Anthony Smith scored the biggest win of his career over the weekend when he stormed back from early trouble and submitted Volkan Oezdemir with a third-round rear-naked choke in the main event of UFC Moncton. The win propelled Smith’s unbeaten run at 205 pounds to 3-0 — a run which started with back-to-back first-round stoppages over former UFC champions Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua — and now Smith has only one target in mind for his next goal: He wants a shot at the UFC light heavyweight title, which means fighting the winner of UFC 232’s rematch between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson.
“I just took out the No. 2 guy in the world. I’ve finished two former world champions back-to-back and then the No. 2 contender,” Smith said Monday on The MMA Hour. “The No. 1 contender’s fighting for the title and I think that Daniel Cormier has all but left the division. I don’t think that he’s coming back to 205. I don’t know who else would be in front of me. I don’t know who else is a legitimate threat to either one of those guys, no matter who wins the title. You might be able to throw (Ilir) Latifi in there, but if Gustafsson wins [against Jones], then that’s definitely out the window.
“So, I genuinely believe that I’m the only legitimate threat to either one of those guys. And I’m finishing people. There’s guys who are winning, but I’m finishing guys.”
After winning four of six fights at 185 pounds to begin his second Octagon stint, the 30-year-old Smith has reinvented himself as a brand new beast at 205 pounds.
With the light heavyweight division currently in flux, and Daniel Cormier likely being stripped of his 205-pound title on Dec. 29 at UFC 232, the championship rematch between Jones and Gustafsson is set to signal a new beginning for the weight class. And it’s a matchup Smith will be paying close attention too. “Lionheart” spoke openly both before and after UFC Moncton about his desire to test himself against Jones — a man who is widely considered one of the greatest fighters to ever compete — and that desire has only been further fueled by Smith’s latest victory over Oezdemir.
Smith knows there are steps left to be taken before the conversation can truly be had — Jones must first beat Gustafsson at UFC 232, and the promotion must first award Smith the title shot he covets — but even if Smith had his choice between challenging Cormier, Gustafsson, or Jones next, his answer would be an easy one.
“I’d rather fight Jon Jones, because no one has a legitimate win over Jon Jones, and that’s the stuff that really gets me up,” Smith said. “Deep down, I truly believe that I can beat Jon Jones. But deep down, I know that I might not be able to — and that’s what drives me. That’s what motivates me. I’ve been thinking about Jon Jones since I’ve been at 205. It’s never been about ‘Shogun’ or Rashad or even Volkan. It’s trying to get through as many people as I can get through to get to Jon Jones.
“People can say all day that doubt is a bad thing, but I don’t think that it is,” Smith added. “I think doubt motivates people, depending on who you are. I think that Jon Jones being the tallest task in the entire UFC will bring the best out of me, and I think that one of my biggest downfalls is that I tend to fight to my opponent’s level, and fighting up to my opponent’s level is always going to be a positive. You hear people talk bad about fighting to someone’s level when you’re fighting down to them, but I think that I’m one of those guys that I just rise to the occasion when I need to, and I think that I would do the same with Jon Jones.”
If Smith’s storybook run at 205 pounds continues with the matchup he desires against Jones, “Lionheart” is confident that the stylistic challenges he presents to Jones would make for a compelling fight against a man who has essentially defeated every opponent he has encountered thus far in his mixed martial arts career.
“I think that Volkan is one of the tougher matchups for me in the entire division just because of the way that he fights. I think that Jon Jones is less dangerous than Volkan is — Jon Jones isn’t one-punch knocking out anybody,” Smith said. “It’s just, that’s not his style. He’s super crafty, he’s dynamic, I think he has a high fight IQ, but I think that he’s hittable, and I think that I match up with him size-wise pretty well. Obviously he’s got a longer reach than everybody in the entire UFC, but I think that Jon Jones beats a lot of people in that short range with the elbows and stuff, and I think that I’m just as dangerous in that elbow fighting range as anybody in the division.”
Jones vs. Gustafsson 2 is still two months away, and Cormier is set to defend his heavyweight title against Derrick Lewis this week at UFC 230, so there are still plenty of factors in play that could impact Smith’s potential shot at the belt.
But after competing four times in a nine-month span in 2018, “Lionheart” is content to take a well-deserved holiday break and observe from the sidelines as the major players at light heavyweight attempt to figure out the pecking order at the top of the division.
“I would imagine that [title] fight would have to be on a pretty big card, so maybe May or June,” Smith said. “I’d be fine with waiting until July for International Fight Week or something like that, I think that’d be a lot of fun. But I definitely need a break. I need to sit back and I need to be a dad for a little while. I think I had five fights in 13 months, and that’s just a lot of traveling, and I missed out on a couple vacations I was supposed to take my kids on, so I’ve got a lot of making up to do.”