None of it was that long ago. Anthony Smith still remembers the times when he and his girlfriend had to shake down the couch cushions so they could buy something to eat. Back even farther, when he was barnstorming the Midwest, he once was asked if there was any middleweight he would refuse to fight.
He remembers how he answered the question, too: Hector Lombard.
Times have changed for Smith. On September 16 at UFC Fight Night 16, he knocked out that very same Lombard. It gave him a three-fight win streak in MMA's biggest show and kept his bonus money rolling in. Granted, Lombard is now 39 years old and diminished in skill, but his name still carries value both for fans and for Smith.
“Someone asked who I wouldn’t want to fight, and I didn’t hesitate. It was Hector Lombard,” Smith said. “He was killing it in Bellator back then. I think this was 2009. …I think I had put him on a pedestal. This win was probably my biggest accomplishment.”
Smith’s success, and the blunt-force style he’s used to achieve it, is getting him noticed. He’s ascending the cards of late, from Fight Pass preliminaries to cable main cards. He’s knocking on the door of a top-15 ranking in the UFC’s solid middleweight division.
It’s been a pretty long road for Smith, who at 29 years of age has already racked up a 28-12 record during his pro career, which began in 2008. To get there, Smith fought up to six times a year, from Yankton, South Dakota, to Council Bluffs, Iowa.
“I’ve been chasing this dream for a long time,” Smith said.
After fighting 20 times in three years and compiling a fair-to-middling 13-7 record, in 2011 Smith got a call from the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion. He won that by second-round knockout. But his ship wasn't in just yet. The UFC gave him a shot two years later but waived him after he lost, a damaging kneebar submission to blame.
Still more bouncing around followed, but the shows and the showings slowly got better, as did his skill set and fight acumen. When he returned to the UFC in 2016, he was on a seven-fight win streak, punctuated by a first-round TKO of notable veteran Josh Neer.
Along the way, Smith appeared to increase his stamina and shore up his defense. It’s the same approach that worked against Lombard: using his gargantuan-for-a-middleweight 6’4” frame (plus a 77” reach), Smith throws a diverse arsenal of strikes from range but is well-versed in any phase.
His career takedown defense percentage, according to stat keeper FightMetric, is just 44 percent, but he was able to do enough to keep the fight standing against Lombard—although it is always interesting to see how Smith fares against opponents with takedown-heavy strategies. In either case, the engine that makes it all go for Smith is aggression and a sheer willingness to gut his way through difficulty. Smith's toughness stands out even in a profession where toughness is a basic prerequisite.
“I force people to fight,” Smith said. “I’m that guy for anybody in this division. You have to be a problem-solver in there, and I’m a problem-solver.”
But being in the UFC, even winning in the UFC, doesn’t change lives overnight. Those moments of destitution were relatively recent. Now, however, after years of toil on a host of different circuits, Smith, his fiance, and their three small children have finally found stability.
“It’s the little things for us,” Smith said. “We don’t have to scrounge for change to feed ourselves. There’s no calculator out when we’re shopping. It’s nice to go to the gas station and fill up the tank without looking at the price. We can jump on a plane and go somewhere if we want. I still drive a [Ford] F150, it’s just a little newer.”
Smith also realizes, of course, that it’s all smoke on the wind unless you keep it going. That’s why he wants a bigger challenge next time out. In particular, he calls out three other middleweights—Uriah Hall, Krzysztof Jotko and David Branch—who shared the UFC Fight Night 116 marquee with Smith. If he doesn’t get a ranked opponent next, Smith said, he may explore his options at 205 pounds.
If he had his druthers, though, he’d prefer to face Branch, the former World Series of Fighting champion who fell to Luke Rockhold in the evening’s main event.
Anthony Smith @lionheartsmith
Although @DavidcBranchMMA is on my radar on my climb, real recognizes real. Much respect after hearing @UFCUnfiltered.2017-8-21 22:45:25
“I like how he fights,” Smith said. “He’s a tough dude, and he doesn’t get enough respect for his style. There’s no beef, we’re cordial, but he has dismissed me a little in the past. Now that I’ve won and he’s lost, the tables have turned. We’re in each other’s crosshairs."
Branch is known (and decried) for a more conservative style, but it could be that Smith is the right fit to compel him into a more uptempo contest. After all, Smith has had plenty of experience willing himself to fight. How hard could it be to do the same to others?
“I never have a boring fight,” he said. “It may not be the prettiest style, but I’m not here for that. I’m the toughest guy in the UFC.”