It’s not like Anthony Smith had nothing to do. Between his work as an expert analyst for UFC events, a popular podcast, a recent trip to New York City for the UFC 295 fight week and his most important job as a husband and father, the light heavyweight contender could have taken his foot off the gas slightly to enjoy the holidays without thinking about getting into a fistfight anytime soon.
But that wouldn’t be Anthony Smith. So when Azamat Murzakanov withdrew from a bout with Khalil Rountree Jr. last weekend due to illness, it was “Lionheart” who packed his gloves and mouthpiece for an abbreviated camp – if you could call it that – in Colorado.
“They called and said, ‘Hey, we know this is probably a no, but we’ve got to at least ask - does Anthony want to fight Khalil?’” said Smith of the phone call between the UFC and his manager Lloyd Pierson.
Pierson wasn’t too sure, but he forwarded the message. Smith was in. So what’s the upside other than getting some extra cash for Christmas gifts, which, with four kids, can come in handy?
“Well, the division is kind of in a goofy place,” he explains. “I think I'm one of the only guys other than the champion that's coming off a win right now.”
He’s right. Other than champion Alex Pereira, injured former champ Jamahal Hill, and Nikita Krylov, everyone else above the number eight ranked Smith has lost or had a no contest in their most recent fight.
“So there's that,” Smith continues. “And getting another win at the end of the year is nice. Timing wise, it really works out because I was trying to fight in January anyways. I just want to be present (for my kids and their winter sports), and so this timing works out perfect. I can fight and then I can wait until I'm ready to fight again, whether that's March or April or whatever. I can get through their sports and do that and do the whole thing. I can be home for Christmas and not in training camp, so that's a lot of my motivation. And it was going to be Khalil anyways, because they'd already told me that. Keep an eye on the Azamat-Khalil fight. You'll likely fight the winner. I think Khalil probably beats Murzakanov, so it was one of those two guys either way, so why not just get it out of the way.”
At this point in his career, the 35-year-old Smith can afford to pick and choose when and who he fights, and while some may think that’s the case here, it’s really not, because the Nebraskan can’t help himself when it comes to this. If you ask him to fight, he’ll fight. And despite Rountree riding a four-fight winning streak, having all the upside here, and owning some of the most potent striking in the division, Smith believes he’s leaving Vegas with two checks, and maybe even more than that because while he knows Rountree is good, he’s not going to fight his fight.
“Sometimes you get a guy that's mean and nasty and is going to hurt you and pressure you and drag you and push you around,” Smith said of his opponent. “I'm not to be bullied. He's not going to bully me.”
Smith says this with every ounce of confidence he can muster. And it’s not bravado. He believes it, and he believes he’s shown it ever since the days when tough was all he had.
“I don't know any different,” he said. “For the longest time, I wasn't very good at fighting. All I had for the longest time was just that heart and determination. So I haven't known what it was like to not have it because I depended on it for so long. Listen, I beat a lot of people I should never beat. I know that moment when s**t hits the fan and everything's going bad, and this all really sucks. If I feel like that, I know for sure you feel like that, and I'll just keep going. I don't give a s**t. I am not that good anyways. That's my mindset. I'm not that good anyways, so this is what I got. As soon as you get there, that's exactly where I need to be.”
And while Smith may not always leave that dogfight with a win, his opponent will know that he’s had to go to some dark places to beat him. That’s a tough way to make a living for the one who wins and the one who loses, and most wouldn’t understand why Smith and his peers go through all this if they don’t have to. And these days, he doesn’t. But he does it because there’s something about being in the heat of the battle that’s addicting to him. That feeling may never go away. So what can possibly replace it?
“I don't know,” he laughs. “Scary thought, huh?”
It is, and we dance around the subject a bit before we come back to it.
“I don't know,” said Smith. “I don't know what I'm going to do. That's the most terrifying thing in the world to me. What happens when I don't have this anymore? I gave you a bunch of reasons why I wanted to fight, but maybe those are just justifications because my wife said the same thing. Why? And I just kept saying, why not? I got more reasons to not fight than I need to fight. But like I told my wife, and she keeps repeating this to all of her friends who keep saying, ‘Why is he doing this?’ She said, ‘I'll tell you what he said,’ and she'll quote it or screenshot it, and I'll say the same thing. Sometimes a guy just needs to feel like he's alive.”
UFC Fight Night: Song vs Gutierrez took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas on December 9, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!