“Lionheart” is not an empty moniker. It is a word that encompasses the relentless spirit and killer instincts of Anthony Smith.
Oddsmakers have Smith in the rearview mirror at UFC 277. Many expect his opponent Magomed Anakalev to challenge for the UFC light heavyweight championship in the near future. Smith is no stranger to being overlooked, and adversity is a familiar foe. Surgeries, losing streaks, painful losses and remarkable comebacks are commonplace for a career that has spanned more than 50 pro fights.
Smith’s long and perilous journey up the MMA mountain led him to a UFC light heavyweight championship fight against Jon Jones, among the greatest fighters of all-time. Smith was overwhelmed by Jones in a failed bid for gold at UFC 235. The specter of Jones loomed over Smith in subsequent fights against Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira.
“I always talk about the cup. Anytime I have an insecurity or issue, I put everything in this cup — or at least I used to. I never deal with it so people think, ‘Wow! He’s so cool and calm and collected and everything just rolls off his back.’ No, it doesn’t. I just don’t deal with that shit. I just put it away. The Jon stuff went into the cup. I thought I was taking care of it by going to fight Gustafsson. I fought Gus, but in my head I was fighting Jon Jones. I was still mad about it. Then I got injured in the Gus fight so I was out for a year.
“Then I went into the Glover fight still dealing with the Jon stuff. Then the pandemic, I put it in the cup. Then the guy broke into my house, I put it in cup. Then the Glover fight happened and the cup f—ing exploded. Everything spilled out everywhere. I was trying to put it all back in before anybody could see it. Then I went and fought Rakic and there was no more cup. All my shit was out there and I had to go and deal with it.”
Check out the full interview with Anthony Smith below.
The unanimous decision loss to Rakic, a fight where Smith fell short in every round, was a point of no return. Something needed to change.
“I had to sit down and be honest and say, ‘Alright, I’m done trying to hide it and try to be normal and try to be OK for everybody.’ Let’s talk about it. I’m a normal ass guy with normal problems. Normal insecurities. I’m just like anybody else. It’s kind of like that ‘8 Mile’ moment with Eminem. Once he got all of his bullshit out, there was nothing anybody could use against him. It’s out there and I feel a lot better about it. I don’t use the cup anymore. If something bothers me, I just deal with it right away.”
Smith spent 12 years preparing his various martial arts tools for dozens of professional fights. It was finally time to focus on sharpening his mind. A commitment to his mental health spurred an impressive three-fight winning streak over the next generation of light heavyweight stars. Smith rejected the label of gatekeeper by finishing Devin Clark, Jimmy Crute and Ryan Spann in one round each. These were fights deemed competitive by oddsmakers in advance.
Anyone surprised by Smith’s comeback should review his resume. While it is not unusual for fighters to reinvent themselves once or twice, Smith’s aptitude for reinvention is rare. He has repeatedly evolved in the do-or-die jungle of MMA. He bounced back from a four-fight losing streak between 2009 and 2010 that left him with a 5-6 pro record by going on a fantastic 13-2 run that set him up for fights in Strikeforce and UFC.
Smith’s renewed commitment to the fight game had rewarded him with opportunities in MMA’s largest proving grounds. It also presented him with brutal honesty. A submission loss to Roger Gracie in Strikeforce was followed by a first-round kneebar loss to Antonio Brago Neto in Smith’s UFC debut. The Texas native blew out his knee, which required surgery and seven months of rehabilitation. He was promptly cut from the UFC. A subsequent fight against Josh Neer was going well until it wasn’t. To this day it remains one of the most difficult losses for Smith to digest.
“Josh Neer broke me with my mom in the front row. It was the only time it has ever happened where I could have kept going and didn’t,” Smith said of the third-round submission loss. “That was the turning point where I had to figure out what we were doing here. ‘I know I’m better than these guys. I know I can beat these guys. Why isn’t it happening?’
“It was just a really, really hard time so I had a lot of down time to think about what I really wanted. It was just a really hard time in my life and I had to buckle down and figure out what I really wanted. Either shit or get off the pot. You’re going to do this or you’re going to find a real job and find a way to make money.”
“Lionheart” roared to life following a four-month hiatus to heal his broken hand. A seven-fight winning streak capped off by a vengeful first-round TKO of Neer welcomed him back to the UFC. A 7-2 run with six finishes inside the Octagon — including wins over former UFC champions Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua — rewarded him with a UFC light heavyweight title shot after 45 professional fights. Approaching UFC 277 and his 53rd professional fight, Smith again finds himself on the cusp of title contention.