Anthony Smith was tired. It was evident in his face as he was grounded by Aleksandar Rakic in their August bout. For a little over two years, Smith was burning the candle on both ends and in the middle as he chased a light heavyweight title.
Night after night, it was killer after killer, and as the fights added up, his profile rose, leading him to analyst gigs and a new role as a favorite of the media that embraced him and his story. Add in his most important role as family man and father to his three daughters, it was going to eventually catch up to the Omaha native.
And it did. In the worst place and at the worst time possible.
“Nothing went right,” said Smith of the Rakic fight, which he lost via unanimous decision. “And I'm not making excuses, he beat me fair and square, but I never conceded a position in a fight in my whole life until that fight. It's never happened. I'd rather you rip my head off. The worst part afterwards was thinking I can't believe that guy beat me. I give it to him, he's got heavy leg kicks; he murdered my leg. But he was so strong. I was shocked. I've never been manhandled in my whole life. But I think some of that is that I conceded. All right, I'm gonna be down here for a minute; I'll try to catch him in a submission, and if not, I'll get up. And it never got to that ‘if not, I'll get up’ part.”
Smith has lost before, both before the UFC and during his two stints in the promotion. But he hasn’t felt like this since a 2013 defeat at the hands of UFC vet Josh Neer in the Victory FC promotion.
“Being present and being in the fight are different things,” Smith said. “I was present; that ain't gonna happen again. I had the same feeling after I fought Josh Neer the first time. Josh Neer broke me in my hometown with my mom in the front row. And afterwards, it was the most embarrassing feeling in the world because I gave up on myself. In the last fight, I didn't give up, but I wasn't who I knew I could have been, and it's been bugging me ever since, but I think it's the best thing that ever happened because I had to make these changes.”
The changes have been across the board, little things to those outside of Smith’s world, but huge ones within his circle. From tweaks to his strength and conditioning routine and his nutrition to a new focus on his schedule, Smith says he feels, “Hyper focused” as he prepares for his UFC Fight Night co-main event against Devin Clark this Saturday.
And it all started with a call from an old friend.
“Chael (Sonnen) called me a couple days later and he was like, ‘Here's what you need to do,’” recalled Smith of his conversation with the former world title challenger. “And he gave me this list of things to do, and it had nothing to do with fighting. It was like, ‘Go somewhere with your family and shut your phone off and leave it in the glove box. Tell your radio show to f**k off and if they don't like it, they can find somebody else. Don't answer anybody and just go off somewhere.’”
Smith laughs, but he knew Sonnen was right.
“He said, ‘You're just tired.’”
When you do what Smith and his peers do in the Octagon every couple months, it’s very easy to feel like a superhero, both in and out of competition. But every UFC fighter is human, and Smith, who was on a heck of a run for a long time in the 205-pound division, he found that out the hard way. First was being on the wrong end of a come from behind win by Glover Teixeira in May. Then came the Rakic fight three months later. And when that was over, he had to have a long talk with himself about where he was in the UFC after suffering his first two-fight losing streak in the big show.
“There were a lot of hard questions I had to ask myself,” he said. “I also had to sit with my coaches and say, ‘What is happening?’ Do I still have it? And not just physically. Do I still have the mental capacity to put it together and then continue to chase this title? And I found out that with a little bit of rest and restructure and throwing some s**t at a wall with my therapist that I got it; I just gotta organize it. So, do I still have it and do I still want it? And the answer to both of those questions is yes.”
With that out of the way, the 32-year-old wanted to get into a fistfight. And when Shamil Gamzatov withdrew from his bout with Clark, Smith raised his hand to step in.
“This Devin Clark fight popped up; he lost his opponent,” Smith said. “It was a little sooner than I expected, but I like the fight and I like the matchup. I think it's what I need right now. He's not a specialist, and I don't want to take anything away from him or his skills and abilities, but I've been in there for a couple of years with nothing but straight, stone cold killers. You can't make a mistake with any of these guys.”
Smith pauses, choosing his words carefully because he doesn’t want to make it seem like Clark is a step down in competition because he’s unranked at the moment, while “Lionheart” sits in the number six spot at 205 pounds.
“I know people are looking at me like I'm crazy, like 'I can't believe you accepted a fight with a guy that's unranked,'” he continues. “No, no, no. I asked for this fight. He's coming off a couple wins, I'm coming off a couple losses, he didn't have an opponent and I was willing to shorten my camp. And he's a tough dude. He don't go away, that's for sure. And I'm excited for this one, which sounds crazy. Typically, you get a top 10-ranked guy against an unranked opponent, you get a top ten ranked guy that's not super excited about the fight he's about to be in, but I'm the opposite of that.”
The reason is simple. Smith knows that a three-fight losing streak doesn’t look good no matter how you slice it, so he’s approaching this one like it’s a main event title fight, because in a lot of ways, it’s just as important.
“It's kind of like riding dirt bikes in a motocross race,” he explains. “You can make your way through the course anywhere, but if you don't find your right groove or the right line, it's gonna really be hard. So I'm just not in my groove right now. I think I figured out a lot of the issues and a lot of it's mental. And I think this is one of those guys where I can just go in and be me and fight the fight where it's happening. I don't have to force it and don't have to avoid anywhere. Obviously, he's gonna want to wrestle. There's no secret there. He doesn't have a choice. He can't survive with me for 15 minutes on his feet. He knows it and I know it. So I get to go in there and be me and just fight and not worry about what he's gonna do because it doesn't matter because I'm better than him everywhere. I need to allow myself to go in there and be me and not have some hard and fast game plan where I need to avoid this and watch that. I just go in there and react. And I tend to perform better when I'm able to do that.”
See, Anthony Smith never lost his mojo. He just needed to recalibrate. And on Saturday, he expects to deliver the kind of performance that got him to the top in the first place.
“We had to make a decision - am I chasing money fights or am I chasing the title,” he said. “If I'm chasing money fights, then we just get the biggest fights for the most money. If I'm chasing a title, then between my coaches and the people that I trust close to me, they all were in agreement that we needed to get my groove back again and get my confidence back. I've never lost two in a row in the UFC, and then I was out for a year with an injury, so the last win I had was over (Alexander) Gustafsson a year and a half ago. I don't know how to explain it, but the plan is to fight Devin Clark, go in there, be myself, leave with a win, and then fight again.”
Just like the old days.