Even as Anthony Smith prepares for his eighth UFC headlining gig, the one-time light heavyweight title challenger makes the effort to remember a time when he was the up-and-comer looking to prove himself.
It’s that type of rising would-be contenders who’ve stood across the cage from “Lionheart” his past few outings. Ryan Spann, Saturday night’s opponent in the UFC Fight Night main event emanating from UFC Apex in Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+), is no different.
“It’s crazy how the circle of life comes back around, isn’t it?” Smith told The Post over the phone earlier this week.
Before Smith (35-16, 32 finishes) joined the ranks of UFC’s reliable non-title headliners, he might have been best described at first glance as a journeyman middleweight — not necessarily on the path to championship contention. Five years into his professional MMA career, he had already washed out of the UFC, losing his only fight for the promotion in 2013 after up-and-down results for freshly absorbed Strikeforce. A loss on the regional scene six months later dropped him to 18-11 and on a three fight skid.
Not exactly an upward trajectory, even at age 25 at the time.
What’s when Smith’s fortunes changed. He assembled a seven-fight winning streak to earn his way back to the UFC. Still competing at middleweight at this point, he went 4-1 before suffering a TKO loss to future 205-pound title contender Thiago Santos, prompting his own move up to that weight class; a reasonable idea, given his large 6-foot-4 frame.
In June 2018, Smith kicked off his run at the new weight with a 53-second KO that sent former divisional champion Rashad Evans into retirement — well, not literally kicked off, as it was a knee that felled the former champ. Though the win was a nice feather in the cap, it came on the less-viewed prelim portion of the card.
The big break came six weeks later, when an injury to former UFC and Pride champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua opened the door for a late replacement in a main event in Germany. Smith jumped at the chance, scoring another quick KO of a former promotional star, and he remains grateful to Shogun and Evans to this day.
“Rashad and Shogun gave me an opportunity that they didn’t have to,” Smith said. “When I fought Shogun in that short-notice [bout], he was on a [three-fight] winning streak. They were talking about him getting a title shot. He didn’t have to give me that opportunity when his original opponent fell out. He could have just waited for a better opportunity or one that wasn’t short-notice or whatever, and he gave me that shot. So I’ll always be in debt to Shogun for that.”
It’s not just the lesson taken away from the Shogun fight that guides Smith’s decision to take on all comers, even as a fighter who had been fighting the best in the division from 2018 through 2020. Part of that is the fact that he lost two straight last year to well-regarded Glover Teixeira — who will challenge champion Jan Blachowicz next month — and fast-rising Alexander Rakic.
But Smith points to doing things in a way he views as the right way in combat sports.
“I think I owe it to the game, too,” said the 33-year-old Smith. “I was the young up-and-comer who wanted to fight the bigger names much earlier than I got them, and I don’t want to pull the rope up. If I say that I [can] be the world champion, I should be able to beat [anyone]. And if I can’t, then I don’t deserve the ranking that I have.”
Smith, a Nebraska native, enters the matchup against 30-year-old Spann (19-6, 16 finishes), a Tennesseean who’s 5-1 since winning his way onto the UFC roster through Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018, having won two straight over Devin Clark and Jimmy Crute. Both men are younger and were on hotter streaks at the time; both men were stopped before the fight reached the second round.
Smith hasn’t asked for any specific opponents the past few fights, but thinks he’s “getting close” to being in position to request a fight against a man who can help him climb back up the ladder toward a second shot at gold — he lost a decision to longtime 205-pound king Jon Jones in March 2019.
“After we get through Ryan Spann, I think I’ll be in a position to be able to ask for something,” Smith said. “And that’s how I’ve always worked with the UFC. I never ask for something unless I’m 100 percent sure that I’ve earned it. And, to my credit, I’ve never asked for something and not gotten it because I make sure that I’ve done enough and that I have … a good reason for what I’m asking for.”
And if Smith, who has earned finishes in 91.4 percent of his victories, keeps that trend going Saturday night on his way to victory, he just might have that good reason.