Aside from capturing a world championship inside the UFC’s famed Octagon, there isn’t much more that Anthony Smith needs to achieve in his career.
On Saturday in enemy territory, “Lionheart” scored arguably the biggest win of his MMA tenure when he vanquished local hero Alexander Gustafsson. The Nebraska native travelled to Sweden, reportedly broke his hand and eventually forced Gustafsson to submit to a textbook rear-naked choke in the fourth round. His triumph headlined UFC Fight Night 153, but it wasn’t easy.
After tearing through the likes of Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua – two former world champions – and then Volkan Oezdemir, Smith (32-14) was dominated by reigning light heavyweight king Jon Jones in his most recent appearance at UFC 235 this past March. He didn’t look like his typically savage self in the cage and he began his fight with “The Mauler” in a similarly sluggish way.
“To be honest, I kind of started off similar to how I went through the Jones fight,” Smith said after his win. “I was overanalyzing, I was thinking too much. I was watching more than I was fighting. And then I kind of banged my hand at the beginning. I just decided: ‘I’m here, I’m hurt, let’s just fight.’”
Once the Factory X star decided to just fight, he turned the tides in the contest and never looked back. Smith landed some decent punches and had the taller Gustafsson on the defensive. Possibly rattled from one of Smith’s powerful punches, Gustafsson failed at a judo throw and wound up landing in the turtle position. Smith pounced on the Swede, seized his back and eventually forced the tap.
“I think I wasn’t going away on my feet, so he started looking for those back trips and we just got into a little scramble, and I was able to get his back,” he said. “There aren’t many people’s backs that I get on and that I don’t finish. It’s kind of my game, but a lot of people don’t know that, because I don’t do it a whole lot. I’m a legitimate black belt and I’m high level. I’m glad that I’m finally able to show my jiu-jitsu.”
Though he is clearly confident in his skills, Smith is a generally a modest man and remained so after effectively forcing Gustafsson into retirement. A pure fighter at heart, Smith loves what he does and admitted that he feels as though he’s overpaid.
“Honestly, I’m really fortunate the UFC takes such good care of me,” he stated. “I get paid more than I’m worth. That’s how I feel. I’m doing something that I would do for free and I’m able to put food on my family’s table, so the least I can do is put on good performances. That’s how I look at it. I just had to turn it around towards the end of the fight and really pour it on.”
Another shot at 205-pound gold appears unlikely considering the lopsided nature of his loss to Jones, who is set to face Thiago Santos in July. After besting Gustafsson, however, Smith’s only other options would be opponents ranked below him. As a result, “Lionheart” is unsure of what the future holds.
“I don’t know what’s next,” he said. “The only person ahead of me is Jon Jones right now, so I just have to sit back. I banged my hand a little bit, we’ll see how that looks like and we’ll see what happens.”