A year ago, Anthony Smith wasn’t anywhere near the UFC championship picture.
Moving up to light heavyweight breathed new life into the veteran of over 40 fights and he’s now poised to challenge Jon Jones for a world title at UFC 235 on March 2 in Las Vegas. The announcement of the matchup may have come as a surprise given that Smith doesn’t have the name recognition of some of Jones’s previous opponents, but Jones himself has already made it clear that he’s not taking “Lionheart” lightly.
Jones’s coach Mike Winkeljohn is on the same page and he told Luke Thomas on The MMA Hour that Smith’s never-say-die attitude is what sets him apart from the rest of the pack.
“Tough,” Winkeljohn said of Smith’s attributes. “Just big balls to keep going. He has the ability to come back, I think the scariest thing about him is just that. As you saw in his last fight with Volkan (Oezdemir), he was behind in my mind, but he knows how to survive and find the right time to do something. I think he started hurting him with body shots and then he had the takedown there at the end.
“I think it’s his ability, his mental toughness to survive and overcome that’s his greatest strength.”
It was Smith’s submission of Oezdemir at UFC Moncton that vaulted him into the title picture after recording back-to-back first-round KOs of former champions Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Rashad Evans. While the latter two names aren’t exactly in their primes (Evans actually retired after his loss to Smith), Oezdemir was just one fight removed from challenging Daniel Cormier for the light heavyweight title.
A noted fight finisher, Oezdemir had Smith in trouble during their bout, but couldn’t put him away and that left the door open for Smith to take Oezdemir down in the third round and finish with a rear-naked choke.
Even Smith’s most recent loss — a second-round TKO to fellow contender Thiago Santos — saw the 30-year-old absorb an incredible amount of punishment before “Marreta” put him away. However, it should be noted that as willing as Smith is to absorb damage, he has been finished in 12 of his 13 career losses.
Beyond Smith’s guts, Winkeljohn thinks the veteran also benefits from having above average height and reach at 205, as well as sharp boxing skills. It’s just that he falls short in all of those areas compared to the champ, according to Jones’s coach.
“[Smith]’s good at a lot of things,” Winkeljohn said. “It’s his depth and his long range punches, the problem with that is that Jon’s even longer. He has the ability to throw punches at different times, his straight right hand is really, really effective especially in his counter mode against Jon. That’s what I’m worried about. And then he takes people down, there’s no doubt about it.
“I just think he’s going to have a hard night against Jon Jones, because I think Jon’s better everywhere. But I think his boxing skills are very tight. If I thought anything was going to be scary, it would be that. He’s definitely great everywhere, so we have to be on our toes, but he’s got to deal with Jon’s length and Jon’s ability to adapt.”