not have a lot to say about his opponent. What sets Smith apart in this one? It all seems to be in what’s going on upstairs.
“I’m just focusing a lot on my mentality,” Smith explained. “I let myself get so wrapped up in the politics of this bullshit game. It almost consumes me, you know? I’ve got guys turning down fights, I can’t get the opportunities I want, and I want to get my name out there, and I want to get pushed. I was trying to do those things, and it just fucking consumes me. I was so angry. When do I get a shot? At this point, I don’t even give a shit anymore. My goal for 2018 is to stop holding back. I think that’s what contributes to the slow starts.
“For a long time, I’ve been doing just enough to win. I don’t know why I do that, but it’s very conscious. I don’t put my foot on the gas until I have to, and I don’t do any more than I have to. The last three fights, I’ve had to do more. It’s not about digging deep and pulling out something I didn’t know I have. I know it’s there, but I didn’t pull it out until I had to. I don’t want to be that type of a fighter anymore. I think it hurt me, because I haven’t shown what I can really do. I don’t want to be that type of a fighter anymore. I think it hurt me, because I haven’t shown my capability to be dominant.”
The game plan for Smith going forward is to stand out as a named fighter. High-level guys should want to fight him, because he is just as high level of a guy. He’s hoping that his performance on Saturday night will start to draw out the pickers who see a benefit in making him the goose. However, for all of those who have been ducking, he has some strong words.
“I’m going to be Michael Bisping in this motherfucker,” Smith said. “I’ve heard so many goddamn no’s on my path to the top, that when I get that title, I’m going to start at the back of the fucking line. I’m going to remember that shit.”
Smith may only be 29 years old, but he is an old-school veteran of MMA. His first pro fight was at age 19, and while he had some serious hiccups really early in his career, he has only dropped five tough match-ups in the last 25 fights. He’s only getting better, too.
Smith and Santos kick off the UFC Fight Night 125 main card at the Arena Guilherme Paraense in Belem on Fox Sports 1 on Saturday night. Fans will want to tune in for a great match-up to see if Smith is really the goose that will lay the golden egg.