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UFC 301: Anthony Smith confronts career reality after reconciling with the man who knocked out his teeth

In Sports
May 03, 2024

A little over a year ago Anthony Smith got a second chance to tangle with Glover Teixeira, this time in a lower stakes competition at a grappling event. This was three years after their fight in the UFC, a brutal and bloody affair in which Teixeira paused mid-fight to apologize to Smith while he was in the process of literally knocking out Smith’s teeth.

You might not think this experience would form the basis for any sort of friendship, but the world of MMA can often be a strange one and so when Teixeira invited Smith to join him for a drink in the hotel lounge after their grappling match, Smith went. He was glad he did, too, because they ended up having a conversation about struggles. Teixeira’s struggles. Smith’s struggles. The general struggles of the professional fighter trying to make it in an unforgiving world and so forth.

As they were talking, Smith realized that what Teixeira was telling him was important. But he also realized that he didn’t know quite what to do with it just yet.

“He was giving me this advice that, some of it was helpful right away and I totally understood what he meant,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “And some of it, I don’t know, it took a little bit. I guess it had to cook. And now I’m starting to feel like, ‘OK, I see what he means.’”

The advice, you might say, was especially geared toward a fighter of a certain age. It also mostly applied to a fighter in a certain position. You get to be in your mid-30s, with one failed attempt at capturing a UFC title in the rearview mirror, and you might start to lose heart. You might wonder if it’s ever going to happen for you, if you’re ever going to be a world champion. And once you start fixating on that, Teixeira pointed out, thinking too far down the road and trying to plot a specific path to the belt, you could get yourself in some real trouble.

“You look at [Teixeira] when I fought him, he didn’t focus on anything else,” Smith said. “He was just trying to win one fight, then go win the next one. Then he finds himself in a title fight, and now he’s one of those guys with a belt in his trophy case when maybe he was someone people had written off later in his career.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 09: (L-R) Anthony Smith punches Khalil Rountree Jr. in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 09, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Anthony Smith knows what fans think about the state of his career — but he also knows they’ve been wrong before. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

You can see how this example might resonate with Smith at this point. At 35, he’s got losses in three of his last four. His lone title fight resulted in a decision loss to Jon Jones in 2019. His last time out, he tried to manufacture some momentum by taking an extremely short notice fight against Khalil Rountree Jr. The result was a bad knockout loss that only put him further from UFC gold.

“I lied to everyone before that fight,” Smith said. “Of course, I lied. Like, ‘Oh, have you been training?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, sure I’ve been training.’ But no, I fought Ryan Spann on Aug. 26. I didn’t have one training session, not one single training session from then until I took the Khalil fight on 10 days’ notice. So, of course, that’s going to look bad. I looked like s***. I was kind of chubby. I was out of shape. And I still think I did OK for coming off the couch and fighting a guy like Khalil.”

At UFC 301 on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV), Smith finds himself facing the undefeated Vitor Petrino in Rio de Janeiro. Petrino’s nearly a decade younger, still fresh-faced and eager to make his mark in the UFC. He asked for Smith by name after his last win, and Smith said he went to UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard as soon as he heard it and told him he’d take the fight.

To outside observers, this looks like the unfolding of a familiar story. Older fighter on the back slope of his career faces young up-and-comer on the rise. Certainly oddsmakers seem to think they’ve got it pegged, since they installed Petrino as a 3-1 favorite right out of the gates. Those odds have only gotten longer since, with Petrino now edging up closer to 6-1 at BetMGM as fight night draws near.

Smith also works as an on-air commentator for the UFC, so he’s learned not to take stuff like that personally.

“When the UFC or any promoter is booking fights, you’re in one of two positions,” Smith said. “You’re either the guy they’re looking to build, or you’re the guy they’re looking to use to build somebody else. But if you go in there and pass or fail the test, you can switch from either position to the other.”

The thing is, time may be running short. Teixeira was 42 when he won his UFC title. He was also the oldest first-time title winner in UFC history. That is to say, his story would seem to be the exception and not the rule.

The way many fans encounter Smith most often these days is as a commentator and analyst and podcaster. He’s become one of those ubiquitous talking heads for this sport, and he’s good at it. He’s good enough at it, in fact, that it’s not at all uncommon for fans to wonder aloud why he doesn’t hang up the gloves and just focus on a career on the other side of the chain-link.

To those people, it probably sounds like good and possibly even obvious career advice. To Smith, it sounds a little too much like admitting that the dream is dead, that he’ll never be a UFC champion, that he’s gone as far as he can go. Could he accept that possibility without letting it eat him from the inside out? That’s the part that’s still tough to answer as he faces the prospect of being some new young fighter’s stepping stone to the top.

“I used to believe that I’d never be happy without [a UFC title],” Smith said. “But I think maybe I’ve had a mindset change. I don’t know. I really, really want it, but if I allow myself to consider the possibility that I might not get it, I have to be OK with that. … I think as I’ve gotten older, it’s easier for me to sit back and look at this life that I’ve built for my family from nothing. I started with nothing. So I have to be proud of that. It’s only fair to them and everyone around me that I let myself be proud of that. And when I think of it like that, yeah, I think I’ll be OK with it.”

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