01 Jan Anthony Smith welcomes Paul Craig matchup after forgetting ‘what it feels like to win’
A guttural scream of “I’m not going anywhere” and “don’t sleep on me” – with an expletive thrown in for good measure – was Anthony Smith’s first verbal statement after a first-round submission win at UFC Vegas 15. The physical one might have been even louder.
“He came in to make a statement – message received,” UFC President Dana White said after Saturday’s headliner at UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
Smith went into his fight with Devin Clark having lost three of his past four fights, including consecutive setbacks against Glover Teixeira and Alexsandar Rakic. Bouncing back wasn’t just a necessity for his career, but for his soul as a fighter.
“You forget what it feels like to win,” he said. “I remember what a loss in 2006 felt like as an amateur. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself. I don’t know, it’s been a crazy goddamn year, and it hurts even more when you’re losing to people you know you can beat. Had Glover been a three-round fight, I would have won that fight. Had I not gotten the two leg kicks, I’m fairly confident I beat Rakic. Both of those guys did great jobs, they’re both incredible competitors. Sometimes, the shoe just drops like that. It’s just the break-in, and COVID-19, and getting my teeth knocked out, it’s just a mess, so it feels really good back where I belong.”
Like many fighters (and everyday people), 2020 has been a particularly crazy year for Smith. But for some reason, he said, the most recent skid left him feeling more pressure than ever before in his career.
“I’m not exactly sure why,” he said. “This one was heavy, though. I don’t know if the stakes are higher, or if it’s in the spotlight. When I was back on the regional scene, no one gave a sh*t cared. I’d lost three or four in a row, and they’re like, whatever. But the whole world is watching when it happens now, and you hear the whispers. Where’s his head at? Is he back to soon? Is he healthy? Does he really want this? Is he too focused on the desk? Is he too worried about his pretty teeth. I hear it all, so you don’t want to prove those people right, and that’s where the pressure comes. And then it’s just a spiral down from there, because then you’re worried about everything else.
“Tonight, I was just focused on reminding myself what it felt like, and going in and doing what I know I can do. I know what I’m capable of, and I just need to do it.”
Inside one round, Smith took control of Clark on the canvas and secured a triangle choke that produced a tap at the 2:34 mark of the opening frame. The foundation for the confident performance was laid in his training for the bout. He hit the pause button on an active media schedule that includes regular UFC commentary work, a podcast and a radio show.
Moving forward, Smith said he’ll get behind the mic again. But like other fighters who serve as fighters and commentators, he won’t try to do both at the same time.
“Maybe I thought I could just handle it, but you don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “I tried it, it didn’t work out, so we’re going to keep doing analyst gigs, I’m going to keep my radio show, keep pushing this podcast thing, and when we get a fight, we’re going to back out and we’re just going to be fighting. A guy told me one time, you’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing.”
By focusing on that, Smith expects he’ll eventually dig himself out of the hole he got into in 2020. So for right now, his career plans don’t need to follow any specific path. This year was the one where a lot of things fell apart. Now, he’ll start to put them back together again.
Smith might be above his next opponent in the rankings, but he’s not trying to protect his number.
“I know what my last year looked like,” he said. “I did to Devin Clark what I’m supposed to do to Devin Clark. I’m not saying that I’m not happy with that win, but if anything other than that happened, we have a problem. So I’m not going to be the guy that says I’m f*cking next in line. If I’ve got to stay down in the rankings and find my way back to fighting those top guys, that’s what I’ll do.
“I think I saw something about Paul Craig had brought my name up. That’s a fun matchup. That’s a fun grappling matchup. I love his style. I could listen to his interviews forever. As long as I have enough time to get ready, I’m good.”