Smith is currently listed as more than an eight-to-one underdog on some sportsbooks ahead of his March 2 challenge against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Considering that Jones is one of the most talented fighters in the history of the sport, the long odds aren’t a shock to Smith, nor are the omnipresent questions about what it’s like to have the whole fight world doubting his chances. Smith welcomes and expected those.
But there is still one aspect about the lead-up to UFC 235 that has surprised the 30-year-old MMA veteran — and it’s something he looks forward to outshining once all is said and done.
“[My coach Marc Montoya] tells me all the time that I need to worry about impressing myself and no one else, and that’s the piece that I’m going to struggle with a little bit,” Smith said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I would venture to guess it’s going to be really hard for me to stay humble talking to Joe Rogan afterwards, because the outpouring of hatred has been incredible. It doesn’t necessarily bother me too much, but it is a little bit shocking. Like, how so many people can care so much one way or the other just blows my mind. But there is a little bit of the ‘sticking it to the haters’ feeling there, for sure.”
Between his historic success inside the cage and never-ending troubles outside the cage, Jones has become one of the most polarizing figures in the sport. With that, comes a fanbase that can often be all-too-aggressive in their defense of Jones, and Smith experienced that early and often once he started pursuing the light heavyweight king.
As UFC 235 approaches though, “Lionheart” has begun to notice a subtle and unexpected shift in the sort of sentiment that is being thrown at him online.
“When it first happened, it was a little bit shocking when I first started,” Smith said. “But honestly, at this point I’ve kinda gotten used to it, and as the fight gets closer and closer, I do see that it’s changing a little bit. I don’t see as many, ‘Jon Jones is going to beat you ass, you p*ssy,’ comments as much anymore. I see a lot of guys hoping. I don’t see a whole lot of believers, but I see a lot of people that really, really hope.
“Overall, as a broad spectrum, that’s kinda how it’s been,” Smith added, “and I understand it and I’m looking forward to winning and changing everybody’s minds, that’s for sure.”
Smith has always been one of the most warmhearted and straight-talking fighters in the game, so it’s not surprising that he has taken a different approach toward Jones than many of the champion’s previous opponents and challengers.
Although a career-changing opportunity may be at hand, Smith isn’t going to change who he is and what he stands for.
“It’s about the world title,” Smith said. “I feel like I’d be preparing and I’d feel exactly the same way if it was Gustafsson or if it was Cormier or whoever. It’s not about Jon Jones, and I think that’s what’s kinda throwing everybody off, is I’m not attacking Jon Jones. I’m not attacking who he is as a person. I’m not even talking about the things that he’s done wrong, because I don’t care. I really don’t. This is about the gold belt that he has around his waist and that’s it. That’s all I care about.”
Still, there is a reason that oddsmakers have made Smith such a heavy underdog.
Jones has never truly been beaten inside the cage. The lone loss of his career came in a 2009 disqualification against Matt Hammill that he was otherwise winning handily. Whether it’s Daniel Cormier or Alexander Gustafsson, or Quinton Jackson and Lyoto Machida, “Bones” has dispatched a who’s who of legendary figures and former champions. If not for his PED past, he would unquestionably be considered the greatest fighter of all-time.
Smith, on the hand, is an 11-year veteran who only recently came into his own. “Lionheart” is a perfect 3-0 since moving up to the light heavyweight division, with all three wins coming via vicious stoppages against the likes of Rashad Evans, Mauricio Rua, and Volkan Oezdemir. And ahead of the toughest test of his professional life at UFC 235, Smith is focused on continuing to do what has worked best for him over his recent run.
“Honestly, I haven’t watched [a lot of film],” Smith said. “My coaches have watched a ridiculous amount of Jon Jones film, from the beginning all the way until recently. But honestly, I watched him fight Gustafsson (at UFC 232), I watched it live and I haven’t watched it again. I don’t want to wrap myself up and I don’t want to get lost in what Jon does, what he doesn’t do, because then in my head I’m going to start rolling through all the stuff that I’ve seen, and then we’re going to be in front of each other and I’m going to be expecting certain things. I’m gonna be thinking I see a tell and maybe I don’t really see it and maybe I’m making stuff up in my head. I don’t even want to get wrapped up in that.
“So, my coaches watch it — Marc (Montoya) watches it specifically — and then we just work on the gameplan that he comes up with. So honestly, other than watching him fight Gustafsson live, I haven’t watched Jon fight in a handful of months.”
But that doesn’t mean Smith is disregarding what Jones brings to the table. Far from it.
In fact, he says his camp for UFC 235 has been far more specialized than any camp he has ever done — all with one goal in mind of dethroning the indomitable king.
“Everything is much more, I would say, specifically focused around Jon, right?” Smith said. “So, most of my other camps, we kinda look at what my opponents do well, whether they have some holes, and really I just try to get better everywhere generally. We didn’t really focus too hard on any specific things. Jon Jones is a different beast. There’s a lot of things that you need to focus on specifically, so the training is a lot more specific on certain things.
“And then, you know, we really kinda dove in head-first into really making sure that my conditioning is taken care of. We went out California and did a bunch of testing before the fight was even announced, kinda expecting that this was gonna happen, and my entire training camp has kinda been based around my heart rate and really targeting times and specific places that I need my heart rate in ranges. So I think that’s probably been the biggest change, is just really making sure that cardio-wise I’ll be fine.”