Anthony Smith (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

UFC on ESPN+ 29’s Anthony Smith: The Year of the Unexpected

Life will never be the same. That’s the understatement of the year. So many people entered 2020 with big expectations for what the new decade would hold. #2020vision was trending so much on social media that it was almost played out before most people even caught on. The global economy was booming. There was a buzz in the air like none other. Oh, how quickly the winds can change.

While everyone was gearing up for a big year, news was quickly spreading around the world about a virus circulating in Wuhan, China, that was a new form of coronavirus, eventually given the official name of COVID-19, which, in extreme cases, could cause deadly pneumonia-like symptoms. However, the U.S. economy was still going strong, restaurants and theaters were thriving, and one of the biggest sports seasons of the year, NCAA March Madness, was getting ready to start.

The first half of the year is typically a busy time in the world of MMA too. By March 12, the UFC had already hosted seven events in just a seven and a half week span. The next event was to be held two days later in Brazil. Nebraskan Anthony Smith was in camp to fight fellow light heavyweight Glover Teixeira in Lincoln, Neb., only six weeks later.


“That’s the most exciting part,” Smith told Combat Press that day. “I made my pro debut in Lincoln a block from where the arena‘s at now. It’s a huge deal for me. It’s hard to even put it into words how I feel about it. The way the UFC is looking at it, it’s in Nebraska, and it’s a Nebraskan who got started in Nebraska [and] traveled all over the world, trained all over the world, and fought all over the world, has fought some of the greatest guys in the world, and never had a home game. Now, I finally get to headline a UFC card in the same city I started my professional career in. Your friends and family can’t always come when you’re traveling all over the world.”

Smith was hard at work getting ready for the fight. He mixed up his training a bit, adding additional stops to his regimen, and he was ready to get right back in line for a title shot.

“I’ve been in Denver for four weeks, after spending two weeks in Kansas City with James Krause,” Smith told Combat Press that day. “I’m home next week for the UFC filming crew, I’m two weeks back in Kansas City, and then I’m back here for two weeks. I’ve been down [to Kansas City] a couple times, but never for this long. That’s definitely a new addition to training, is adding Krause. I’ve trained with him a bunch in Denver, but this will be his first time in a coaching/cornering role for me.”

Smith is coming off an impressive fourth-round submission victory over Alexander Gustafsson in June 2019, following a loss to Jon Jones the previous March in a bid for the title. The loss to Jones was a tough pill to swallow, and Smith had a lot of pent-up aggression going into the Gustafsson bout.

“It wasn’t my best performance, but it was one I was proud of, which was all I was looking for,” Smith admitted. “I didn’t even fucking care if I won or I lost. I just wanted to go in there and punch him — a lot. I was so fucking pissed off about the Jon Jones thing. I was so angry at myself. I was just mad at the world. I just needed to get that off my chest. I went in there with absolutely no expectations of winning. I know that sounds crazy, but I honestly didn’t care.”

The victory over Gustafsson was a good one to get on his record, but it didn’t come without consequences. A hand injury put Smith on the sidelines for the remainder of the year.

“I broke it at the very beginning of the second round, throwing a check hook,” Smith said. “When I threw it, I hit him right on the top of his head. It just shattered. Then, I had surgery right when I got back from Sweden, and they put a plate on it. I went in for my five-week checkup, and the plate they had put on had broken, and the bone had shifted. So, they had to go back in, take the broken plate out, reset the bone, and put a bigger plate in. They drilled holes in my femur and my shin, and took a plug out, and used that spongy bone material for a bone graft in my hand to close it back up.”

During his downtime, Smith was brushing up on a new gig he had picked up between fights. When Jones fought Gustafsson the second time in December 2018, Smith tried his hand as an ESPN analyst. It turned out he was pretty good at it. While he was recovering with limited training and also getting ready for his wedding in the fall, he was still able to stay front-and-center with the fight game.

“I think being an analyst has helped me out a lot,” Smith explained. “During the downtime, it kept my mind focused on fighting. Before, I only watched fight film very, very lightly. Anytime I watched somebody fight, it was always how I would do in this fight or how I would match up with this person. Now, I watch a bunch of fights just to see what this guy does well, what he does bad, where his holes are. So, I’m just watching hours and hours of film, watching other guys fight, and it’s making me a smarter fighter.

“I think this is a transition, for sure. I like doing it. It’s nice to keep working and staying in the sport. Honestly, it’s nice to get a check without getting punched in the face for it. I just enjoy and do that stuff anyway. When I’m sitting around with my boys at the house watching pay-per-views, I sit around and my friends just ask me questions. Essentially, I’m doing the exact same thing as at home.”

Everything was back on the right track for Smith one year after the loss to Jones. He was healed up, more mentally sound from analyzing fights, and mixing up his training between Factory X Muay Thai in Denver, his coaches Scott Morton and Danny Molina in Omaha, and Glory MMA & Fitness in Kansas City.

March 12 was a beautiful day in Denver. It was sunny and 54 degrees outside, and the streets were abuzz with people going to and from work. Events were being canceled left and right, though, and stay-at-home orders were about to take effect in the coming days. The NBA, MLB, and NHL seasons had already been suspended indefinitely, and the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament was announced as canceled during Smith’s interview with Combat Press, which paused the conversation. However, news of the virus in the United States was fairly new still, and a lot of folks didn’t really know what was going to happen.

Smith was still set to fight Teixeira at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln on April 25. The only news thus far about upcoming events was that the UFC was preparing to hold the Brazil event behind closed doors, and that the Columbus, Ohio, card on March 28 was to be held at the UFC’s Apex Center in Las Vegas.

“I’m not worried at all,” Smith said that day. “A lot of these cancellations are for four weeks, and that’s kind of the time frame they think things are going to be taken care of, and they have a hold of it. My fight’s over five weeks away, so I think when it comes time for me to fight, I have faith that our medical system and government will get a handle on it. We’ve got the best healthcare in the world. I think by my fight, we’re going to have a pretty good handle on it.

“Social media is making things a lot more visible, and it spread quickly, but I think this thing is going to be an afterthought. I don’t think it’s going to be as crazy and as scary in two to three weeks. Honestly, if they did have to move it, I think they’d move it to the Apex. Or they might do a closed fight with no spectators, fans or family, which would suck. I fought my whole goddamn career to finally be on a main event in Nebraska.”

Well, things took a turn for the worst. Stores were selling out of basic supplies like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and even ramen noodles and other dry goods, like flour. Everything was getting canceled. Schools were shutting down. Cities and states went on lockdown. There were no venues to host any type of sporting event. Smith was already planning on heading back home that weekend. However, he had no plans to slow down his training, especially for a guy like Teixiera. What he wasn’t planning for was a fight in his own home.

On April 5, at 4 a.m. local time, Smith and his wife Mikhala were fast asleep, when all of a sudden, they heard a man screaming from another room in their house. The father of three young daughters shot out of bed and confronted a 21-year-old former high school wrestling standout. A brawl unfolded with Smith holding the man down and beating him with every strike he could throw. The man was incredibly strong and clearly under some kind of adverse mental condition, but Smith was able to hold the man down until the Douglas County Sheriffs arrived. This took a toll on the family, which is the last thing somebody needs to worry about during a fight camp.

Four days after the incident, it was officially announced that future UFC events would be postponed. This meant no fight in the birthplace of his career in front of all of his family and friends. It also meant that he didn’t really know where or when he would actually fight.

Within three weeks, the UFC brass finally landed a venue in Jacksonville, Fla.. The organization now plans to host three events in eight days, all at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. The second of these events is UFC Fight Night: Smith vs. Teixeira. The card, which will air live on ESPN+, takes place Wednesday, May 13, with Smith and Teixeira in the headlining slot.

“I like the match-up,” Smith said. “Glover’s pretty black and white. He’s not going to come out and throw anything crazy. I don’t give a shit what anybody says about him, he’s still a dangerous veteran. You know, power is the last thing to go, and he’s still got plenty of that. He’s a wily veteran. Fighting Glover is simple, but it’s not easy. You know what you have to do, but it doesn’t make it easier.

“Honestly, he’s a really, really good guy. I know that’s not great for promotional stuff, but I like him a lot. Last time I saw Glover, we had a beer together. I’m sure you’ve seen the story of him helping me in Brazil, when I blew my knee. Any time I see him, it’s a handshake and an embrace. He’s one of the few good guys left in the sport.”

2020 seemed like it was going in the right direction, until the virus outbreak threw a wrench in everyone’s plans. It got even crazier for Smith, who had to endure a home invasion and an event getting pushed out, but, unlike some fighters, at least he still gets to fight. With a good win over Teixeira and the current pandemic eventually in the rear-view mirror, Smith should get back in the title hunt in no time. The year might not have started on the right foot, but it can still end on one.