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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 235’s Anthony Smith

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Upstart contender, Anthony Smith, will throw down with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight kingpin, Jon Jones, this Saturday (March 2, 2019) at UFC 235 from inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s been a wild nine months for “Lionheart,” who made his Light Heavyweight debut in June 2018. A pair of quick knockout wins against former champions — admitted emphasis on the “former” part — saw Smith rise into the Top 10 and square off with a real deal contender in Volkan Oezdemir. Despite a rough start, Smith’s confidence did not waver, and he was able to rally in the third round to score a submission finish. The well-traveled veteran has clearly hit his prime and reached a new level of confidence in his abilities. Whether that’s enough to defeat “Bones” will be determined on Saturday night, but let’s first take a closer look at Smith’s skill set.

Striking

Even up an additional 20 pounds from where he spent the majority of his career, Smith is a tall and lanky athlete. Trained at Factory X, Smith has the Muay Thai stylings and high-volume of strikes that one would expect of a fighter who trains at a kickboxing-heavy gym at high elevation.

Most of Smith’s focus is offensive. Even with his recent improvements, Smith is no defense wizard. Case in point, Smith’s lead leg was thoroughly abused last time out, and several of Oezdemir’s power punches found a home as well. Much of the time, Smith’s problems arise because he does not feint enough, making his power punches easier to counter.

Also an important factor is Smith’s complete commitment to doing damage. Much of the time, Smith is stalking, looking to land any of his eight limbs depending on the distance. His last two fights, however, are largely exceptions. Opposite “Shogun” Rua, 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).

Smith was unable to escape with such a clean victory against Oezdemir, but “Lionheart” certainly landed from his back foot. In that fight — and many others — Smith committed quite a bit to the check hook. It cost him some feeling on his lead leg due to getting kicked while pivoting, but Smith did manage to angle off and land some hard shots using the check hook opposite “No Time.”

Generally, Smith is rather 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 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.

Almost as common as the jab is Smith’s lead cross, which is a more versatile tool for “Lionheart” than most. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze how Smith uses the cross to set up more offense.

Smith’s boxing is not his finest skill set, but luckily he complements his hands with kicks, knees and elbows. These weapons diversify his offense, and they also have the added benefit of wearing opponents down further. In particular, Smith is fond of chopping at his opponents’ lead legs as they back off from his long punches, which is certainly a helpful habit in winning wars of attrition.

Smith’s body kicks are a great weapon, and his set ups 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 a strike Smith could use more of: a long distance, reasonably safe blow that directly attacks the gas tank that happens to pair well with his cross. 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 off the combination 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.

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).

In his last fight, Smith actually was active in searching for the reactive takedown. Like most tall strikers, he favored the running double leg. While Oezdemir did initial deny his attempts, they still served the purpose of stalling the Swiss athlete’s offense. Later when Oezdemir was a bit tired, that same running takedown successfully planted “No Time” on his back (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 the best mixed martial arts (MMA) grapplers to ever strap on gloves. Plus, the most recent was five years ago — a lifetime in MMA.

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.

In Smith’s bout with Oezdemir, both men were able to secure the back mount, but the difference in jiu-jitsu was clear. When in a bad position, Smith calmly controlled a two-on-one grip to limit Oezdemir’s offense/chokes and patiently waited for a chance to stand. Oezdemir, on the other hand, panicked and tried to stand immediately, allowed Smith to hop on his back and lock in the body triangle.

When a fighter with Smith’s lanky body starts squeezing the body triangle, it’s almost too late to defend.

Another nice piece of jiu-jitsu inside the Octagon came 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 understandably a massive underdog to an all-time great, but that’s hardly new for “Lionheart.” Smith is a career underdog, a man who consistently exceeds expectations. Plus, when looking for an unlikely contender to do the impossible, it doesn’t hurt to look to the man with 28 career stoppages.


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.