It was the biggest fight of Anthony Smith’s career, and this one certainly felt different from the others. So different that before walking out to the Octagon to face former world champion Rashad Evans last month, he had to remind himself just what he was getting himself into.
“Listen,” he thought. “He can beat you.”
Smith laughs when he thinks about that night in Chicago. It wasn’t that he was underestimating Evans; it was that with the burden of cutting down to the middleweight limit removed, his fighting career was about to go in a different direction.
“Something just clicked,” he said. “I think that not cutting down to 185 completely changed everything. And I didn’t realize how much it was actually going to change until I was about to fight. I think I finally found out what adrenalin felt like for the first time. (Laughs) I felt hyper-aggressive and overly confident.”
Once the fight began, he kept hyper-aggressive and left overly confident outside the Octagon, and the result was a 53-second knockout win that sent Smith forward in the light heavyweight division and marked the end of Evans’ storied career. It was an odd moment for Smith, one of celebration because of the victory, yet also a point of reflection as Evans walked away from the sport.
“I did feel a little bit bad about the Rashad thing afterwards, and that’s not the way that anybody wants their career to end,” Smith said. “But at the same time, I’ve got three daughters and I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do.”
That’s the fight game. No one gets a gold watch at retirement. In any combat sport, the end usually comes attached to a knockout loss or a one-sided defeat. Smith is under no illusions about any of this, knowing that it’s likely that one day, he will be the one in Evans’ position at the hands of some young gun on the way up the ladder.
“I don’t look forward to that day, but it’s a big circle, and I said that after the Rashad fight,” he said. “They asked me how I felt about being the guy to retire Rashad, and I don’t take a lot of pride in that, I really don’t, and I never think about it like that. But I also know that I’m gonna be in Rashad’s place one day, and in eight or ten years, if I’m still fighting, I’ll be that guy, and I’ll be happy to contribute to the wheel of life. And that’s exactly what Rashad told me after the fight. He was happy to contribute to the wheel of life, and if he was gonna pass it off, he was glad he did it to someone like me. Everybody owes a debt to this sport, and that’s the price you gotta pay. I’ll be there someday, and I’m okay with that.”
That kind of wisdom is hard won, and it only comes from years in the trenches. Smith, despite being seen as the rising star in the UFC, is no wet behind the ears kid. Yes, he’s still young at 29, but the Nebraskan has been in the pro game for over a decade, and he’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly through the years.
“I hope the next ten years are smoother than the first ten, I’ll tell you that,” he laughs. “It feels like things are going a lot smoother these last couple years. I dropped a fight, but at this point in the game, if I only dropped one, I’ll take it.”
That one loss since late-2016 came in a February Fight of the Night against Thiago Santos, and while he gave a stellar effort in defeat, the bout did make him realize that squeezing 185 pounds into a 6-foot-4 frame wasn’t going to cut it anymore if he wanted to make a run at a UFC title. And while 53 seconds isn’t the best outside read of his potential at light heavyweight, internally, Smith feels better than ever, and now he’ll get another chance to take out another former world champion in Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
It’s a short notice bout for Smith, who is stepping in for Volkan Oezdemir, but one that could be another career-altering one. If he blasts through the Brazilian star like he did through Evans, the 205-pound title picture could have a new entrant. If he goes to war with Shogun and wins, same result, plus maybe a little extra cash in his pocket.
“If it goes 25 minutes, then both of us are about to make a lot of money,” laughs Smith, who has gone from a talented prospect that wasn’t putting everything together consistently, to a fighter on the verge of becoming a contender on the heels of wins over two of the sport’s most revered stars.
“That’s what’s crazy,” he said. “I’m a hundred percent confident that I’m gonna get Shogun out of there on Sunday. But I’m in a position where when I wake up Monday, I will have beaten two of my idols in a two-month span. That’s absolutely crazy to me. When I think about Shogun, I think about watching that guy fight and thinking I want everything that guy has. I want to be that guy. I’m not a big fan of individuals, but if I had to name five guys that I was a fan of, Shogun and Rashad would be in that top five. It’s just crazy to me that I’m in this position.”
The fight game is crazy. No one is more aware of that than Anthony Smith. It’s navigating that craziness that makes champions, though. And now that he’s in position to make his run, that’s all he’s thinking about.
“I want to do as much as I can, make as much money as I can, get a world title and set my family up and move on,” said Smith. “My goal has never been to be the greatest ever. I want to win a world title so that no one can deny that. I don’t care about the greatest of all-time talk because there’s never gonna be an answer to that; there’s always going to be someone new. But a world title hanging on your wall, no one’s ever gonna deny the fact that at whatever point in time that was, you were the best fighter on the planet. And I’m okay with that.”