illustration of anthony smith flexing his muscles in the fighting ring

Despite His Talent, Anthony Smith Will Not Capture UFC Gold

The mixed martial artist seems to be stuck in the rut of a "gatekeeper" fighter — his skills are used as a benchmark to gauge others', but he is unlikely to be a contender himself.
May 14, 2021
8 mins read

Almost every fighter currently on the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) roster fully expects to become the undisputed champion of the world. But in the end, only a small fraction of fighters per generation accomplish this goal. Many legendary fighters possess championship-level skills but ultimately fail to obtain the coveted prize. Fighters such as Joseph Benavidez, Stephen Thompson and Alexander Gustafsson have all put on some of the most memorable performances in the UFC and still have never had the belt wrapped around their waists.

As talented as all of these athletes are, many fall into the role of a journeyman, or what mixed martial arts fans typically refer to as gatekeepers. The community uses these fighters to gauge the quality of their opponents, who are typically rising prospects. Generally, when a fighter beats one of these gatekeepers, it signifies to the organization and to the community that the rising prospect is getting closer to challenging the title.

For whatever reason, be it age or stylistic flaws, the majority of the community acknowledges that certain types of fighters simply lack the ability to become the champion, no matter how impressive they are. Based on his career thus far, current UFC light heavyweight contender Anthony Smith certainly falls under this gatekeeper label, and he is one of the many fighters unlikely to secure the ultimate win.

A veteran with over 50 professional fights under his belt, he experienced many ups and downs throughout his early career. He fought in the middleweight division for much of his career, but after a brutal loss to Thiago Santos in 2018, he decided to move up to the light heavyweight division. Smith’s performances improved noticeably, which he attributed to the reduced weight cut, as he no longer felt drained going into his fights.

He began a winning streak after finishing former champion Rashad Evans in the first round. Smith continued his rapid ascent up the light heavyweight rankings, defeating another former champion, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, as well as former title challenger Volkan Oozdemir. This run of form earned Smith the opportunity to fight for the light heavyweight title against the longest-reigning light heavyweight champion, and arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, Jon Jones.

Heading into the Jones fight, no one gave Smith a chance despite his three high-profile wins in the light heavyweight division. Fans pointed out that although Smith’s opponents carried impressive name value, they were old and past their primes by the time Smith fought them. Jones had already defeated several opponents with more impressive skill sets than Smith, including Gustafsson and former Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier. Despite these odds, Smith remained unfazed during the buildup, acknowledging that despite his underdog status, he fully expected to dethrone Jones in an impressive fashion.

The two light heavyweights clashed in 2019 at UFC 235. As expected, Smith found himself comprehensively outmatched in every facet of mixed martial arts against Jones. Smith was too slow and predictable on his feet and was controlled by Jones’ wrestling on the ground as well. Smith managed to avoid getting finished, but he decisively lost every round. Many fans ridiculed his performance, particularly when Smith would retreat toward the fence and defensively curl into a ball against some of Jones’ combinations.

Although the fight itself was completely one-sided, a highly controversial moment did occur when Jones fired an illegal knee to Smith’s head while the challenger was on the ground. The referee paused the action and asked whether Smith was fit to continue the fight. As seen in Petr Yan’s recent disqualification loss to Aljamain Sterling at UFC 256, had Smith claimed he was unfit to continue, Jones would have been disqualified, and Smith would have become the new undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world.

Ultimately, however, Smith chose to continue fighting, and the referee deducted two points from Jones. The deficit did not impact the fight’s outcome, and Jones would go on to win each round regardless. Smith left the fight with a lot of praise for his integrity, honesty and sheer toughness, but fans came to the conclusion that he ultimately lacked the fundamental skills to become a champion.

Smith himself remains disappointed with his performance in the Jones fight, lamenting that he “sat back and let Jon Jones be Jon Jones.” He nevertheless vowed to improve and eventually win the UFC title. He scored an impressive win over former title challenger Gustafsson only a few months after the Jones fight, which gave many fans hope, as Gustafsson himself had given Jones one of his most competitive fights to date. However, Smith’s path would not continue to go smoothly.

In 2020, Smith fought against Glover Teixera, another former title challenger. Although Smith started the fight strong, a hard punch from Teixera near the end of the second round shattered Smith’s orbital bone, which left him severely compromised for the rest of the fight. Although Smith stayed in the fight for as long as he could, he proceeded to endure several rounds of brutal punishment before the referee finally waved off the fight in the fifth round. In the aftermath, fighters and fans alike criticized the referee and Smith’s cornermen for not stopping the fight earlier and allowing Smith to take unnecessary damage. Moreover, with this result, Smith’s title opportunities seemed further away than ever.

Only a few months later, Smith returned to fight against rising contender Alexander Rakic. Experts wondered whether Smith was returning too soon after enduring such a violent loss to Teixera, and their worries were warranted; Smith lost another one-sided match to Rakic. Smith never had a single moment of success, and he suffered devastating leg kicks, which rendered him largely immobile for much of the fight.

Smith currently rides a two-fight winning streak against the unranked Devin Clarke and young contender Jimmy Crute. However, even though he’s made demonstrable improvements in his most recent fights, there are several limitations that will ultimately prevent Smith from claiming the title.

First, although he is only 32 years old, the amount of time he has spent fighting has undoubtedly taken an immense physical toll on his body, which will reduce his career longevity going forward. Furthermore, in comparison to some of the top light heavyweights, Smith simply lacks the baseline levels of athleticism, speed and strength to consistently defeat them. Finally, from a matchmaking standpoint, Smith has decisively lost to several of the top light heavyweights, which will make the UFC relatively reluctant to book a rematch between Smith and any of his former opponents.

Gatekeeper fighters have broken through the barrier before and become UFC champions. Former UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping famously defeated Luke Rockhold in a stunning upset and won the belt at UFC 199. However, as inspiring as that story is, an overwhelming amount of coincidences had to occur for that to happen. First, Rockhold’s original opponent, Chris Weidman, suffered an injury, and the UFC offered Bisping the opportunity to step up and fight on short notice. Moreover, Bisping’s natural charisma and marketability made him an obvious choice as the replacement. Finally, Rockhold admitted that he came into the fight highly overconfident and allowed Bisping to land a perfectly placed left hand counter, even though Bisping was never known for his knockout power.

Although Smith has a well-liked personality, he does not have the fame among casual audiences necessary to expedite his route to the title. Smith remains an extremely strong fighter in his own right, but when considering both his record and his stylistic weaknesses, it would take an unprecedented number of improbable events for him to somehow capture the UFC belt at this stage in his career.

Brandon Li, Vassar College

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Brandon Li

Vassar College

Outside of reading and writing, I enjoy swimming, watching mixed martial arts and playing video games with friends.

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