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Anatomy of an Underdog

All Anthony Smith has to do is beat Jon Jones, the greatest MMA fighter of all time. Nobody thinks he can win. Nobody except Anthony Smith.

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No lively contender should ever be a 7-to-1 underdog in MMA—but that’s where Anthony Smith is heading into his light heavyweight title fight with Jon Jones at UFC 235. The fight almost seems like a formality for Jones, the beleaguered GOAT who recaptured the vacant 205-pound title against Alexander Gustafsson in December. And he’s making a quick turnaround to fight Smith for one reason and one reason only: He likes his chances.

Jones is expected to win emphatically on Saturday night, and the UFC is psyched. Why not? One of its biggest draws is back in the pay-per-view rotation after four years of red flags and suspensions (cocaine, disciplinary hearings, “dick pills,” picograms of PED dust, traffic violations, you name it), and he’s destroying ordinary contenders like he did from 2011 to 2015. In some ways, this weekend’s fight has a lovable, old-school feel to it. You have a particularly invincible-looking champion giving a woodwork figure—in this case an upstart from Nebraska with a crooked nose—a chance at glory. Who doesn’t love the idea of a real-life Rocky restoring MMA’s great meritocracy, and getting his shot against the UFC’s alpha dog?

Not that Smith is the chopped liver that Vegas oddsmakers would have you believe. He has won three straight fights after a rare move up from middleweight to light heavyweight, and he has finished them all. Some of his conquests were even UFC icons; he took out former champion Rashad Evans with a wicked knee, and then Maurício “Shogun” Rua on two weeks’ notice in Germany. He followed all that up with a come-from-behind submission victory over Volkan Oezdemir in October, which doubled as a declaration that Smith was ready for a title shot.

Heading into Saturday night, the question isn’t whether or not Smith is up for the challenge. The real narrative that everyone is following is whether or not this is a trap fight for Jones. To listen to the champ, it’s most definitely not. He’s been telling any media member in his proximity that he isn’t taking Smith lightly. He is fully focused on defending his belt and then fighting at least two more times in 2019, a confusing set of ideas that both focuses on and overlooks the challenger. The thing is, the challenger sees and hears all.

“You know what I haven’t had to tell anybody this whole fight lead-up?” Smith asked The Ringer on Monday. “Whether or not I’m taking Jon seriously. I am, and I’m not trying to convince anybody that I’m taking him serious. So why’s Jon keep having to convince everybody? I can think of four times he’s done it, on four different occasions without being asked. It’s not somebody asking him, ‘Are you taking him seriously?’ It’s almost like he gets to talking and thinks, alright, now I need to tell them that I’m taking him seriously.”

Here the underdog all but taps his head.

“When you say that, who are you trying to convince? Me? Or yourself? Because I don’t care whether he is or not. I just take the Chael Sonnen approach—I don’t care if the best Jon or the worst Jon shows up, I just need him to show up. I’m preparing for the best, and if the worst shows up, it’s his fault.”

Smith is fully aware of the situation. He understands that people see him as the mouse being dropped in with the boa constrictor, and because people see it that way—and because Jones’s only loss came via disqualification for raining down 12-to-6 elbows on a barely conscious Matt Hamill back in 2009—he’s not letting it bother him. The fact that nobody believes Smith can beat Jon Jones is a mild amusement. He says he feels like he’s in on a big secret that, for anybody wagering on him at such long odds, will pay off in historic ways.

Anthony Smith
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I know I’m perceived as an underdog, but … you know, really I feel like a criminal,” Smith says. “I feel like a criminal because I’m in on something nobody else knows. It’s like I’m sneaking into Vegas with this fucking secret, and nobody has any idea what’s about to happen. It almost seems like it’s not fair. That I’m going to come in and steal everything he’s ever worked for, and then just leave.”

For hundreds of years, self-delusion has thrived in fighting. One must tell himself that he is good enough—or, more daringly, that he is the best—because if he doesn’t believe, who will? What’s often difficult is figuring out where the delusion begins and where the truth ends. Just about every fighter says they’re in the best shape of their lives before a fight. Some will tell you that they match up well stylistically with an opposing party, or that they have some special ingredient that will make all the difference on fight night, and they can’t wait to showcase it. History has shown such proclamations to be false more often than not.

But really, an underdog’s eternal motivation is to prove that the public doesn’t know shit—to debunk egregious claims of invincibility using nothing other than their hands and whatever they’ve been harvesting inside. Yet when it’s a big fight—when the opponent is a consensus future hall of famer like Jones, who has dominated just about everyone for the past 11 years—there’s always the exhilaration that comes with wondering: What if he’s right? What if he’s not delusional? What if an all-heart, free-swinging brawler like Anthony Smith can drag Jones into a dogfight?

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After all, isn’t the addictive high that comes with watching live fights in the possibility of being proved wrong? Chael Sonnen was a minute away from taking Jones’s belt back in 2013; in the middle of a round it was discovered that Jones’s big toe was shooting out at a 90-degree angle from the rest of his foot. If he hadn’t gotten Sonnen to tap before the round break, Jones would have forfeited and Sonnen would have been the champion. Vitor Belfort had Jones in an armbar, and damn near fished out the submission. Both Sonnen and Belfort were major underdogs to Jones, too. That’s why it’s not impossible to visualize Smith’s path to victory. Just let your imagination roam.

“If we’re talking strictly skills, take any individual skill that Jon has,” Smith says. “I’d beat the dog shit out of Jon Jones in a jiu-jitsu match, if we were just doing jiu-jitsu. If we were in a wrestling match, he’d probably win that one, but everything else? He would not beat me in a boxing match, or a kickboxing match, or a jiu-jitsu match, or fucking thumb wrestling.

“It’s just when he puts it all together, he’s done a good job. He’s very well coached. He has holes, though. They’re not gaping, but they’re there. And he has flaws, and tendencies, and has shit that he’s done from the first fight that he still does today, that there’s not a goddamn chance in hell he’s changed in the last seven weeks.”

The big difference is that Jones’s career was born out of momentum and hype. By the time he was suplexing Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94 in 2009 as a 21-year-old phenom, he was already pegged as a future champion. Smith? Smith was a journeyman from the Midwest who at one point found himself trying to overcome a four-fight losing streak on the regional scene, holding—at the time—a mediocre record of 5-6. He was unlikely to ever get a second crack at the UFC after being cut in 2013, much less ever compete for a title. Smith wasn’t on anybody’s radar to ever do anything.

He even lost last February in his final middleweight bout, against Thiago Santos in Brazil. Yet it was in that fight that he showed his heart and toughness, hanging around far longer than he should have and returning fire in the midst of a pounding. It was only after that fight that he jumped from journeyman to contender at his new weight class of 205 pounds. The fighting public fell in love with Smith because he’s an action-first fighter who’s not afraid to throw caution to the wind. In fact, he’s at his very best when a fight loses its tactical holdings and turns into a conquer-or-be-conquered scramble for survival. When that happens, Smith feels right at home.

He showed that in his last bout against Oezdemir, in which he stormed back from a pretty severe beating to score a third-round submission victory. Smith—the new Smith, the pace-pushing contender who found his way to Jones—doesn’t just say he’s willing to die in there. He seems to mean it. He’s that rare breed of UFC fighter whose whole existence is truly tied to fighting.

“Up to this point, Jon’s avoided being in a real fight, and I believe I have the answer,” he says. “I don’t look at myself as an underdog, even if I see how fans might.”

And even in discussing the fight days before it happens, Smith can’t help but envision the action in a way that quickens the pulse for those writing about it.

“Jon’s like a snake charmer, he does things with his hands and people are like, what are you doing?” he says, waving his hands in pantomime. “Next thing you’re eating an elbow and you’re like, where did that come from? Anytime I get stuck in that position I just bite down on the mouthpiece and let them fucking fly, and we’ll figure it out in the reset, you know what I mean? I don’t know if that’s stupidity or if that’s smart, but it’s worked out for the last 10 years. I’m not going to change what’s got me to the dance.”

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There’s an old adage in the fight game, that the most dangerous fighter is the one with nothing to lose. Up until he won a $50,000 bonus for knocking out Elvis Mutapcic back in 2016, Smith was still working full-time pouring concrete in Omaha. He used to train at 5:30 in the morning before his shifts, and put in ridiculous hours to support his fighting career. Since giving up his day job, he’s gone 5-1 in the UFC, with five finishes, including a memorable shellacking of Hector Lombard.

If Smith has a psychological advantage against Jones it’s in the notion that, to an extent, he’s playing with house money. Back in 2009, when he was drinking heavily, he crashed his car on a gravel road and woke up in the hospital in critical condition. He had to ask his mother, who was sitting at his bedside, whether or not he had killed anybody via texts because there was a ventilator in his mouth preventing him from speaking. Luckily, he hadn’t.

“I was really fortunate,” Smith told MMA Junkie back in 2012, when he was fighting with Strikeforce. “I didn’t take any really crazy damage. I had a fractured cheekbone. My lungs were all messed up. My face was a mess. I had stitches all over. One whole side of my nostril was completely open. It was crazy. But I was really fortunate not to have any long-term damage.

“When they found me, I was unresponsive. When I came back and started to wake up, I was hammered. My alcohol level was like a 0.295. I freaked out, so they sedated me, and that’s how I ended up on a ventilator. It was crazy.”

If Smith isn’t jawing at Jones the way Daniel Cormier did about all his outside-the-octagon problems, it’s because he doesn’t want to throw stones from a glass house. “It wouldn’t take anyone very long to look it up and realize I’ve had my own issues in the past,” he says. “The difference between Jon and I, it didn’t take me quite as long to figure out.”

Besides, Smith says he’s seen guys psych themselves out by getting caught up in Jones’s dramas. “Daniel [Cormier] and Gustafsson couldn’t look past the fact that Jon’s an asshole,” he says, with all the shark-eyed cool of a mercenary. “Just look through that. Take the name and the face away from it and just look at what he does, and deal with the problem in front of you. He’s just a man, and I’ve never looked at him as much more than that.”

Everyone else does, though. Aside from his first fight with Gustafsson back at UFC 165—a bout that Jones admitted he didn’t take seriously—he’s never really been in a difficult fight. Jones usually makes fights look easy: he did against Gustafsson in the rematch in December, and he has against Cormier, not once but twice. There’s a reason people saw Jones as the Michael Jordan of MMA before asterisks started gathering over his résumé.

And that’s why he’s a huge favorite to walk right through Smith. Smith knows he’s been booked to lose. He knows that he’s a catapult for Jones to launch himself toward Cormier again, or to the heavyweight division to fight another name like Brock Lesnar. Smith has been cast as Jones’s tune-up fight for whatever comes next, and the oddsmakers are only echoing the sentiment.

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“I don’t think it’s the odds that offend me, I think it’s the way a lot of the media forms the questions,” he says, looking directly into the eyes of the one asking the question. “Everyone is always like ‘The odds are against you,’ and defaults to the oddsmakers. It’s almost like they ask the question as, the oddsmakers think you’re going to lose, but I don’t think that. That’s what bothers me. If you think I don’t have a chance, just say that and we can talk about it. It doesn’t bother me. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and Jon is a different animal because he’s never lost. Anderson Silva had the same thing, because he’d never been beaten in the UFC. Then he was.”

The underdog wants to be the criminal that steals Jones’s sheen of invincibility. And the truth is, Smith doesn’t really have nothing to lose: He has everything to lose. As he gets set for the biggest fight of his life, he’s tuning out the alternatives.

“I know that if I never win a world title, I’m never going to be happy,” he says. “That’s just not acceptable. I’ve come way too far. And Jon Jones isn’t the biggest task that I’m going to have to ever overcome. Even up to this point I’ve overcome so many worse things than what Jon Jones is capable of doing to me.

“I really mean it when I say world champion, or die trying. Unfortunately, that’s the truth.”

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