As the saying goes, “A man without hope is a man without fear.”
Anthony Smith is far from hopeless, but it’s fair to say that an overwhelming majority of prognosticators aren’t giving “Lionheart” a chance to unseat Jon Jones this Saturday in the main event of UFC 235. After all, Jones, one of the most successful fighters in MMA history, is fresh off of a successful return fight that saw him defeat rival Alexander Gustafsson by third-round TKO and the light heavyweight champion has yet to truly be beaten inside the Octagon.
Add in the fact that as recently as a year ago, Smith wasn’t on anyone’s radar for a potential UFC title shot and you can understand why he’s being viewed as a long-shot pick.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing according to Jones’s longtime coach Greg Jackson. The martial arts guru echoed the sentiments of fellow team Jones coach Mike Winkeljohn in praising Smith’s mental toughness, adding that he’s not just resilient, he could also be unpredictable. Jackson learned firsthand that anything is possible in MMA over a decade ago at UFC 69, when he cornered Georges St-Pierre in his infamous upset loss to Matt Serra.
“For me, the dangerous thing about Anthony Smith is he has nothing to lose, so he can really open up and risk stuff,” Jackson told host Luke Thomas on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour. “Remember that I’ve seen some serious upsets. The very first time that I started working with Georges St-Pierre, I’d worked with him a little bit, but his head coach at the time, Victor (Vargotsky), let me be in the corner when we lost to Matt Serra, knocked him out. And that was not supposed to happen at all. Matt Serra won a reality show and it was one of the best Cinderalla stories that I’ve ever seen.
“So I’ve been there when the person that was supposed to dominate gets beaten and that to me is the biggest deal. That fearlessness, that danger that he presents, because I’ve actually trained Anthony Smith. I know he’s a great fighter, I know he’s very capable. So he’s a guy that’s the sleeper guy, we have to take him very seriously. If we don’t, we can get in big trouble really quickly. So keeping that in mind, that’s the biggest challenge for this fight. If he loses, who cares? He can really open up, throw bombs, and do all kinds of craziness, so we have to be ready for that.”
Jackson’s concerns aren’t unfounded. A veteran of 44 pro bouts, Smith has won six of his last seven fights, all by knockout or submission. His conquests at light heavyweight include former champions Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua, as well as recent title challenger Volkan Oezdemir. Relatively speaking, he’s a much more legitimate threat than Serra was at the time that he knocked out “GSP”.
Because of Serra, it would be a few more fights before St-Pierre became champion again and embarked on his legendary reign. Jackson suggested that the superstar lifestyle may have detracted from St-Pierre’s performance that night. Given Jones’s admitted love for partying and his well-documented controversies outside of the cage, one might wonder if those distractions could affect his performance against overlooked opponents like Smith.
“Georges had obviously been enjoying himself a little bit because, again, you take the guys lightly,” Jackson said. “Like he was supposed to beat Matt. But I hadn’t worked with Georges enough at that point to really know him. To say, ‘Oh, we’d better watch it.’ I just kind of started working with him at that point, he’d just come into camp. So I didn’t see any of the warning signs.
“I’m as guilty of it as anybody, I just have reckless belief in my guys. Like, we’ll sort it out. Okay, we have all these circumstances, but we’ll find a way. And I kind of felt like that when he first got hit, I was like, Georges will suss it out. But man that was Matt Serra’s fight. I love Matt so much and that was his night, he earned that one for sure.”
One criticism that Jackson wouldn’t entertain was the suggestion that Jones looked noticeably slower against Gustafsson at UFC 232, Jones’s first fight in 17 months. The two went five rounds in their first meeting at UFC 165 back in September 2013 and while this was a less action-packed affair, Jackson sees that as a feature of Jones’s game plan, not a bug.
“‘Slow’ I would not say would be one of the defining qualities of that fight, but everybody’s got their opinion or the way they view things through their lens,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t say ‘slow’, I would say very methodical, very calculated, and very effective. I wouldn’t say ‘slow’ at all. As a matter of fact, I think he got hit way less that fight [than in the first Gustafsson fight].
“If he was slow, he probably would have got hit a lot more, so I’m not sure that assessment would hold up under any kind of scrutiny. Certainly, empirically if you’re very slow, Gustafsson has very good hands and you’d be eaten alive. I wouldn’t say that ‘slow’ would be the defining quality that I would have brought out of that.”