What does it take to earn respect?
44 professional fights? 17 knockout wins? 12 submission wins?
Seven of Anthony Smith’s 13 total losses happened prior to 2011, before the current UFC light heavyweight contender had reached the age of 24. Two of his six losses after age 24 were to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champions over five years ago. There are some entire teams that don’t carry a record comparable to that of “Lionheart,” and very few athletes in the history of mixed martial arts have gone 30 fights before seeing the judges’ scorecards. So, what the hell happened when he faced Brian Green at Bellator 129 in his 30th pro fight? It ended up as his first fight to go to a decision.
“That motherfucker’s tough,” Smith told Combat Press. “That dude fought four rounds with Kimbo [Slice]. That boy can fight. You can say whatever you want about him. That dude can fight.”
This story may seem to be a lecture on a fighter’s record. However, read on. It will all make sense soon.
Smith already had a long and storied record almost six years ago when he had his first UFC fight against Antonio Braga Neto at UFC on Fuel TV 10. Remember Fuel TV? There are millions of mainstream fans who’ve never even heard of the channel, and that was Smith’s 27th pro fight at only 23 years old. Most 23-year-old fighters are lucky to get into a mid-level regional promotion, but Smith was already a veteran competing in the UFC by 2014. Unfortunately, he lost by submission to Neto and had to do some more work to make it back to the Octagon.
In previous interviews with Combat Press, he has repeatedly expressed his belief that he is one of the best fighters in the world and that he would eventually be a UFC champion. Most people just laughed him off.
“Lionheart,” fresh off a three-fight skid that sandwiched the Neto loss between defeats at the hands of Roger Gracie and Josh Neer, used two Bellator wins as a launching point into what turned into a seven-fight winning streak and belts from every promotion that gave him a chance. After five finishes in a row, he finally got the call. In February 2016, Smith entered the Octagon again to meet Leonardo Guimarães. Smith won by decision. However, it was becoming apparent that as he came into his prime, the weight cuts were starting to catch up to him. He bookended a three-fight winning streak with losses to Cezar “Mutante” Ferreira and Thiago Santos.
Smith is 6-foot-4 and sports a 76-inch reach. He was always a big middleweight, so when he had a few late stoppage wins in a row and came out super emaciated a year ago in his final middleweight loss to the aforementioned Santos, he knew it was time to make a change.
At UFC 225, Smith kicked off a new lease on life. He bumped up to 205 pounds for the first time in his career and knocked out former UFC champ Rashad Evans in 53 seconds. Then, he knocked out Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, another former UFC titleholder, the following month in just 89 seconds. By Halloween, he had added a submission of second-ranked light heavyweight Volkan Oezdemir and was in line for a title shot. After a 41-fight middleweight career spanning the previous half decade and a strong opening to his light heavyweight campaign, why is it so hard for people to respect Smith as a legitimate title contender?
“People need to pay attention,” Smith said. “That’s what they need to do. Go back and watch the Oezdemir fight. Go back and actually break down that fight, round-by-round and punch-by-punch. Look at every single exchange Volkan and I had, and you tell me how many of those exchanges I actually lost. Slow the video down and see who landed — and who landed clean — in all of those exchanges. What I saw when I left that fight was a face that didn’t even have a mark on it. I didn’t have a mark on my face, and I was facing the supposed heaviest hitter in the division right now.
“But people want to go online and say that Volkan was beating my ass. If beating my ass means taking a bunch of leg kicks, then, yeah, he beat my ass. Taking the leg kicks was a choice. People are saying I can’t check leg kicks, but if you have to decide, would you rather take leg kicks or a punch to the face? I chose the kick.”
On the surface, it might seem like Smith is being defensive. Who wouldn’t be? The guy has more pro experience than any ranked fighter in his division. He just finished three guys in less than five months, and Oezdemir was ranked at the top of the division.
Former champ Jon Jones, who still has yet to be beaten by anyone other than himself, was coming off a suspension and faced Alexander Gustafsson for the second time in a bid to win back the title at UFC 232 on Dec. 29, 2018. Jones scored a TKO in the third round to reclaim his crown. The immediate buzz turned to a Jones-Smith title fight. The internet trolls immediately objected, but that’s what the uneducated do.
“I don’t know who else they would’ve given it to, number one,” Smith rebutted. “I put the work in. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m still here, doing the same shit I’ve been doing [and] saying the same things that I’ve been saying — that I’m going to be a world champion or I’m going to die trying. Goddammit, I think people are starting to take me serious now. Whether you believe I’m going to win or not, you’ve got to respect the grind. You’ve got to respect the hustle I’ve been on. I don’t need you to be a fan. I just need you to respect what I’m doing. That’s really it. I need all the support I can get. If I want to be remembered, I want to be remembered as the dude that never gave up. I think I deserve the position that I am in.”
After a small hiccup was cleared regarding picograms of steroid metabolites still showing up in Jones’ system, it was announced just a few weeks ago that Smith would finally get his crack at the champ on March 2 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the headlining bout of UFC 235.
“I’m just excited, and I’m ready to fuckin’ rock and roll,” Smith said. “We were in talks with them for a while, you know? It was really about dates and locations, and shit like that — and the issue with Jon’s drug test and all that stuff. We wanted to make sure we were past all that shit before we even talked about it. I was excited, man. I mean, fuck, we’re finally here after all these years. With all the bullshit, and the ups and downs, and then getting one and dropping one and getting close again and dropping one, [now] we’re here. It’s finally time where we can go and just do it.”
One of the toughest fights in Jones’ career was when he fought Gustafsson the first time, in September 2013. The two men went five rounds. Jones was named the victor, but many people felt the Swede did enough to win. When Jones came back after a nearly year and a half layoff, nobody really knew what to expect. However, they probably expected Gustafsson to perform at least a little better than he did.
“I thought that Gustafsson was going to have a similar game plan as he did before,” Smith admitted. “I think Gustafsson just didn’t show up. He looked intimidated. He looked tentative. He looked nervous. He didn’t pull the trigger. He had no movement. He didn’t counter off the kicks, like he did in the first fight. He didn’t let Jon come to him. He kind of chased Jon a little bit. He defended the takedowns, but he wasn’t striking out of the clinch like he did in the first fight. Everything that was successful in the first fight, he didn’t do in the second.
“I am glad that I got to see him one time first, just so there’s not a whole lot of questions. We kind of know where he’s at, and I expect him to be much better. I expect Jon to make the adjustments. I expect him to be more of an athlete this time around. I expect him to have his feet a little more under him than he did. He’ll be better than in the Gustafsson fight. I expect that.”
After seeing Jones come back in prime form, it’s hard to bet against him in any fight. However, while he may be one of the greatest fighters in history, he does have his deficiencies. The problem seems to be that, whether or not his opponent know his tells, they seem to get in the cage with him and freak out, because, after all, it is Jon Jones.
“Jon Jones isn’t a specialist anywhere,” said Smith. “He’s not mind-blowing good at any one specific discipline. He’s very good at blending it together and managing distance. He’s obviously a great athlete and very smart and coachable, but he’s not a master anywhere.
“I think that I’m probably not the first one to identify Jon’s weaknesses. I just think I’m probably the only one who’s going to be able to execute and capitalize on them. I think that not only is Jon Jones a great fighter and a great athlete, but his coaches are also very smart and doing a good job of masking his holes and the things he doesn’t do well. They are doing a good job of hiding those. They took the route that, instead of going through and fixing these things and changing his entire style, they’re going to protect them. Instead of closing the holes, they’re going to protect them. That’s a credit to Jon and his coaches.”
At this time last year, Smith was sort of lost. He was coming off the fight with Santos and not feeling great about his place in the middleweight division. Now, he is fighting Jones for the light heavyweight title. He is confident that he has a legit shot at taking the belt, too.
“I think that’s part of my mentality that’s made me successful in this sport,” Smith said. “Everyone’s got a plan and direction they want to go, but when it comes down to it, you need to be able to roll with the punches. You need to take what comes at you and adapt. I had no idea any of this could have happened, but I just took it as it came, and here we are.”
Smith is a very outspoken individual. “Lionheart” has always been confident, but never cocky. The same can’t be said of Jones. The champ has truly never lost a fight. In his 10th pro outing, he was disqualified for 12-to-6 elbows on Matt Hamill, which he apparently didn’t know were illegal. After his second win over Daniel Cormier, the fight was overturned to a no-contest due to a failed drug test. The truth is, the only person who has beaten Jones is Jones. The two times he lost his belt since becoming the youngest champ in UFC history in 2011 were the two times it was stripped from him.
“It’s funny how that works out,” said Smith. “I’ve always been the biggest advocate against performance-enhancing drugs, but it’s become such a narrative in this sport. I don’t even know what to think about it. It feels like you’re getting fed so much shit. I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I do think that at least some point in time, Jon tried to gain an unfair advantage and paid the consequences for that. But now that I’m here, I think Gustafsson made a big mistake and focused so much on Jon’s PED use that it overtook his mindset. The way I look at it, whether Jon cheated or not, we’re still fucking fighting.
“Whatever happens in the fight — this is a crazy game; anything can happen in the cage, and I’m fully expecting to go in there and dethrone Jon Jones — Jon Jones is not going to make me look bad. If Jon Jones thinks this is going to be an easy fight, good luck.”
Jones has held the narrative for some time that he was not impressed with Smith’s win over Oezdemir and that he expects to beat Smith with ease. Some fighters may take offense, but Smith is a smart guy who wants to be a world champion. He won’t let his ego get in the way.
“I think that Jon is completely looking over me, and that’s OK,” said Smith. “I don’t think Jon really takes anybody that seriously. I just don’t. I think that he believes in himself and that he’s the best in the world. He has no reason not to believe that, so I don’t think he’s worried at all. Honestly, he should believe that. However, believing that and completely overlooking somebody are two different things. For Jon’s sake, I hope that’s not the case. For my sake, I hope he is overlooking me. I don’t need to beat the best Jon Jones. I just need to beat Jon Jones for the title. I don’t care.”
In the last eight years, every single person gunning for the coveted UFC light heavyweight title has talked about how they were going to beat Jones. Cormier, who ran through everyone else in the division, lost to Jones decisively twice, PEDs or not. So, what makes Smith different, outside of his experience, his newfound conditioning as a 205-pound fighter, and his overall grittiness?
“I want it more,” Smith said. “I’m willing to lose more to get there. I really believe that. I don’t think there’s anybody in the UFC that wants to be a champion more than I do. I don’t think I need to say that for people to know that’s true. The things I’ve done, the work I’ve put in, the sacrifices I’ve made, and the hardships I’ve been through — just those alone — prove that.”
For all the ups and downs of his career, Smith has finally gotten one step closer to achieving his goal of becoming a UFC champion. The next stop on his journey comes on Saturday, March 2, when he throws down with Jones in the fight capital of the world and attempts to take the belt from one of the most prolific and controversial champions in the history of the sport. If getting there has not earned him the respect he deserves, then the title certainly will. However, even the win won’t complete the journey for “Lionheart.”
“I’m going to finish Jon Jones,” he said. “I’m not preparing to beat Jon Jones once. I’m fully preparing to have to beat him twice.”