It isn’t easy being stuck in the middle of the UFC’s middleweight division.
That’s the position Anthony Smith finds himself in after scratching and clawing his way through the MMA landscape over the past decade. Heading into his 40th pro bout and what will be his first time competing on a UFC main card, the 29-year-old Smith is only starting to feel like he’s reaching his potential. However, he understands that there are forces beyond his control that could be limiting his rise up the ranks.
Ahead of his bout with Hector Lombard at UFC Pittsburgh on Sept. 16 at the PPG Paints Arena in Pennsylvania, “Lionheart” spoke to MMA Fighting about a number of troubling topics, including the feeling that he’s been painted into a corner due to the 185-pound elite shutting everyone else out.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to fight Hector,” said Smith. “I had to fight Hector because he’s the only guy that said yes. The middleweight division is in a real weird place right now. All the ranked guys are doing a really good job of protecting each other. And I’m not even sure if that’s a conscious thing that they’re doing, but they’re not fighting anyone else that isn’t ranked. They’re just doing this round robin of fighting each other and I don’t know how the f**k anyone’s supposed to get inside (the top 15 of) the rankings, if no one inside will fight someone outside of it.
“I get the mindset of wanting to work your way up the ladder and fight guys that are ranked, but if you come off a couple of losses and you’re ranked 10-15, then you’ve got to start fighting guys outside the rankings and give some of us opportunities to get in there, or else we’re all just spinning our wheels here.”
Smith and his team were actually asking for a tougher opponent than Lombard in the wake of Smith’s come-from-behind knockout win over Ultimate Fighter 23 winner Andrew Sanchez this past April. Smith is 3-1 in his second UFC stint, while Lombard is 0-3 since March 2014.
The only victory that Lombard has had in the past three years was overturned to a no-contest after he tested positive for an anabolic steroid. That infraction is another reason why Smith is somewhat bullish on fighting the former Bellator champion, who he sees as emblematic of widespread performance-enhancing drug use on the UFC roster.
“Hector came out with a YouTube video the other day, it was called ‘100-percent natural’. It’s just the most laughable s**t I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” said Smith. “What do you mean 100-percent natural? It takes one Google search. You failed a drug test, come on, dude. Don’t insult everyone’s intelligence, you look like an idiot. You’re 40 years old, you don’t look like that for no goddamn reason. And here’s how the system works and anyone who’s done any kind of research as far as PEDs and the testing process goes, I’ll still say to this day with 100 percent confidence that at least 60 percent of the UFC fighters are still using PEDs.
“I promise you, I guarantee it’s 60. It’s a big game of cat and mouse and what happens is you’ll see this rash of positives. Jon Jones and two or three other people got caught around the same time. There will be a rash of positives. The people are ahead of the test, well then USADA will create a new test or they’ll tweak a test and be able to find that substance in the body for longer, and then obviously they’re not going to tell everyone about that before they do it, so people start getting popped. Then it’s like, ‘Ah, f**k, you know,’ so they freak out. ‘Ah, let’s get ahead of the test again.’
“So until there’s more money in making the test than beating the test, that’s how it’s always going to be.”
If Smith sounds resigned to having to play an unfair game, it’s because he is. Even though he suspects the majority of his fellow fighters are using banned substances, he’s not looking to limit his matchmaking opportunities even further by taking a hard stance on who he will and won’t sign on for.
“I’ve just accepted it as part of the sport and hope for the best,” said Smith.
One issue he isn’t as willing to accept is the ongoing struggle for fighters to get fair negotiating rights and compensation. While Smith is happy with his current UFC deal, he believes things can be better, and that fighters need to educate themselves on what solutions make the most sense in the long run.
Having done his own research, Smith is dismissive of the notion that getting MMA fighters covered under boxing’s Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act is the panacea that some advocates are pushing it as.
“Most of the problems that the Ali Act covers are already things that the athletic commissions oversee as far as contracts, maximum percentages for managers, making sure the fighters are getting paid, overseeing the matchups, making sure that the judges and the referees are all independent bodies, that they’re not people that are hired by the promoters. Athletic commissions already do all that s**t,” said Smith. “So when it comes down to it, the only thing it’s going to do is make it to where all of us fighters - it’s going to help Conor McGregor, and if Jon Jones didn’t stick needles in his ass, it would help Jon Jones, because then there would be all these promotions bidding on those fights with those guys.
“But what about the rest of us? No one is bidding on Anthony Smith. There’s no promotion that’s going to bid on an Anthony Smith vs. Hector Lombard fight. Nobody gives a s**t about that. So that’s going to water it down and then all the rest of us are going to be screwed…
“They don’t talk about that. If you look at it, it’s a bunch of people that have been slighted and been pissed off by Dana White (who are campaigning for the Ali Act). It’s a bunch of fighters that feel like they were wronged by the UFC and they’re trying to use everyone else to get back at him, that’s my opinion… And I’m not saying I don’t think that something needs to change in MMA because I absolutely do. I just don’t think that the Muhammad Ali Act is the answer.”
As a family man who admits he’d rather spend time camping and fishing with his wife and kids than hit the Vegas strip with his fellow fighters, it’s been difficult for Smith to find time to meet with his peers to discuss the state of the sport they’re invested in. He is active on social media, but has rarely been given a satisfying answer when he raises questions about why fighters should be going all in on a proposal that they don’t fully understand.
All Smith can do for now is focus on the opportunities directly in front of him, which means taking care of business against Lombard on Sept. 16. And that’s a challenge he trusts himself to handle just fine.
“I feel like the UFC is kind of seeing me now, like here’s the big name we want and here’s the main card spot that we think you deserve. So that’s exciting for sure.” said Smith. “I feel like they’re giving me the opportunities that I’ve always asked for. If you give me the opportunity and I f**k it up, then that’s on me.
“That’s all I ever wanted. I want my career in my own hands.”