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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 138’s Anthony Smith

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Anthony Smith
Anthony Smith
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Well-traveled knockout artist, Anthony Smith, will square off with recent Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight title challenger, Volkan Oezdemir, this Saturday (Oct. 27, 2018) at UFC Fight Night 138 inside Avenir Centre in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.

Exactly where does Smith stand in 2018?

That’s really the question this fight seeks to answer. For years, Smith bounced around from promotion to promotion, always a tough fight, but losing some pivotal bouts. His second stint in the Octagon began in 2016, and his defensive improvements were immediately obvious. Currently, Smith has won five of his previous six fights, taking each victory via stoppage and only coming up short to another thriving fighter in Thiago Santos.

Smith is also undefeated (2-0) at Light Heavyweight, but his opponents were — to be frank — old. It’s clear that Smith has a new level of confidence and technique behind him, but we won’t know until Saturday night if that’s enough to break into the 205-pound title mix.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

A lanky Muay Thai striker from Colorado’s Factory X gym, Smith is still all about offense. He’s shored up his defense to be sure, but Smith tends to stalk so aggressively that his length isn’t always used to make his opponent miss. Instead, it guarantees that Smith will land.

His last fight, however, is an exception. Opposite “Shogun,” Smith was more willing than usual to give up ground. As Rua advanced with his guard high. Smith stabbed at him with jabs and left hooks (GIF). “Lionheart” was truly making the most of his significant reach advantage, and Rua did not like it one bit. “Shogun” tried to pressure Smith into the fence — not a bad strategy — but he over-reached on his right hand. More than that, Rua was too eager to trade with Smith, likely a result of his probing shots from range.

Rua found himself stunned in the following exchange, and Smith swarmed violently (GIF).

Generally, though, Smith is very willing to take a shot in an effort to land one. That certainly is not the safest strategy, but it’s worth mentioning that Smith has been stopped with strikes just once in the previous seven years, and the aforementioned loss to the absurdly powerful kicks of Thiago Santos.

Offensively, Smith tends to work one or two strikes at a time unless flurrying. Though he really doesn’t work hard to maintain range, Smith will pop the occasional jab. It’s a spearing strike, one intended to do damage more than set other punches. Once that’s established though, Smith does find better success with his lead left hook, and he’ll also slip to load up a lead hand uppercut. Something Smith does on occasion is drop to the mid-section with his left hook, which is definitely a strike he should rely on more often given his strategy of wearing down foes.

Much of the time, Smith is looking to lead with his right cross. At times, this can leave him very vulnerable — the cross is a slower punch from further back compared to lead hand strikes, meaning it’s easier to counter, particularly since Smith is not a lightning fast puncher. However, when Smith does not lean too far forward with the punch, it can allow him to pull back and return when his foe tries to counter (GIF).

Truthfully, Smith’s boxing would not get him far were it not for his kicks, knees, and elbows. Smith’s intent above all else is to land and do damage, and kicks fit the bill perfectly for breaking opponents down. While stalking, Smith will commonly chop at his opponent’s lead leg while he backs away from “Lionheart.”

Smith’s body kicks are a great weapon, and his setups are very classic Muay Thai. Usually, it’s the left hook-right body kick or cross-left body kick. In addition, Smith has been more active with his front kick straight up the middle. That’s yet another strike Smith could use more of: a long distance, reasonably safe blow that directly attacks the gas tank. Smith will also fire knees from this distance with similar setups to his body kicks. That’s a product of his height, as Smith can hit opponents from far away and reach the chin easily thanks to his long limbs.

Smith will also fire high kicks off the left hook and right cross, but lately his best head kicks have come at the end of flurries. Once Smith gets his foe moving backward away from his long punches, Smith will run his foe into the fence and cap the combination off with a hard high kick (GIF).

Elbows are the last major piece of Smith’s offense. Generally, Smith is looking for his right elbow, usually setting it up with a left hand frame/jab at range or on the break of the clinch. Against Elvis Mutapcic, Smith scored his first UFC knockout by latching onto the single-collar tie with his left hand when Mutapcic punched. Mutapcic tried to circle away from the tie to escape, but he moved directly into a fight-finishing right elbow instead.

Defensively, the best thing Smith could do without revamping his whole style would be to feint more. Shorter men like Hector Lombard and Andrew Sanchez were able to counter him with head shots over and over because Smith rarely fakes. He’s always pushing forward behind hard strikes, which means a skilled fighter can consistently predict where his head will be.

Opposite Rua, Smith was able to maintain his high-rate of activity while moving backward and avoiding Rua’s shots. It was a short fight, but that’s a promising performance regardless.

Wrestling

Smith is not much of an offensive wrestler — he generally only goes to the shot when being swarmed — but his defense has definitely been called into question many times. For much of his career, Smith’s flat-footed kickboxing and height have resulted in many easy takedowns for his opponent. As just mentioned, the lack of feints is also a problem in this area, as it allows his opponent to know a power punch is coming and duck under that punch for easy access to a double leg.

Still, there has been definite improvement. First and foremost, Smith does a better job of bending his knees. Length is great, but looking down at an opponent is poor positioning. In his last few fights, Smith has done a better job of working from eye level with his opponents, which makes defending the takedown far easier.

One thing Smith does very well in use the overhook in the clinch. Whenever he’s able to stop a shot or simply faced with a clinch attempt, Smith will weigh heavily on at least one overhook and get his hips back. As his opponent moves forward to close that newly created gap, Smith will meet his mid-section with a hard knee. Usually, that saps his opponent’s will to grapple, allowing Smith to cut an angle and escape the clinch.

From that overhook in the clinch, Smith can move to a position called the A Frame. Using the overhook (or ideally, an underhook), Smith can use one arm to deny the takedown and the other to frame on the face/chin. This creates a very strong position, one that makes it easy to land knees or reverse his opponent into the fence (GIF).

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Like his number of knockout losses, Smith’s five career defeats via tapout is misleading. A pair of those losses came to Roger Gracie and Antonio Braga Neto — two of MMA’s best grapplers to ever strap on gloves. Perhaps even more important is that the most recent submission was five years ago.

Even aside from those losses, Smith has shown slick grappling throughout much of his career. He has 11 submission wins total, including a wild inverted triangle opposite UFC Middleweight and jiu-jitsu black belt Tim Williams.

Smith’s go-to submission is undoubtedly the triangle choke. Given his long legs, Smith only needs a small opportunity to pass an arm through his legs and leave his opponent trapped. Once his foe is caught, Smith can put a ton of leverage into the submission almost immediately.

Smith has yet to score a tapout in his current UFC run, but he did show a nice piece of jiu-jitsu opposite a talented wrestler in Andrew Sanchez. From half guard, Smith reached across his body to isolate Sanchez’s wrist with both hands. Usually, this is the first step to a stand up, but Smith instead pinned that wrist to the mat and bumped with his hips. Sanchez was unable to free his wrist and fell over, resulting in a rather Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira-esque half guard sweep.

Conclusion

Smith is has solid conditioning and dangerous offense — enough to make him a Top 10-ranked Light Heavyweight even if none of his historic problems have been solved. However, it certainly looks like Smith has made genuine progress at improving each weak aspect of his game, progress that is ongoing. Still just 30 years old, Smith is entering his prime, and we don’t know just how high his ceiling is yet.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.