How cliché is it to say 2020 was a crappy year? Everyone is sick of hearing about it. The loathsome year was worse for some than it was for others, and in most cases, it just depends on what aspect someone is evaluating. UFC light heavyweight Anthony Smith had his own weird 2020, and it was different than a lot of others.
As Smith entered 2020, he was firing high on all cylinders. He was coming off a fourth-round submission win over Alexander Gustafsson in June 2019, he was newly married, and he was getting ready for his first UFC headliner in his home state of Nebraska. Things were looking good all-around.
In mid-March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was picking up steam in the U.S., the whole world began shutting down, and there was uncertainty about whether his bout in Lincoln against Glover Teixeira would even happen. Then, on April 5, an intruder unknowingly entered his home screaming, and he had to fight the intruder with all of his might until police arrived. Four days later, the Lincoln card was postponed, along with every other major sporting event in the world.
When sports started to get back into swing in late spring, the UFC was one of the first to the punch. However, instead of a homecoming bout in front of a noisy crowd in Lincoln, Smith ended up facing Teixeira in front of no crowd in Jacksonville, Fla. in mid-May. Smith lost in the fifth round by TKO. He followed that with a decision loss to Aleksandar Rakic in August. It was not the not the best five months of his life. However, he faced Devin Cark in November, and was able to get back in the win column to finish the year on a positive note.
“ fucking sucked for sure,” Smith told Combat Press. “But, it sucked for everybody. I’ve had worse years, as far as my career goes, that’s for sure. I was able to fight three times. The UFC takes really good care of me. I was still able to work on the desk a handful of times. I didn’t win all those fights, but I ended the year on a win. It sucks to lose two in a row, which I’ve never done in the UFC before. I don’t know man, I feel like 2020 is just extending into 2021. It’s just the same shit.”
A lot of people would agree that the world did not just magically get better after New Year’s Day 2021. And, while Smith’s career was back on track, he, along with his wife Mikhala and their three young daughters are still experiencing some of the residual turmoil that came with the home invasion.
“We’re still dealing with it,” explained Smith. “I still can’t get my youngest to sleep in her own bed. The other two wake up in the middle of the night weirded out sometimes. They had their sense of safety taken from them. You know, you are supposed to feel safest when you’re in your own home, and that’s not necessarily the case for them. It was a super isolated situation. It was random. Just unlucky for us.”
Well, time heals all wounds, and the Smith family is definitely made up of a bunch of fighters, so his girls will snap back in due time. And, while that one unfortunate incident had its effects, Smith’s two losses actually helped him bring some mental clarity to his fight game.
“I think that those two fights helped me realize I need to stop being such a man all the time,” Smith admitted. “I’m never going to make an excuse for the Glover fight or the Rakic fight. Those guys were the better guys that day. That being said, I think I could have brought a better product to the table each one of those fights, had I done a better job of looking inward and being honest with myself when I look in the mirror. The Glover fight – I mean, it was documented everywhere – was a terrible lead-up to the fight. It wasn’t just for me. I’m sure it was for Glover. So, I was just in a bad situation in terms of where I was in my head, as well as my personal life. I just need to be more honest with myself in where I’m really at, emotionally and mentally.”
The Clark fight in November was one that was arguably a long-time coming. Not as much for Smith, but Clark had been calling out the Nebraskan since he defeated a former UFC champ in his light heavyweight debut in June 2018.
“It was right after [the] Rashad [Evans fight],” Smith said. “I was trying to get a spot on the first Lincoln card – that Gaethje ended up main-eventing versus James Vick. [Clark] really wanted to fight. He was confident and wanted to get it. And then, I ended up taking the ‘Shogun’ [Rua] fight short-notice instead. That’s when my whole run started. But, I remember that, and I’ve known Devin a long time. He came up in the South Dakota scene, and we were in RFA at the same time. I was actually at his UFC debut in Sioux Falls.”
Smith gave Clark the opportunity to get some, and Smith came out on top. While it was nice to best Clark, it was even sweeter just to get a victory at all.
“It was just nice to get the win,” Smith said. “It sounds crazy, but I hadn’t had a win since I fought Gustafsson in Sweden. Sometimes, you forget what it feels like, and I think it’s that feeling there why a lot of guys never retire. You know, you’re chasing that 10 seconds of emotion that you have as soon as the fight is over – as soon as you know that you won. You quickly forget what that feels like, but you remember what a loss feels like for your whole life.
“I remember what it’s like to lose my very first fight, or my first pro [loss]; I remember what I felt like in those moments. Didn’t have anything against Devin, and I didn’t even think we were going to cross paths, if I’m being honest. I was at [185-pounds] for the longest time, and then he was at 205. When I went to 205, I was kind of getting high in the rankings, and, no disrespect, but he wasn’t making his way up there very fast.”
Smith is currently ranked sixth in the UFC light heavyweight division. He’s behind three guys he has lost to, as well as Dominick Reyes, Jiri Prochazka and current champ Jan Blachowicz, who picked up the belt that Jon Jones vacated last year. Blachowicz had his first title defense last month with a win over surging middleweight champ Israel Adesanya. The outcome was unexpected by most pundits, but Smith wasn’t as surprised.
“As far as what I thought when he won the title, I was really happy for that guy,” Smith expressed. “You know, he’s older – I think he’s one of the older guys in the division. He’s done everything the right way. He doesn’t trash talk, treats people with respect, trains hard. He’s had an up-and-down career [with] some success and some struggles. We both know that I can relate to that. You put it together, and you look like a world beater, and sometimes you shit the bed and your consistency becomes a problem. I’m just happy for a guy like that to hold the title.”
With 2020 in the rearview mirror, Smith is set for his first fight of what he hopes will be a big 2021, as he faces Australia’s Jimmy Crute this weekend at UFC 261. It will be the promotion’s first event with a full crowd at the same arena in Jacksonville where Smith had his first fight after the pandemic started. Crute is currently ranked No. 13 in the division, and is on a two-fight winning streak. He last fought in October 2020, when he scored a first-round knockout of Modestas Bukauskas. Crute has only suffered one loss to Misha Cirkunov, and has finished nine opponents in 12 wins.
“I like his style a lot,” said Smith. “I like the way he fights. He’s kind of that new breed of fighter that we’ve seen the last four or five years. They just kind of fight everywhere. He’s not really a specialist. He’s just really solid everywhere he goes. And, he doesn’t seem to care where the fight goes. He just fights where it’s at, which I think favors me, because that’s the way I’ve been fighting for a long time. I’m not really a specialist anywhere. I’m just really good everywhere. He’s young, he’s hungry. He’s going to be tough as shit, because this is his title shot. This is his opportunity to jump into the top five. A win over me, and we’re talking Jimmy Crute in title contention. He knows that, and I know that. I just think that means he’s going to come hard and fast, and he’s super motivated. He’s wanted this for a long time, and I think I’ve got my hands full with Jimmy Crute.”
Smith does not look at Crute as a stepping stone back into title contention by any means. In fact, he feels that Crute’s ranking is not indicative of where he really sits in the division. He also knows that to get back to where he wants to be and get another crack at the strap, he has to beat Crute.
“I think that Jimmy Crute is really underrated,” Smith said. “You know, they rank us by who we’ve beaten, not necessarily what their skill set is. He’s extremely underrated, and I think he’s going to show that in our fight. I think the UFC and the hardcore fans also know that. I think a win over him means a lot, especially with the narrative that’s been said about me – all of the really high-ranked guys I’ve beaten are older. That’s why I was excited about the Devin Clark fight.
“He was a young, hungry, strong killer. Like I said in the lead-up to that, there are levels to this shit. I’m not necessarily the youngest guy in the division, but I’m not the oldest either. I’m trying to prove that I can take out those young hungry kids that just want to take our heads off. I think with a win over him, I deserve a crack at a contender fight, where the winner goes to a title shot. Whether that’s [Thiago] Santos or Reyes or whatever – Rakic – there’s a bunch of guys up there, and they have a bunch of fights going on. They all have to fall into place. I’m just going to focus on Jimmy Crute and see where it goes after that. I think, chances are, my next fight I’m going to have to rematch somebody.”
Smith did not have a great 2020, but nobody really did. However, he expects a lot more out of this year, and it all starts on Saturday night, live at UFC 261 to kick off the main card on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
“Before the end of 2021, I want to be the No. 1 contender,” Smith said. “I think that’s totally doable. Especially, if I can fight three times like I did last year. I think the Blachowicz-Izzy fight really highlighted our division. The spotlight has always been on Jon Jones and not the rest of the division. And, it’s kind of shit on us, because – for what it’s worth, as much as I don’t like Jon – he’s good, and he beat us all. It doesn’t really make us all look that good. Now that he’s out of the division, I think you’ll really see how good the division is compared to the other ones. I think it’s going to be moving fast, and I think by the end of the year, I’ll be the No. 1 contender.”
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