The recent chaos in the UFC’s light heavyweight division could benefit a certain upstart contender depending on what happens Saturday at UFC Moncton.
Former middleweight Anthony Smith is slated to face No. 2 ranked light heavyweight contender Volkan Oezdemir this weekend in the main event of the Canada card, and the opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time for “Lionheart.” With champion Daniel Cormier expected to be stripped of his 205-pound belt, and the division’s disgraced former king Jon Jones scheduled to make his controversial return against Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 for the vacant title, Smith knows an impressive showing over Oezdemir at UFC Moncton could be enough to fast-track himself to the next shot at the belt.
“It is really bizarre what’s going on with the division right now, but I think that it’s starting to clear up,” Smith told MMA Fighting. “Regardless of how you feel about Jon Jones and all the stuff that’s going on with him, the division is moving again. The title’s back in rotation and we’re starting to move around a little now, which is a good thing, regardless of how anybody feels about Jon. And I’ll never talk about Jon’s personal life — I will absolutely talk about his steroid use, but as far as his personal life, it is what it is. That’s on him.
“But it’s moving, and he’s — again, regardless of what you think, Jon Jones deserves to be in that spot. That’s just how it is. So, it’s good for me. I think that if I can win and I can get a dominant finish over Volkan, and with Jon Jones and Gustafsson fighting for it, those are three people out of the way, so I don’t see who else is in front of me. I don’t know else can argue for that title shot after that.”
Smith’s rise up the light heavyweight ranks has been a swift one. The 30-year-old veteran saw a three-fight winning streak at 185 pounds snapped in violent fashion in February with a stoppage loss to Thiago Santos. But rather than wallow in his lost momentum, Smith decided to turn the experience into a pivotal crossroads for his Octagon career.
After struggling for years to emaciate his body down to the 185-pound limit, Smith vaulted up to light heavyweight and immediately scored back-to-back brutal knockouts of former champions Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua over a two-month span. In a flash, Smith reinvented himself as a genuine destroyer of worlds at 205 pounds — a 6-foot-4 menace with power in all eight limbs, enough heart to stretch over five lifetimes, and a youthful exuberance that is largely missing from the light heavyweight ranks.
Now Smith is set to headline his second UFC event in a row, and a win very could propel him into a marquee matchup against one of the biggest names at 205 pounds. It’s a storybook run. Suddenly fight weeks are fun for the big man for the first time in his decade-long career. The agony of his overwhelming weight cut is but a distant memory, and the daily validation that comes from knowing that he was right all along — to never quit, to never surrender, to never stop pushing no matter how bleak his fortunes may have seemed — is something that Smith treasures in his new life as a legitimate, world-class contender.
“I’m not going to be the guy who’s too proud to tell you that a lot of it is, just you’ve got to talk yourself into it,” Smith admitted about his career turnaround. “If you’re going through all of the bad bullshit, then you have to tell yourself something positive, so you tell yourself that if you keep pushing, you’re going to make it, if you keep pushing. But honestly, deep down, you don’t really know. You’re hoping. You’re hoping that what you’re saying is true, but I think vindicated is a really good word. It’s just like, ‘Alright, I was right. Now let’s just keep on going,’ and the confidence that comes along with that. If I can do something that I’m not even sure I can do, what can I do when I know for sure?”
The Smith that stands proud in Moncton today is a far different fighter than the journeyman whose first Octagon run ended in a disappointing two minutes back in 2013. He says his life now at 205 pounds is “night and day” from his tortured existence at middleweight, and with 13 wins racked up over his last 15 outings — 11 of those wins coming via stoppage — his confidence and skill set are cresting at an important time for the light heavyweight division.
Jones is officially back from the dead, revived by the hand of an independent arbitrator after his second run-in with USADA in as many years, and few members of the 205-pound elite are happy about it. Many fighters in the UFC have spoken with disdain about Jones’ ability to get a reduced 15-month suspension after facing a potential four-year penalty, another slap on the wrist for a man whose recent career has been defined by them. Smith is no different. He sees the reduced penalty as “bullshit,” simple and plain, but he also is content with the decision for one specific, madman-esque reason: Smith is a natural-born competitor, through and through, and Jones’ return means that “Lionheart” won’t be forced to face many of the same questions Cormier did in Jones’ absence.
“I think it’s absolute bullshit. But what do you do about it?” Smith said of Jones. “What do we do about it? Nothing. The competitor in me is happy that he’s back, because I 100 percent mean this and I feel it in my soul: I can beat Jon Jones. I have the ability, I have the skill, and I’m probably the only legitimate threat to him right now. And I mean that. That’s not just a sound bite — I 100 percent believe that I can beat Jon Jones. With him getting a long suspension, that kinda looks a little bit different and there’s always going to be those questions. Say I beat Volkan and then I get a title shot against Alexander Gustafsson and I beat him, you’re always going to get the Jon Jones question. I don’t want any questions.
“I want to be the best in the world and I want everybody to know it. I don’t want the, ‘Well, Jon Jones is suspended, so…’ I don’t want that shit. But the sportsman in me thinks that it’s bullshit. It’s three failed tests and he’s still eligible — how does that happen? I mean, I can break it down that simple, how does that happen?”
To reach the winner of Jones vs. Gustafsson, Smith must first pass his staunchest test yet at 205 pounds. Oezdemir is a one-time title challenger with proven one-hitter-quitter power. Like Smith, he too had a recent meteoric rise up the light heavyweight ranks on the strength of his striking acumen, however Oezdemir’s magical run ended in disappointment — Cormier ground him into dust in just seven minutes. Now the blueprint is out on Oezdemir, and Smith believes he saw all he needed to know at UFC 220.
“He’s obviously very powerful,” Smith said. “He’s got his own sneaky kinda style, you know? His punches kinda come from weird angles and he’s got fast hands and he’s very powerful, so that’s something we definitely need to be aware for. But I don’t see anything special. I don’t see the killer that everyone else sees. I just don’t see it. I think that he caught a lot of guys by surprise because they didn’t really know what to expect, because he was new on the scene. The jig is up now, we get it. You’re a fast starter and you’ve got heavy hands. That’s really the dangers that he brings to the table and I don’t see anything outside of that. He’s big, sure, he’s strong. He’ll be a bear in those clinch positions for a while, I’m sure, but he definitely shows the tendency to fade, and I think that it’s pretty clear that in the latter part of my career I’ve shown the ability to get stronger as the rounds go on, and I think that’s going to be a problem for him once we get out of the first round.
“The stuff that I really get out of his fight with Cormier was mental. I saw an inability to deal with adversity. I saw that once he gets tired, he doesn’t have the ability to really push through it and come out the other side of it. And again, in a lot of fights in my career I’ve had to come from two rounds down and I need a third-round finish, and I’ve shown the ability to do that, and he just hasn’t,” Smith continued.
“He keeps saying over and over and over, the only thing he keeps saying in the media is, ‘Now Anthony’s fighting in the top of the division, let’s see how he does.’ Well, you just did it — how’d you do? You’re so focused on me, you need to worry about yourself. If you’re so focused on my losses in the past and my ranking, you’re focused on the wrong things, because if you really dig deep into that, that’s not really the case. I’ve won 13 out of 15, something like that. We essentially have the exact same record in the last 15 fights. So he keeps talking about, ‘You got so many losses’ — I just don’t know what he’s focused on. You need to focus on yourself and getting better, because if you bring to me what you brought to Daniel Cormier, you’re going to be in for a long f*cking night.”