LAS VEGAS — In many ways, the would-be next light heavyweight champion of the UFC makes Jon Jones, the current one, look like an altar boy.
Anthony Smith is trying to do the impossible, to beat the seemingly invincible foe and to do so with a slim résumé and a list of transgressions that can rival Jones’ accident-for-accident.
Just in the last five years, Jones has been stripped of the UFC title, been in a hit-and-run accident, spent time in jail, failed two drug tests for performance-enhancing drugs and another for cocaine only a few weeks before the biggest match of his life.
UFC president Dana White said of Jones, “Let’s be honest: Jon Jones is the biggest [screw-up] in UFC history.”
And yet, the guy who will be standing across the cage from him Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in the main event of UFC 235 willingly admits he’s been every bit as much of a screw-up as Jones.
Smith dropped out of high school because, he says, “I just didn’t give a s—.” He wandered aimlessly in life and nearly killed himself when he fell asleep at the wheel after a night of drinking and partying. He ran his car into a ditch and totaled it. His next recollection was awakening the following day with a tube stuck in his mouth.
He recovered from the accident, and it didn’t immediately change his ways. He was aimless and loved to have a good time.
It’s part of the reason why, as so many dump on Jones, Smith has been nothing but respectful. His only sharp comments are when it comes to Jones’ usage of PEDs.
“The reason I will not talk about Jon and his personal struggles, except for the steroid stuff, is because I’ve done it all,” Smith said. “I’ve done the same s—. I’ve been in a drinking and driving accident. It wouldn’t take you very long to do a Google search and see I was involved in a drinking and driving accident and that I was on life support, and I was the driver. So who would I be to talk about Jon for doing things I’ve done myself?”
Smith is 30 now, married and the father of three young girls. If he were to defeat Jones to become light heavyweight champion, it would be among the handful of the biggest upsets in UFC history, along with Matt Serra knocking out Georges St-Pierre and Holly Holm knocking out Ronda Rousey. Smith has 13 losses and would become the champion with the most defeats on his record at the time of winning the belt were he to defeat Jones.
The real reason behind Anthony Smith’s career turnaround
Talk to Smith now and there’s no hint of the man he says once “was a pretty rough guy.” He’s thoughtful and well-spoken, pleasant and respectful. He turned his career around while in the UFC, which is like saying a .230 hitter in the minors suddenly became a contender for the batting title in the majors.
The reason is simple, in his view, and has nothing to do with getting physically stronger or faster or more technically adept. He has done all of those things, but the primary reason for his turnaround — he’s 7-3 in the UFC and has won three in a row after losing 10 times on the regional circuit — is his family.
“I just needed someone to need me,” Smith said. “I didn’t have that until I met Mikhala and started having kids.”
Smith and wife Mikhala have three daughters: Ariah is 7; Abaya is 4 and the crazy one in the family, he says; and Adley is 21 months. It was those four women who have helped forge Smith’s turnaround from just another tattooed guy who wanted to fight into one who is 25 minutes or less in the cage away from the championship.
Smith grew up in Nebraska largely without a father. His grandfather, who was a surrogate father, died when he was 14. He didn’t have much direction or anyone who was willing or able to channel the energy he had inside, and Smith followed a self-destructive path.
“My dad was never around, but my grandpa was around for a long time, but then he passed when I believe I was 14 and that was kind of the end of the world for me,” Smith said. “He was the only father figure at all that I’ve ever had. We were really, really close and that was devastating for me. It took me a long time to dig myself out of that.
“Couple that with being a half-black kid growing up in a small town in Nebraska where there wasn’t a lot to do. I hated school and once you start getting in trouble, that s— just spirals out of control. I couldn’t pull myself out of it and for a long time, I just didn’t care. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really care. I had things happen and I didn’t know how to handle them. I didn’t have people around me to help me through a lot of that.”
When he discovered MMA, it made a difference and gave him some discipline, but it wasn’t a panacea.
“Something would happen in my life and everything would just fall apart,” Smith said. “I wasn’t the kind of guy to go searching for help, and there wasn’t a lot of help around, and I’d find myself over and over in situations that weren’t good. Emotionally and mentally, I didn’t know how to handle problems, and my life was up and down, up and down, up and down.
“This whole time, I was fighting. When life was good, I was winning, but when life went downhill, I was partying and doing my best Jon Jones impersonation and I’d go off the deep end.”
Being responsible for other lives made all the difference for Smith. He couldn’t afford to drink or party when he had four other people who were depending upon him to do the right thing.
That led to Smith becoming a role model of sorts.
He lost his first UFC fight in 2013 and immediately lost his job. But when he made it to the UFC in 2016, it was a joyous occasion. He was doing the right things, training the right way, handling himself like a smart and mature adult, but he wasn’t dominant and didn’t have the look of a future champion.
He won four of six after signing with the UFC in 2016 as a middleweight. After a loss in an outstanding fight with Thiago Santos on Feb. 3, 2018, Smith made the decision to jump to light heavyweight. He’s been a vastly different fighter, freed from the burdens of trying to make weight. Like Jones, he’s 6-4 and was sapping his body attempting to make the middleweight non-title limit of 186 pounds.
At light heavyweight, he’s 3-0 with dominant wins over Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua and Volkan Oezdemir.
“I’m coming into my own as an athlete and a professional right now, and I know this sounds repetitive because I say it so much, but I just feel so good now not having to go through that [weight cut] for middleweight,” Smith said. “I’ll be honest, I think for the longest period of time, I didn’t realize how bad I felt. I was so damn miserable and I wasn’t having fun.
“We decided to move up and I can’t begin to tell you the difference that has made. Going into camp every day feeling 100 percent, it’s night and day. When I was at middleweight, I always said, ‘I wish I could fight after the weight cut the way I did in the gym.’ I just was never able to do it. I was never able to cut the weight properly and I was bringing a subpar product. That was frustrating to my coaches, because they’d see what I was capable of and we’d get to the fight and the guy they had trained wasn’t there.”
Anthony Smith has learned from his and Jon Jones’ mistakes
No matter how good he’s looked, though, he faces one simple truth on Saturday: No one he’s ever fought, no one he’s ever trained with, is close to the man he’ll share the cage with on Saturday.
Jones is the greatest MMA fighter who ever lived and does things in the cage other fighters don’t even think of doing. Smith, however, believes he can pull the upset because he won’t get caught up in the aura of who he is fighting.
“You take away the face and the name and just attack the body,” Smith said. “I can’t fall into the allure of Jon Jones. I’m not mesmerized by him. Most of this fight — most of it — is mental. It’s very much mental. He gets people in that deer-in-the-headlights look. He’s like a snake charmer and if you watch him fight, you see [his opponents] just watching him because you don’t know what he’s going to do, and a lot of the stuff he does doesn’t make any sense.
“There’s no rhyme or reason behind it. There’s no system. He’s got his own system, I’m sure, but as far as fundamental MMA fighters go, Jon doesn’t make any sense. That’s kind of how Jon is. Not a lot of what he does, fighting or not fighting, makes much goddamn sense. You can’t get caught up in who he is and watching him, but fortunately, that’s how I fight anyway.”
Smith said he’s confident of victory because he believes he’s learned from mistakes, those of Jones’ opponents and those he’s made himself.
“Guys try to talk s— about him and say things about him, and if I am certain of anything, it’s that Jon Jones doesn’t give a s— what anyone says about him,” Smith said. “He’s a multi-millionaire with a beautiful family and he’s the most famous fighter on planet Earth. …
“So I don’t need to talk crap. For one, I’m not going to be that guy because I’ve lived through a lot of what he has. But two, everything I have been through has brought me to this point. I’m at the right place at the right time and even if no one else believes in me, I do. I believe in myself because I know this journey I’ve been on and it’s led me to this moment in time. This is my time and I have never been more ready.”
More MMA coverage on Yahoo Sports: