Anthony Smith's MMA training began in a Subway. It's a confusing thought at first, because there's no Subway College or Subway Jiu-Jitsu Academy. He was inside a franchise of the popular sandwich restaurant chain. And you know what? Things got a lot less glamorous from there.
MMA requires hunger, and not the kind that stops with the intake of cold cuts. If fame, wealth, injury or exhaustion dulls that hunger, it is nigh-on impossible to compete successfully or even safely.
But there's a loophole, a mental cheat code around this predicament. For some fighters, the hunger simply never goes away.
One of those fighters is Smith.
"This is really all I know," Smith told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I dropped out of high school. It wasn't ever easy. Growing up, I was a struggling youth. Being half white and half black in a predominantly white neighborhood in Nebraska, no father, struggle and pain is all I've known. I wouldn't say I had a death wish, but I didn't care either way. I just said f--k it."
Without the hunger his life created, Smith never would have reached this point. He's set to challenge light heavyweight champion and consensus pound-for-pound kingpin Jon Jones on Saturday at UFC 235 in Las Vegas. The hunger's what gives him his aggression and insouciance toward long odds, which is relevant because he's a +600 underdog (bet $100 to win $600) as of Tuesday, per OddsShark.
It spurred him past a mediocre early career to a 7-2 UFC record—including wins in six of his last seven and a 3-0 record since he moved from middleweight up to light heavyweight.
Life isn't as scarring as it used to be for Smith, but the hunger was there for so long it imprinted itself on his DNA. With the luxury of hindsight, Smith can look back and allow himself a laugh or two—and cause a few while he's at it.
Make no mistake: Smith has some stories, including the one that started it all at Subway and the not-so-scenic route that followed. For comparison's sake, Jones, the fighting prodigy, was in the UFC at age 21 after only six pro fights in smaller shows. Smith fought 35 times, many of them in the grittiest promotions the prairie states had to offer, before his UFC debut at age 27.
So let's get to that moment in Subway, when MMA first sidled into his life. It was the mid-2000s, and MMA was still finding its footing, at least in the United States. Shortly after dropping out of high school, Smith, having nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon, went with a buddy to get a sandwich. A piece of paper was tacked to a bulletin board. A cagefighting show was going down that night.
"There was this crude flier advertising an amateur fight night," he said. "I had seen UFC before on DVDs at Blockbuster, but that was it. We decided to go see it."
They got in the car. Somewhere along the way, beers were enjoyed. But arguably the even riskier behavior started when they reached the venue.
"There were 15- and 16-year-olds banging it out with adults. It was crazy," he said. "We got there and the announcer said: 'We've had a fighter cancel. We need someone between 160 and 195 pounds to step in.' I stood up. Someone loaned me a pair of basketball shorts, gave me a mouthpiece, said, 'Bite down on this,' and I went to town."
Smith, beer buzz, basketball shorts and all, got his butt kicked. His first training session was complete, and he was hooked and hungry from the start. The notion of fighting for pennies wasn't exactly daunting, because, hey, fighting and pennies!
Fast-forward to a Wednesday in Minnesota. It was one of his earliest fights as a pro, and the conditions were about as grimy as they can get for a local MMA show. And that's saying something.
"I get there, and they switch the opponent at the last second without telling me," he recalled. "I had paid my way to get there. I was in an awful hotel. They didn't change the sheets; the beds had just been slept in. If I won, I'd break even. So I get to the venue, and it's a strip club. The cage was where the stage normally was. There were people smoking cageside, just blowing it into the cage. The [athletic] commissioners were doing shots. And it was Wednesday. It wasn't just a strip club. It was a strip club on a Wednesday."
That's one example. How about the place in Nebraska where the cage sat on a dirt floor?
"They put these carpet squares down so we wouldn't be walking in the dirt," he said. "The whole place smelled like cow s--t."
Elsewhere in the Midwest, he was once an unwitting honky-tonk participant.
"It was like a country bar," he said. "There were people riding mechanical bulls next to the cage. When people cheered, you didn't know if they were cheering for you or the girl who was riding the bull."
In North Dakota, he fought in a bowling alley. In another venue, he competed at a race track—on the same night as the race car drivers.
"They'd have two fights, then run a race, then two more fights," he said. "Every time the cars came around, they'd throw mud into the cage. Someone had to go in and clean it up."
All those years on MMA's barnstorming circuit didn't change him, Smith said, so much as they validated his approach. Hunger kept him in the game long after the smoke-filled barrooms, filthy hotels and worse should have squeezed the dream out of him. Smith would never think of it this way, much less say it this way, but as he prepares to face Jones, he has already won, in the way of someone who knows what losing really looks like.
"You're not making enough money to live off of," he said. "I was doing construction work, working security until maybe two or three in the morning. There were no training camps. Just training. I've fought in the worst places on the worst circuits. Stuck in a s--ty hotel, with no way to feed yourself. It's better these days. It really was a grind, though. No one can ever say I'm just doing this for the money."
Scott Harris covers MMA and is a feature writer for Bleacher Report and CNN.