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Five wins, five losses. That was Anthony Smith’s record in 2010 after spending two years and 10 fights roaming the Midwest’s regional MMA circuit. “Lionheart” finished four out of five of his foes and was in turn was stopped in all five of his losses. All but one of these bouts ended inside two rounds.
Smith started his professional career in a most unpropitious manner, an action fighter whose fights resembled a symphony of violence reliably bookended with a knockout or submission. It took him six years and 30 fights to finally make it to the final bell -- a unanimous decision victory over Brian Green at Bellator 129 -- and almost a decade to put consecutive victories together under the Ultimate Fighting Championship banner. However, since 2016, the 30-year-old has gone 7-2 in the world’s largest MMA promotion and is riding a three-fight winning streak straight to the top of the light heavyweight division. After his performance on Saturday in the UFC Fight Night 138 main event, he stands on the precipice of getting a shot at one of the most coveted prizes in all of combat sports.
To watch Smith fight is to witness resilience personified. To understand the depth of Smith’s self-belief, one only need to rewind eight months, when he squared off against middling 185-pound contender Thiago Santos on the main-card opener for UFC Fight Night 125 in Belem, Brazil. Both were riding three-fight winning streaks, but Santos -- then the No. 15-ranked middleweight in the promotion -- was a resounding favorite. The battleground was enemy territory, and a partisan, pro-Santos crowd showered the Nebraskan with boos. The bell rang, and both men charged forward, meeting in the center of the cage in a tornado of punches, kicks and elbows. After 50 seconds, Santos clipped Smith’s chin with a thundering spinning hook kick and a follow-up flying knee. Five minutes of punishment later, Santos hit the American with a cringe-inducing liver kick and the fight was called off; Smith’s momentum derailed for what must have felt like the hundredth time.
Smith had flashes of success, but for five of the six minutes, he looked like target-practice. Before he flew back home, he posted a picture of himself on Twitter from the locker room, fresh bruises unfurling across his face. The caption read as follows: “Either you win or you learn. I’m just getting started.”
My Name is Anthony Smith, and I Want a Title Shot
The following month, Smith announced he was moving up a weight division, a decision motivated in no small measure by the harrowing weight cuts he had to endure to make it down to 185 pounds. Four months later, he knocked out former 205-pound champion Rashad Evans inside a minute on the UFC 225 preliminary card before taking out fellow former titleholder Mauricio Rua in 90 seconds six weeks later in his first ever main event slot.
The recipe for Smith’s success was one part confidence and two parts opportunism. In a division that has grown stagnant courtesy of an absentee champion, a free-agent market on the upswing and a round-robin of contenders that have alternated wins and losses against one another, his propensity for violently seizing the moment has breathed new life into a wasteland. Smith speaks with a calm self-assuredness in the buildup to his conquests and then unleashes his demons when the Octagon door closes.
UFC Fight Night 138 was Smith’s watershed moment. It’s one thing to take out big names on the decline, but Volkan Oezdemir is smack bang in the middle of his prime, a No. 2-ranked contender whose last fight was for the title. His two victories before that -- KOs of Jimi Manuwa and Misha Cirkunov -- lasted a combined 70 seconds, and it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that the oddsmakers pegged “No Time” as the favorite.
The first two rounds of their main event clash did not go Smith’s way, as Oezdemir tested his durability with power punches, chopping leg kicks and a perfectly timed takedown in the second stanza. However, unlike his fight with Santos, Smith maintained his composure under pressure, and when the third round began, he waded right back into the fire. After three minutes of trading power shots, he wrestled Oezdemir to the ground and secured a choke; his squeeze was so tight you’d have sworn he was depriving every self-doubt he’d ever had of oxygen.
With the victory, Smith joins a rarefied circle of fighters -- those who swam in the agonizing depths of irrelevancy and stayed the course to make an unlikely rise to the apex of the sport. It’s one thing to encounter setbacks; it’s another to be finished 12 times and still keeping showing up for work on Monday. Smith’s determination is in a league all of its own. Amidst an ocean of poorly-thought-out nicknames, “Lionheart” perfectly describes the essence of who he is.
Whether a championship fight is next on his plate will be decided by variables wholly outside of Smith’s control. Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafson will reportedly do battle for the vacant 205-pound strap in December, but for now, the title belongs to Daniel Cormier, who defends his other accolade -- that of “The Baddest Man on the Planet -- this Saturday at UFC 230.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Jones and “DC” battle a third time for the championship early in 2019, but given that Smith has competed an incredible four times in the past eight months, an “[expletive] break” is the only thing on his short-term radar. He spoke enthusiastically about booking a date with whoever’s the champion for the International Fight Week card in July, and given his showing in 2018, he might just have done enough to secure that spot.
Either way, it bears underscoring what Smith represents and why it matters: an anyone-anywhere-anytime fighter who faced an Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth of adversity but is still here swinging for the fences, taking down some of the best fighters in the world in the process. In a sport that can be so full of heartbreak, Smith’s marathon to the summit is nothing short of inspiring.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.