Expectations were low for Smith heading into his world title opportunity at UFC 235. Yes, Smith was a respected veteran with 44 pro bouts on his resume and yes, he looked like a rejuvenated fighter at 205 pounds after deciding to no longer force himself to undergo a grueling cut down to middleweight.
But regardless of Smith’s credentials, this is Jones he was being compared to. The same Jones who has never been defeated inside the Octagon and owns just about every UFC light heavyweight record. In his most recent outing, Jones made short work of rival Alexander Gustafsson and the 31-year-old appeared to be back to his prime form, possibly even better.
Smith’s five-round unanimous decision loss on Saturday contained few bright spots for “Lionheart”; even so, there wasn’t anything Jones did that Smith found too discouraging.
“That’s a beatable man,” Smith said at the evening’s post-fight presser. “I didn’t walk out of there thinking, ‘Wow, he’s a lot better than I thought.’ Like when (Quinton) ‘Rampage’ (Jackson) lost to Jon and he stood there and said. like, ‘This kid’s for real, this guy’s good,’ like almost laying out to Jon. I don’t feel like that.
“I’m not gonna take anything away from him because he did a phenomenal job of doing what he had to do tonight, but I don’t have the feeling that’s a guy that I can’t beat.”
Of Smith’s 31 career wins, 28 have come by way of stoppage, but at no point on Saturday did it look like he was close to scoring a knockout or submission of Jones. On the flip side, Smith had to survive several rough patches in the later rounds as Jones’s control become more pronounced, including an illegal knee to the head of a grounded Smith in the fourth that could potentially have led to Jones being disqualified.
Smith insisted that he was fine and went on to make it to the judges’ scorecards. At the very least, it was a moral victory for “Lionheart”, who felt some validation at the fact that Jones could not find the finish either.
“I absolutely belong here and I think that the fight alone proves that,” Smith said. “I don’t know what other 205ers are gonna f*ck with me, I just don’t see that happening. I was in there, you know what I mean?
“And I don’t feel like I got ran through, I just kind of got shut down. I don’t feel like Jon Jones just went in there and beat the shit out of me, I just couldn’t get going. That’s Jon Jones though. I said I needed to force Jon Jones to fight me and I didn’t do that. He didn’t fight me, he nullified me. It’s going to haunt me for a long time and I’m gonna have to get back to the drawing board and sit down with (coaches) Marc (Montoya) and Scott (Morton) and figure out what the f*ck happened.”
Smith pointed to Jones’s length and intelligence as reasons why it was difficult to get any offense going, but he put most of the blame on his own shoulders. As a massive underdog, Smith’s best chance to pull off a historical upset might have been to throw caution to the wind and throw with reckless abandon.
That switch never turned on and Smith was at a loss for words to explain why.
“I don’t know what happened. I did exactly what I told everyone I wasn’t gonna do,” Smith said. “I let Jon Jones sit back and be Jon Jones. I guess sometimes you go in there and it’s not your night, I guess. But that’s just not good enough for me. I don’t know, I just couldn’t pull the trigger and when I did, I didn’t combo up like I was supposed to.
“I didn’t do anything I was supposed to do except for defending takedowns and I think I did a much better job of checking kicks than I have in the past. My cardio held up so all you f*cking idiots can stop talking about it. That’s really the only positive I can take from this. It’s a whole f*ck ton of negatives, that’s for sure.”
Considered a journeyman for most of his 11-year career, the fact that Smith was able to earn a title shot is a massive achievement. One that Smith plans to build on, not view as a career-peak, and one he expects to better should he and Jones cross paths again.
“I’ll be back,” Smith said. “Jon Jones and I will see each other again, that’s for sure. Because there’s no one else in the entire f*cking division that’s gonna do anything about that. I don’t care who it is. There’s no one else that’s gonna stop me from getting back to Jon Jones.”