Anthony Smith may not be living the Marvin Hagler line where it’s hard to get up and do roadwork when you’re sleeping in silk pajamas, but there is a question where you wonder if “Lionheart” has lost a bit of his edge since he’s got a nice gig outside of fighting as an expert analyst on UFC broadcasts.
“I think that's what makes it so easy,” said Smith. “There's no stress. I don't have any stress at all. My fallback plan is to make a s**t ton of money traveling around talking about fights. It's not a bad fallback. So there's not a lot of stress as far as really having to make this (fighting) work. I'm just doing this because I really want to. And I just cannot shake this title aspiration. Honestly, it'd be easier if I could. My life would be a whole lot simpler, for sure. I just can't shake it. I don't think I'll ever be happy if I never win one.”
The Nebraska native was close to a belt before, going five rounds with Jon Jones back in 2019, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades for the still hungry Smith, who faces Magomed Ankalaev in a pivotal light heavyweight showdown on the UFC 277 main card in Dallas tonight.
How pivotal? The No.4-ranked Ankalaev is on an eight-fight winning streak, while the No.5-ranked Smith has won three in a row. So does the winner get a shot at newly-crowned 205-pound champ Jiri Prochazka, or will Prochazka make his first title defense against the man he took the belt from, Glover Teixeira?
“I think they (the UFC) are waiting to see what happens with Ankalaev and I, and if you're Jiri Prochazka and you're staring down the pipe at your next opponent and your options are Glover Teixeira or the winner of Ankalaev versus Anthony Smith, who are you taking?” Smith asks. “And that's not a knock on Glover at all; the monster you know is the monster that you know. He (Prochazka) has already been in there with him, I think for the first time in his career, Glover looked a little bit old, he looked a little bit slower and he looked his age for the first time. I don't know if that's the weight cut, travel or whatever, but Jiri knows what he's getting himself into and he's already done it once. I think me or Ankalaev is a tougher fight. So if I'm Jiri Prochazka, I'm probably trying to get that Glover Teixeira fight booked first. That's a smart business move.”
Smith is an optimist, though.
“As long as it's not some boring fight, I think that the winner gets a title shot,” he said.
Will that be the case on Saturday night, though, considering that Ankalev has a recent blueprint to beat Smith in the veteran’s 2020 loss to Aleksandar Rakic, a bout that didn’t exactly set the MMA world on fire? Smith knows that Ankalaev can win fights with his grappling control, but he doesn’t necessarily think the Rakic fight exposed him, either.
“I'm a different guy now, too, though,” he said. “I'm bigger myself, and I'm just in a different place, mentally. That whole Rakic thing, I mindf**ked myself, and I shouldn't have been fighting. I should have taken some time to myself and got my s**t together. But that's an anomaly; that's not the norm. But yeah, if you're Ankalev, that's probably a pretty good gameplan.”
One that Smith will pull out all the stops to avoid, not just for the fans’ sake, but his own, and while the 34-year-old has always been a confident fighter, he sounds even more sure of victory this time around.
“He (Ankalaev) doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but it's because he doesn't do enough things to afford himself the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes,” said Smith of his opponent. “He does a really good job when he fights inside of the box. He has a box he likes to stay in, he doesn't like to get outside of it, and I think the couple times people have gotten him outside of the box, he panics to get back in it, and that's where I'll catch him. I'm an instinctual fighter, I catch people in transitions, I fight really well in the gray area, I perform really well under the fire, and he doesn't. He wants to put fires out, and my job is to continue to keep setting them. (Laughs) And the bulk of my work will be making him uncomfortable and actually forcing him to fight. He's not Jon Jones. Jon Jones does a really good job of avoiding ever actually getting in a fight, and Ankalaev is not that guy. He's not. And that's my plan - just to create chaos and win every little transition in a gray area.”
Bold words, especially when talking about a fighter who could be 18-0 right now if not for a literal last-second loss to Paul Craig in his UFC debut in 2018. But Smith isn’t anointing Ankalaev the next champion yet. He’s saving that title for himself, and if he needs to make a statement against the Russian standout to do it, so be it.
“To be fair, I'm probably the first one that doesn't give a f**k about who he is,” said Smith. “We can talk about his eight-fight win streak all we want, but if I was fighting some of the people he was fighting, I'd be on an eight-fight win streak, too. I've been at the top of the division since 2018, since I've been at 205. My second fight was a guy in the Top Ten. I'm not fighting your (Nikita) Krylovs and your (Ion) Cutelabas. I know that some people look at those as good wins, but I would love me a Krylov-Cutelaba three-peat; that would be great.”
Smith laughs, especially when I ask him about his form of subtle gamesmanship. He’s not coming out and screaming at his foes or getting into some nasty trash talk. He’s telling it the way he sees it, no matter how cutting that might be to an opponent’s ego or confidence.
“I'm never really trying to play a game,” he said. “I'm just answering questions. I know that everyone else sees him (Ankalaev) as the boogeyman. I just don't see it. I don't see what the big deal is, to be very honest. He's not Khabib (Nurmagomedov), he's not (Islam) Makhachev. There's only a couple of those guys out there. I've seen him get nervous, I've seen him break, I've seen him change his game plan because he gets nervous. I've seen him make bad decisions because he gets a little bit caught up in the chaos and gets caught by Paul Craig. You can't lose to Paul Craig and intimidate me; it's not possible. You can't go into the third round, having to ground and stall out Nikita Krylov and make me nervous. It's not possible. So I don't see what everybody else sees, and I think that's the game - I'm just gonna treat him how I feel about him. I'm gonna walk him down like he does to everybody else, and it's going to be five minutes of a pissing contest because he's not gonna want to give it up, but at 5:01 we'll be different. When we're in the second round, I'm not going anywhere and I don't give a s**t about him and I don't care how big he is, and I don't care about how many times he's gonna shoot. I'm not gonna let him walk me to the fence like he does everybody else. And that's where the game is; not letting him get to his spot. He wants to be safe and he wants to be comfortable and that's not how I fight.”
Back to that opening question. Anthony Smith hasn’t lost his edge. This firestarter is just getting warmed up.
“I'm more motivated now than I've been in a long time,” he said. “I feel like I'm just getting into it. It's a three-round fight. I can put my foot on the gas. Fifteen minutes isn't enough time to get me tired.”
UFC 277: Peña vs Nunes, took place on Saturday, July 30, 2022 live from the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!