Back in June 2010, Chris Leben scored a TKO victory over Aaron Simpson at the TUF 11 Finale. Two weeks later, after Wanderlei Silva broke his ribs in training and had to withdraw from his fight with Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 116, Leben returned to Las Vegas like a street fighting Camelot to take his place. This time Leben won via a come-from-behind triangle choke in front of a million PPV customers, and there was this feeling — with two wins in two weeks — that he could just go on all summer long, kicking people’s asses and taking names.
Anthony Smith kind of had that same vibe at UFC Fight Night Hamburg on Sunday. Having just dusted former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans last month at UFC 225, ol’ “Lionheart” showed up to Germany to claim the consciousness of another MMA icon, this time Mauricio Rua, after Volkan Oezdemir was forced out with visa issues. Smith needed only a minute and change to turn his first ever impromptu main event into a kind of divisional reimagining. All it took was a passport, a neutral playing field, and an insatiable desire to brawl.
It’s the last thing that catches your attention, though. At a time when it’s extremely difficult to both book big fights and keep cards humming along, Smith emits the eager glow of a savior. That knee he landed on Evans out in Chicago was filthy enough business, but the elbow that did Shogun in wasn’t even an encore — it was a set-up for what he hoped would be the last leg of his one man Summer Series against Alexander Gustafsson.
Gusty was — it was believed anyway — in desperate need of an opponent for UFC 227 on August 4. Knowing this, Smith wasted little time in calling him out. He was ready to just keep on fighting, filling in where needed, shucking contenders at his new weight class as if the division itself were just so much corn.
Of course, it was learned moments after that big call out that Gustafsson was dealing with an injury that would prevent him from competing at UFC 227, a development that Smith viewed as “ironic.” What he meant was that Gustafsson must have caught a cold wind coming off the Alster Lakes and had second thoughts. You can see why he might think that way, giving the timing. On Saturday Gustafsson needed a fight. By Sunday, when one materialized very publicly and right before his eyes, he was all good.
Smith was just connecting dots in real time while, while furthering his angle that he’s a reaper’s hand reaching out for the old.
Still, even if he won’t be afforded to fight again in less than two weeks, Smith’s intentions are noted. And if there was ever a division in need of new blood, it’s light heavyweight, where the champion is a cameo and most of the top talent are holdovers from a bygone day. Evans was going for one last-ditch chance at glory when he fought Smith, and got the literal message he needed that it was time to hang up the gloves. Rua’s name was being recycled in title talks, too, as he had enjoyed a kind of late-career renaissance by winning three in a row. Smith acted as a reality check.
And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen Smith coming for a while now. Dude had 35 pro MMA fights before he debuted in the UFC, and he’d lost plenty of them. Though he was ultimately overmatched, he showed his mettle against Cezar Ferreira two years ago. He had a buzz saw of a performance against Elvis Mutapcic, and kicked off his run of capsizing former champions by finishing Hector Lombard 10 months ago in Pittsburgh. Even his lone loss in his last six fights was memorable. He took a pounding at the hands of Thiago Santos back in February, and yet kept coming. If there’s a more direct connection to Leben, it’s in his ability to mutate into a fist-slinging zombie at the very first overhand that lands flush on his chin.
His knockouts of Evans and Rua were just extensions of his viciousness and scorn.
But beyond all that, Smith’s allure lies more in his attitude than any potentiality to contend. He said it himself in the post-fight press conference, that he was cut from the same cloth as Rua, ready to throw down whenever the UFC needs him no questions asked. It’s hard not to appreciate that kind of outlook in fighting, where the word finicky thrives as a necessary evil. The higher you go up the chain, the more you pick your fights. Smith is new enough to the space that he lets fights pick him.
In other words, fun. And it would have been even more fun to see him try for a third victory this summer after that KOTY candidate in Hamburg, because that kind of thing speaks to the very essence of fighting. Then again, so does that fact that he wanted to.