It doesn’t look like Anthony Smith is giving up his spot in the rankings anytime soon.
The 46-fight veteran experienced a breakthrough last year after making the move from middleweight to light heavyweight, riding a three-fight win streak all the way to an unexpected championship shot at all-time 205-pound great Jon Jones this past March at UFC 235. Smith went five rounds with “Bones,” failing to muster up much offense against the champ, but he answered any questions about his legitimacy as a contender on Saturday when he finished three-time world title challenger Alexander Gustafsson in the main event of UFC Stockholm on Saturday.
At the evening’s post-fight press conference, Smith was asked if he expected Gustafsson to follow through on a retirement speech he made after the loss. Smith praised Gustafsson and explained that the outcome of their fight had far more to do with his own overlooked talents, than any sort of drop-off on Gustafsson’s part.
“He’s got a lot to give. He’s got a lot left,” Smith said. “I’ve seen it firsthand, he’s got a lot left and I just hope that he doesn’t look at a loss to me as something super negative, because like I said about everyone else, I think that people are having a hard time getting used to me being at the top and I don’t think me beating him is a reflection of him falling off the wagon or him losing his edge or not being good anymore. That’s not it. I’m just not gonna be turned away. I hope that he can look at it like that.
“It sounds silly, but it’s not you, it’s me. That’s really how I feel about it.”
Though Gustafsson was the more high-profile fighter competing in his home country, it was Smith who looked like the man closer to fighting Jones again as he was more active in the early going and the one with the killer instinct in the end. It was in the fourth that Smith took control, ending up on Gustafsson’s back before earning the submission with a rear-naked choke.
Smith believes that his grappling skills give him a leg up on anyone that steps into the cage with him.
“As soon as I got the body triangle and then as soon as I got both hooks in, I knew that it was over, especially with that much time left on the clock,” Smith said. “I don’t know exactly how much time was left, but I knew that it was enough time.
“If I take your back, for the most part, you’re probably just done, that’s just how it is. I’m a legitimate black belt in the gi under Scott Morton, I’ve been with the same jiu-jitsu coach for 12 or 13 years. I can grapple and I think people are starting to figure that out now. In the last four fights, that’s two backs I’ve taken and that’s two finishes. You’re probably just not gonna get away, that’s just how it goes.”
Smith also credited coach Marc Montoya and his team at Factory X with preparing him for any scenario, a crucial factor given that Smith admitted he broke a hand early in the fight. But as pleased as he was with the win, he didn’t agree with the sentiment that this washed away the pain from the loss to Jones.
There first fight was uneventful, but Smith still thinks he can prove that he’s worthy of a rematch. He recently mentioned on The MMA Hour that the plan is to take a break from thinking about fighting and give the light heavyweight division a chance to fall into place, possibly in such a way that it favors Smith, and he stuck to that idea on Saturday.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told Jon, I’ll see him again and that’s what I’m working towards,” Smith said. “I’m working towards the fight with Jon Jones, I want to get back to that title shot and that’s my plan. That’s the goal. So whatever that looks like when I come back, figure out what this hand injury’s all about, and we’ll just go from there. That’s what I want.
“I wouldn’t still be here if I wasn’t still chasing Jon Jones.”
It was evident that Smith had mentally recovered enough from the Jones fight to have the advantage against Gustafsson, who also recently fell short of defeating Jones in a title bout. Picking up the pieces was not difficult for Smith, who takes full responsibility for his shortcomings and remains singularly focused on becoming UFC champion.
“Nothing in my entire life has ever come easy for me,” Smith said. “If you go back and you look my career, there’s been lots of ups and there’s been lots of downs. We can all sit around and think about things when they’re not going our way. We can blame people and we can point fingers and you can try to make excuses, but the sooner you decide that you’re done making excuses and you just want to figure it out, then you’ve just got to shut up, put your head down, and do it. I just put my head down and I just grind.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now: I’m gonna be a world champion or I’m gonna die trying. I’m not gonna stop. So all these people that keep talking about me being a fluke or a flash-in-the-pan, you guys are doing yourselves a disservice because I’m coming. I’m not going anywhere. Until there’s a gold belt around my waist, then you can start thinking about what Anthony Smith is gonna do next. But until then it’s coming forward and swinging hammers and I’m gonna do what I gotta do to get the W. It’s not always pretty, I’m not the prettiest fighter in the world, but I don’t have to be, because obviously I can beat the best guys in the world doing it my way.”