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“My name is Anthony Smith, and I want a title shot.”
Thus spoke the unlikeliest of light heavyweight contenders, exhausted and battered, after the biggest win of his career at UFC Fight Night 138 on Saturday in Moncton, New Brunswick. After more than 10 years fighting professionally, including stints in Strikeforce and Bellator MMA on top of a respectable 7-3 record in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “Lionheart” took the opportunity to call for a title shot and remind viewers what to call him.
If you didn’t know his name before, well, there’s a chance you still might not know it now. Despite a gutsy win over the UFC’s second-ranked light heavyweight in Volkan Oezdemir, there’s a reason why Smith had to clarify who he was: To most audiences, he’s still a faceless UFC fighter. In fairness, having a name as aggressively generic as “Anthony Smith” doesn’t help much, either. At least “Jon Jones” has the mnemonic touch of the double-J sound to distinguish itself, if his fighting alone hadn’t already stood out enough.
With Jones set to face Alexander Gustafsson at the end of this year and Smith’s declaration to take time off until next year, his request for a title shot appears to be improbable, at least for the immediate future. However, Smith is clearly in the title picture, which is partially a testament to his resurgence as a fighter in a new weight class and a reminder as how thin the 205-pound weight class is.
Smith has fought at light heavyweight for three fights, each of them taking place this year, and he has won all three by stoppage. Three finishes in a row is impressive, and a cursory look at his winning streak looks even better: Two former champions and a former title contender comprise his victim list at light heavyweight. When you apply a wee bit of scrutiny, however, that accomplishment starts to feel less impressive.
First, his win over Rashad Evans a few months ago is nothing to get hyped about. Going into his fight against Smith, Evans was a few months shy of turning 39 and was riding a four-fight losing streak. He had amassed a 3-6 record in the five years prior to losing to Smith. Mauricio Rua was no doubt a step up from Evans, but the aging legend was still far from his heyday when he lost to “Lionheart.” When Smith defeated Rua earlier this year, “Shogun” was a few months away from turning 36 and hadn’t fought in over a year. Sure, he was also riding a three-fight winning streak, but two of those fights could have easily gone the other way, and his split decision victory against Corey Anderson particularly looked like he got some home cooking on the scorecards. In the five years prior to losing to Smith, Rua went 5-4, which isn’t great on its own but looks much worse considering he should have been 3-6. Smith’s win against Oezdemir in the UFC Fight Night 138 main event is strong, but it may also be a sign that “No Time” was rushed prematurely to the top of the division. Losing to Daniel Cormier is by no means an indictment -- virtually everyone who has fought “DC” has lost to him -- but there was a clear separation of class in that fight. Now the Swiss standout is 3-2 in the UFC overall, and while his career is far from over, Smith’s win over him will only look as good as Oezdemir’s next few performances. Oezdemir may have a resurgence of his own after back-to-back losses, or he may go down as another “Sokoudjou.”
If you’ve hung around this sport long enough, you know that anyone’s record can undergo the same sort of hole-poking to varying degrees, and there is often little insight to glean from such treatment. However, letting the air out of Smith’s winning streak takes very little creativity or analytical flourish; he simply hasn’t fought enough legitimate competition at 205 pounds to give us an accurate reading of where he stands in the division. He may very well be a future champion, but wins over two (hopefully) soon-to-be-retired champs and a fellow divisional question mark do not warrant much enthusiasm.
Still, Smith is likely one or two wins away from a title shot. Imagine getting a title shot off of a win over Jan Blachowicz -- you know, that Jan Blachowicz -- or Dominick Reyes. Can you picture that? No seriously, can you picture what that would look like, because I’m guessing most fight fans couldn’t pick any of them out of a lineup. That sounds glib, and no disrespect is meant to either Blachowicz or Reyes, both of whom are fine fighters in their own right. In fact, they are tied for the longest active winning streak in the division with four apiece; Smith is right below them, alongside the venerable Jordan Johnson. Are any of these names getting you pumped up to see the future of the light heavyweight division? Outside of the Holy Trinity of Jones-Cormier-Gustafsson, these guys are next in line.
To call UFC Fight Night 138 the “big MMA news of the week” would be a bit of an overstatement. There was exactly one fight of divisional relevance on the card, and while several fights were fine -- even good -- there was little to the event that matched the newsworthiness of the so-called trade between the UFC and One Championship that sent Demetrious Johnson to the Singapore-based promotion and welcomed longtime UFC outcast Ben Askren into the fold. What exactly does Smith have to do with “Mighty Mouse” and “The Funky One?”
An idea has floated around that, with Johnson’s departure from the UFC and the statistically demonstrable fact that the flyweight division simply doesn’t sell well, it is therefore sensible for the UFC to get rid of the division altogether. It could buff up the bantamweights, as well as leave room to perhaps install a 165-pound division, both of which sound like good ideas. This argument isn’t exactly new, and I’m always open for the merits of an idea to be weighed and measured honestly. However, I’m not convinced that that rationale extends only to flyweight. The 205-pound title picture is proof of that, unless you believe that a matchup between Smith and Reyes is an inherently bigger blockbuster than Ray Borg-Joseph Benavidez. They sound pretty comparable to me.
You may find yourself thinking, “Who cares about pay-per-view buys? I just want to see good fights!” I agree wholeheartedly. If you’re looking at it purely from a fan’s perspective, the entire discussion about what best serves the UFC bank account is incredibly corny. Yet even if you geek out over the promotion’s finances and how they affect the sport -- which I most certainly do -- there doesn’t seem to be a strong argument that greater combined mass in the cage equals greater casual intrigue. Bear in mind, the two most successful crossover stars in MMA history, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, started their UFC careers at featherweight and bantamweight, respectively. The flyweight and light heavyweight divisions are 80 pounds apart, but everything else is, ahem, virtually identical. Let’s not even get started on the heavyweights, either.
Perhaps there is more to it than kneejerk assumptions and faux-common-sense feelings. After all, Artem Lobov is still out here in co-main events, so clearly the UFC knows what it’s doing.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.