A midweek fight in an empty arena? UFC vet Anthony Smith feels right at home

Anthony Smith stood in the corner of a Kansas City bar and grill, stripped down to his underwear. It was a random Tuesday night sometime in 2007. The scene was not unlike many weigh-ins on the regional mixed martial arts scene at the time, before the sport really started to boom.

“There’s families and s— eating wings and drinking beer,” Smith says. “Half the grill is roped off so you can weigh in. You’re getting half naked. … Then they lock you up in some f—ing roach motel that’s $8 a night.”

The process was routine for Smith, an Omaha, Nebraska, resident who traveled across the Midwest to find bouts early in his career. Smith had more than 35 amateur fights. He fought 26 times as a pro between 2007 and 2013 before ever getting a shot at the UFC.

On Wednesday night, Smith will be headlining a UFC card against Glover Teixeira in a light heavyweight fight at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, this rare midweek UFC event will take place in front of no fans.

Smith will feel very much at home as he tries to get back to his goal: another UFC light heavyweight title shot against Jon Jones.

“As crazy as it sounds, it’s super comfortable,” Smith says. “I spent a lot of time on the regional scene. Maybe some of it is — I just adapt well. It kind of just is what it is. I fought in empty venues that were selling tickets.

“This is right up my alley.”

Smith’s MMA career could have ended seven years ago. If so, it would have been a decent run with an 18-11 record, plenty of success on local circuits and a pair of wins in Strikeforce.

In June 2013, Smith lost his UFC debut via submission at just 1:52 into the first round against Antonio Braga Neto. While defending the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace’s kneebar, Smith tore the LCL on his left knee and would need surgery.

Smith wasn’t close to 100% when he fought UFC veteran Josh Neer at Victory FC 41 just six months later. His coaches told him not to do it, but Smith had a young family and he needed the money. Neer choked him out in the third round.

“That’s about as low as I could be,” Smith says.

Smith got a job as a concrete finisher in the summer of 2014 and picked up a window installation gig in the winter. In MMA, Smith didn’t have the prettiest record, but he tried extremely hard. He applied that same work ethic to his new jobs.

“Anything that’s hard, I just wanted to be the best at it,” Smith says. “I was pushing to be the best concrete finisher or be the best window guy. Whatever it may be at the time.”

He continued training and fighting, but he was making solid money outside of MMA. There was no longer any pressure on him to use the sport to provide for his family.

When he headed back into the cage, he kept winning. He won a couple of non-televised Bellator prelim bouts, then became the middleweight champion of New Jersey’s Cage Fighting Fury Championship in 2015.

Smith dropped his goal of getting back to the UFC and focused on trying to knock off the best 185-pound prospects in the country. Scott Morton, Smith’s longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, agreed. Of course Smith wanted to get back, but Morton told his pupil that getting signed should be the minimum.

“The goal isn’t to get back to the UFC — it’s to stay there,” Morton told him.

Smith reeled off six straight wins after the loss to Neer and was scheduled to fight Elvis Mutapcic in the main event of Victory FC 47 on Jan. 14, 2016. But that fight never took place. The UFC was looking to sign a middleweight for a short-notice fight and chose to pick up Mutapcic. Smith, possibly one win from getting back to the UFC, was without an opponent.

In stepped his nemesis: Neer. This time, Smith stopped him by TKO in the first round.

Five weeks later, Smith was back in the UFC.

“It’s a real cool little circle I went in,” Smith notes.

During his second UFC run, Smith has made some changes. He now usually finishes his training camps at Colorado’s Factory X under striking coach Marc Montoya and moved up to light heavyweight in 2018.

Without a drastic weight cut that previously impacted his performance, Smith scored three straight wins at 205 pounds that year and earned a title shot against Jones, arguably the greatest pound-for-pound MMA fighter of all time. Smith, the same guy who had more than 10 losses before he had two fights in the UFC, had a chance to shock the world.

“I just put physical and mental pressure on people, because I just don’t go anywhere. …” Smith explains. “Maybe someday when people remember me, I hope that’s my legacy: The dude you just couldn’t break.”

Jones didn’t break Smith, but he did beat him via unanimous decision at UFC 235 on March 2, 2019.

However, there was some controversy. Jones landed a clearly illegal knee in the fourth round with Smith still on the ground. Referee Herb Dean deducted two points from Jones’ scorecard. If Smith had been unable to continue, he would have won by disqualification and achieved his goal of becoming UFC champion.

But Smith didn’t want it in that manner.

“I know in my mind I’ll get back to the title fight and I’ll win the title,” Smith says. “Jon Jones tells people he’ll beat me nine times out of 10. Well, we got f—ing nine left. You’re gonna have to keep doing it, because I’m not going anywhere. If I don’t beat you, I’ll outlast you. That’s part of it. I’ll just be here longer. So, I’ll end up with the title.”

By not taking the disqualification victory, Smith lost out on the financial benefits of being a champ. An immediate title defense vs. Jones would have netted Smith the biggest fight purse of his career. Morton said that it’s not about the money, that there’s still a “level of honor” in fighting.

Smith questions out loud what all of it — from trying to cut weight inside a car with the heat on driving from Omaha to Maplewood, Minnesota to the midweek fight cards inside strip clubs in backwoods Midwestern towns — would have been for if he had won the UFC gold in that way.

“I didn’t do all that to get to the title fight to smear my name,” Smith states, “and have everything I’ve done my entire career and make it to where I’m at to have none of that s— matter, because everyone would have called me a coward … for stealing the title.

“That’s a decade of work for nothing — for some Joe Schmo and [others] on Twitter to make fun of me? I’m not doing that.”

Smith took the loss and kept moving forward. One week after losing to Jones, Smith accepted a fight with former top contender Alexander Gustafsson. He traveled to Gustafsson’s hometown of Stockholm and rebounded by stopping the big Swede by fourth-round submission on June 1, 2019.

Now, it’s on to Teixeira, the grizzled, 40-year-old Brazilian who is on a three-fight winning streak.

Smith continues to deal with adversity. In February, he considered having his left pointer finger amputated so he could better close his fist after several hand surgeries. And last month, a man broke into Smith’s home randomly in the middle of the night and engaged him in a wild brawl. All the while he has been training with his team at Skywalker 101 without the actual gym being open due to the pandemic.

So, pardon Smith if he’s not exactly alarmed by the prospect of flying to Jacksonville during the crisis, staying in a hotel with heavy regulations and then fighting in an empty arena.

“I kind of thrive in these types of situations where most people are super uncomfortable,” Smith says. “I always say I kind of live in the fire.”

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