Nobody would blame you if you felt a little bit of déjà vu around Anthony Smith leading up to his main event bout against Ryan Spann on September 18. The narrative around the fight is blatantly similar to Smith’s fight against Jimmy Crute at UFC 261. It’s an impressive up-and-comer who sees a fight against Smith as their proverbial window of opportunity to enter the light heavyweight elite. Smith didn’t hesitate to say he would open the door for those fast risers, but now, he believes they’re beginning to understand what they’re getting into against “Lionheart.”
“They all know that I walk that walk, and I do what I say,” Smith told UFC.com at Factory X MMA in Denver. “I’ve been saying it for years. I’ll fight anybody, anywhere, any time. I don’t give a s**t; it doesn’t matter to me. The paychecks are the same. I don’t care. Now, these up-and-comers and the younger guys in the division, they’re like, ‘Oh, s**t. He’s for real. He wasn’t joking.’ Now, they’re just flooding in. I opened the door, and now they’re all coming, so I assumed he (Spann) was going to be next.”
Top Finishes: Anthony Smith
Top Finishes: Anthony Smith
Before the Crute fight, Smith framed two kinds of fighters: climbers and defenders, and for the last few fights, Smith accepted his need to defend his spot at the top of the division. After dropping back-to-back fights to Glover Teixeira and Aleksandar Rakic, he knew he had work to do. He got back into the winner’s circle with a dominant submission win over Devin Clark to round out 2020, and his win over Crute further solidified his position.
While his most recent victory held plenty of weight, Smith said his loss to Rakic opened his eyes to a different reality.
“I came back, I kept my mouth shut, I put my head down, I didn’t ask for s**t,” Smith said. “I just fought the next young guy, the next young killer, the next young lion that they threw at me, and after I beat Ryan Spann, I’ll have beaten them and finished them all. At this point, now, I’m going to start looking forward again. I think it’s time for a title-eliminator after this, especially if I get a finish and a dominant finish.”
Smith catapulted himself into the light heavyweight title picture quickly after knocking out Rashad Evans and Shogun Rua in the span of six weeks during the summer of 2018. He added a submission win over Volkan Oezdemir to his ledger, and nine months after making his divisional debut, he challenged Jon Jones for the title at UFC 235. He ultimately came up short, but he tallied another win over a light heavyweight mainstay – a knockout over Alexander Gustafsson in Sweden – to round out his debut year at 205 pounds in style. In that time, Smith garnered the reputation of a “legend killer.”
So that begs the question: Would a dominant win over Spann make Smith the “prospect killer?”
“Eventually, people might just think maybe I’m just good,” Smith said. “Maybe I’m just good. Maybe I can beat the old guys and the young guys.”
Of course, beating Spann is no easy task. The Fortis MMA product is 5-1 in the Octagon with three finishes and is chomping at the bit to prove he’s the next big thing.
Smith isn’t taking Spann lightly at all, but he’s also enjoying himself during this training camp. In Smith’s eyes, Spann doesn’t have anything particularly threatening in terms of a special skill – he’s just an overall dangerous fighter. With that in mind, the only thing Smith can do is work on himself and sharpen his own abilities.
“I don’t really have to do anything special for Ryan Spann,” Smith said. “I just gotta get as good as I can get; I need to get my sword as sharp as I can get it, and then just use it to chop his head off. That’s kind of our approach in the game. He’s a little arrogant, which is weird to me, but I’ve been the young guy chasing the higher-ranked guys…I think it’s a perfect fight for me to showcase a lot of stuff I haven’t been able to up to this point. What I haven’t had to do in a while is be real gritty and make it real nasty and ugly, which, deep down in here is who I really want to be, actually.”
The person who has helped Smith trend more toward the technical side of things is Marc Montoya. The Factory X head coach has worked with Smith for the last several years, and, along with the several young risers in the gym like Devonte Smith, Youssef Zalal and Brandon Royval, he’s kept Smith at the top of his game.
That said, it’s hard to keep a fighter from just going out and fighting, which is what Spann might require of Smith.
“Marc is the one that forces me to be technical and pretty and clean and try not to get hit,” Smith said. “I don’t actually want to do that. I just want to bite down on my mouthpiece and throw down, and I think (Spann) is the perfect guy to do that with.”
After this fight, Smith is hopeful – adamant, even – he can shift his attention upwards. As the division lays out right now, he believes he has a case to call for a rematch against Rakic, who followed his victory over Smith with a controlled win over Thiago Santos.
Regardless, the Nebraska-native has a better understanding of his stature in the sport these days. Smith said he regularly talks with Teixiera after their fight in 2020, and Teixeira telling him that he was chasing after Smith for a while shed more light on where Smith is at in his career. He says it’s a weird feeling, but in accepting that target on his back, he feels like he’s on the cusp of another shot at the title.
“I’m willing to defend my position one more time, but after this, there’s no more prospects,” Smith said. “I stubbed my toe in the Rakic fight and the Glover fight. I think, after this fight, I’ve more than made up for that.”