Prolific finisher, Anthony Smith, will square off vs. fast-rising prospect, Ryan Spann, this Saturday (Sept. 18, 2021) at UFC Vegas 37 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Smith’s transition from Middleweight veteran to Light Heavyweight contender was largely unexpected, but “Lionheart” really did thrive for a couple years, winning four of five fights with the sole defeat coming to Jon Jones. Since then, however, Smith has run into something of a reality check, splitting four fights more evenly. How does Smith fit into the title picture now? That answer seemingly depends almost entirely upon his result this weekend. A win makes it three straight, while a loss allows another younger prospect to step ahead of him.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Smith’s kickboxing is based largely in Muay Thai, emphasizing short combinations of hard punches to set up his kicks and knees. However, he has recently tried to increase the volume with his hands, focusing on landing more jabs from a distance.
Most of Smith’s focus is offensive. Even with his recent improvements, Smith is no defensive wizard. Despite loving to kick himself, Smith generally does not react to being kicked all that well. Often, Smith’s problems arise when he forgets to feint, leaving his own offense easier to counter. Generally, Smith is willing to take a shot to deliver one of his own.
He really commits to doing damage above all else. Much of the time, Smith is stalking, looking to land any of his eight limbs depending on the distance. In some of his recent wins, however, Smith has been attacking well on the counter. Opposite “Shogun” Rua, for example, 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. 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.”
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 often 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.
More often, Smith leads with the cross. Depending on his objective, Smith will either step deep into a full power cross (usually followed by a left kick/knee) or hang back and flick the cross, looking to draw his foe forward.
Smith’s hands primarily serve to set up his kicks, which really help wear his foe down. In particular, Smith is fond of chopping at his opponents’ lead legs as they back off from his long punches, a helpful habit in winning wars of attrition. Last time out, a single calf kick from Smith debilitated Jimmy Crute.
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 and 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.
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.
Opposite Teixeira, Smith’s striking strategy was strange. He threw a lot more volume and combinations than usual. On paper, that doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but Smith definitely fatigued from his own output. Teixeira was then able to more easily find the pocket, where his own clubbing power punches found their mark with an unpleasant consistency.
Smith is not much of an offensive wrestler — he generally only goes to the shot when being swarmed (GIF) — but his defense has definitely been called into question many times. For much of his career, Smith’s bad combination of flat-footed stance, height and lack of feints resulted in many easy takedowns for his opponents.
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. Over the last few years, Smith has done a better job of working from eye level with his foes, 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).
Even against Jones, Smith was able to stall quite a few takedown attempts in the clinch.
Offensive takedowns have been a part of Smith’s Light Heavyweight success, as he has scored several reactive takedowns. 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). Similarly, Smith waited until Gustafsson was looking a bit more tired to attempt to run him over, but when he did, he landed in a finishing position.
Like his number of knockout losses, Smith’s five career defeats via tapout are 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. More important, Smith hasn’t actually been submitted since 2013.
Offensively, Smith has landed 12 submission wins total, including a wild inverted triangle opposite UFC Middleweight and Brazilian 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’s bottom game actually returned to action for the first time in years vs. Devin Clark. Clark managed to scramble his way into top position, but as he reached back to punch, Smith smartly threw a leg over his shoulder (GIF). As a result, Clark was in triangle position, and it did not take long at all for Smith to finish the strangle.
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. Smith finished Alexander Gustafsson in similar fashion, convincing his foe that turning away to stand was a good idea while fatigued.
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.
Smith really has seen it all inside the cage, and that includes the skill set Spann brings to this main event. It’s once again a question of whether or not Smith’s experience and skill can overcome his foe’s athleticism and power — a question Smith faces often when dealing with these up-and-comers.
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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.