Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
As Mauricio Rua made the walk for his main event stint at UFC Hamburg over the weekend, his opponent Anthony Smith, who entered the arena first, was pacing. Like a caged animal, he strode his massive frame back and forth across his corner, a scowl etched deeply onto his face. For a brief second, as “Shogun” finally entered the Octagon, “Lionheart” smiled.
A few minutes later, Shogun’s eyes would be closed, a legend of an earlier generation pinned standing against the cage even after he’d been rendered unconscious by a murderous elbow. He plummeted to the canvas; Smith raised his hand in victory. No longer a journeyman roaming the Midwest’s regional circuit as he was for the better part of a decade, Smith surveyed his surroundings as the newest name in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s contender-starved light heavyweight division.
High on the biggest win of his career -- his first time headlining, and only the third time he’d been featured on a UFC main card -- Smith went one step further: “[Alexander] Gustafsson I’ll see you in LA!” he declared in the post-fight interview, in reference to the UFC 227 card where the division’s No. 1 contender had been stranded without an opponent.
By the time Smith had finished his post-fight media obligations, he’d been informed that the Swede had pulled out of the event, an undisclosed “minor injury” the culprit. But the narrative was almost perhaps even more favorable to the Nebraska native: Not only was he the guy headhunting former champions in record time -- just 43 days earlier, he’d knocked out Rashad Evans in under a minute at UFC 225 -- but guys who had one day earlier been in need of an opponent, were suddenly not feeling up to it.
Of course, whether Smith can continue his meteoric ascent is the next question. Having lost 30 percent of his professional fights to date, many will attribute his recent victories more to the diminishing skills of big-name opponents than to his maturation as a martial artist. This argument has some cogency given that the cumulative age of “Shogun” and Evans is 73 and the fact that Smith lost via TKO to fringe contender Thiago Santos in February. That this latter fight was contested at middleweight, where Smith cut an absolutely brutal amount of weight, at least provides him with an alternative account of events.
Smith may also find himself hindered by the picket line of contenders that has formed at the top of the 205-pound division, a consequence of Daniel Cormier becoming a dual champion of both the heavyweight and light heavyweight classes at UFC 226 earlier this month. Whilst the “Daddest Man on the Planet” showed a passing interest in defending his 205-pound strap against “Shogun” if he’d bested Smith, the conventional wisdom is that the champion will not return to the light heavyweight division lest he jeopardize his money fight with former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, slated for early 2019. That Cormier has set his 40th birthday, March 20, 2019, as the date he will retire from MMA, also further complicates things, as it creates the possibility that Cormier will needlessly put the division on ice before vacating the strap.
This uncertainty has been the cause of anxiety and inertia in an already slow-moving division. Many interpreted Gustafsson’s withdrawal from UFC 227 as a thinly-veiled demand directed at the UFC to clarify the title picture by either stripping Cormier or creating an interim championship, and the chorus of fighters demanding Cormier make his intentions clear is only growing louder. That No. 1 contender Gustafsson, No. 2 Volkan Oezdemir and No. 4 Ilir Latifi have now pulled out of events due to injury since Cormier captured the heavyweight crown may also be informed by fighters’ understandable desire not to take risks where the rewards aren’t clearly spelled out in advance.
In more ways than one, though, these storylines do more to help Smith’s cause than to hurt him. Intrigue surrounding a fighter’s ceiling isn’t a bad thing if fans are guaranteed an entertaining scrap -- something Smith brings in defeat or victory -- and his commitment to the ancient credo of “anyone, anywhere, anytime” is doubly refreshing when viewed next to the lethargy of many of his peers.
The sheer hustle in Smith should also give fans ground for enthusiasm, this being the fourth time he’s competed in the last nine months and the third former champion he’s knocked off in that time -- he knocked out former Bellator champ Hector Lombard in September. Compare that to Gustafsson, who has competed only four times in as many years, and it’s hard not to root for the new kid.
Who knows? Given how little regard the UFC has for its own rankings these days, these factors may even persuade the company brass to put him in a title eliminator, or -- dare I say it -- a title bout for his next fight, an idea that becomes less crazy given the unwillingness of training partners Gustafson and Latifi to compete against one another.
In a forgotten division devoid of big names -- or at least big names that seem enthusiastic about fighting -- Smith is a welcome, long-overdue addition.
Let’s enjoy his run while it lasts.