Anthony Smith Proves He Belongs in the Light Heavyweight Elite

Smith deserves way more respect than he's gotten from fans and media.
October 29, 2018, 6:10pm
Anthony Smith celebrates his victory over Volkan Oezdemir.
Screen capture via Youtube/UFCOnFox

Anthony Smith is the kind of man who can eat a flush wheel kick to the face from Thiago Santos in the opening seconds of a bout and shake it off. Yet something Hector Lombard said about Smith’s low ranking and regard in the run up to their fight hurt Smith a little deeper. After stumbling Lombard with a right hand at the end of the second round, Smith spent the break between rounds shouting “Do you know my name now, Hector?” and ignoring his cornermen altogether. As the third round began, Smith looked Lombard in the eye and scolded him: “I deserve your respect.” Moments later he knocked Lombard out.

On Saturday night Anthony Smith proved that he still deserves a lot more respect than he has been getting from fans and media. Smith’s run through the light heavyweight division has been a punchline to a lot of jokes about how bad the light heavyweight division is. An also-ran middleweight can jump up, smash two old men, and become top ten ranked—how hilarious. Yet on Saturday night, Smith fought Volkan Oezdemir, a very legitimate fighter, and after two good rounds, submitted Oezdemir in the third.

Volkan Oezdemir doesn’t get the credit he probably deserves as a clever striker. This is because his knockouts of Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa came from short, hurried shots rather than clever set ups. Yet against Daniel Cormier, Oezdemir was using jabs and feints to draw reactions from Cormier and attempting to set the light heavyweight champion up throughout. Against Anthony Smith, Oezdemir immediately got after a major Smith weakness: his lead leg.

Two of Smith’s go-to techniques are the check hook and the right hand lead. The check hook is a left hook aimed at catching the opponent as he closes in.

The right hand lead is throwing either a power right hand or a flicking right straight, completely naked, with nothing to set it up. Both of these are strikes that require Smith to have his feet wide and set. Because his lead leg is always out ahead of his center of gravity, Smith’s lead leg is also always available as a target. Both Lombard and Oezdemir were able to land punishing blows time and time again against Smith’s lead leg.

Oezdemier combined feints with kicks well, feinting with his hands to set up the low kicks, and also feinting low kicks to get Smith to pick up his legs, and then jumping in to punch. Here, Oezdemir shows a favorite of Sergey Kovalev, feinting the right hand and then springing forward with a long left straight. While it could be called a “jab,” Kovalev knocked down a good many boxers with this blow.

As Anthony Smith began to gain confidence and put some strikes together in the second round, Oezdemir timed a nice takedown. Taking top position, Oezdemir began passing Smith’s half guard. Putting in shoulder pressure, Oezdemir began pushing Smith’s knees to the side so that he could slide into quarter mount (where only the ankle is trapped between the opponent’s legs), a Demian Maia favorite. Yet Smith gave up locking his legs around one of Oezdemir’s and instead inserted a butterfly hook, with his foot on the inside of Oezdemir’s thigh. Oezdemir attempted to step straight over into mount and was drawn into a leg entanglement from which Smith attacked a heel hook.

Notice that Smith’s left foot on the inside of Oezdemir’s thigh, rather than using both legs to trap one leg in a traditional half guard. This inside hook allows Smith to elevate Oezdemir’s hips and shoot through for a leg entanglement.

Oezdemir’s response was on point. While the heel hook is a powerful and dangerous attack, much of the potency is lost if the opponent’s knee is allowed to escape beneath the line of the attacker’s knees. The moment that Oezdemir’s knee was out, he stepped over in a wheel kicking motion and in the process turned Smith at the hip and exposed his back.

Notice that the leg attack becomes ineffective the moment that Oezdemir’s knee clears Smith’s knee line.

Smith spent the rest of the round fighting from the turtle position but did a very good job of stalling Oezdemir out, almost always having two hands on one of Oezdemir’s and making it difficult to either advance position or hit effectively.

Some fighters are robots who work the same way from one round to the next. Anthony Smith seems to be a fighter who needs to find his confidence before you can see the best of what he is capable of. Despite his corner’s repeated calls for jabs and combinations Smith was mainly working one shot at a time for most of the fight. Against Hector Lombard it wasn’t until one good right hand landed that Smith found the confidence to step in and work in longer exchanges, building off his jab and flicking right hand lead.

Between the second and third rounds of the Oezdemir fight, Smith’s corner reiterated the importance of the jab and this time it seemed Smith was ready to hear them. No longer worried about Oezdemir turning off his lights with his peculiar "death touch," Smith began building off the jab and showed exactly what a fighter of his power, pace, and length can do with this tool.

Here a jab begets a counter, which Smith evades with a check hook while back stepping to an angle, and attempts to follow with a southpaw right hook from said angle.

Notice that while this appears to be a retreating technique, Smith is actually sidestepping—exiting the line of attack to his left while whipping in a left hand. This sets him up on that southpaw side angle that we discussed Danny Jacobs using last week.

Here’s the simple and timeless jab, pull, jab.

And here the body jab sets up the overhand. A simple two-parter but still a favorite of Canelo Alvarez at the highest levels of professional boxing.

And here the inches of difference between the jab and boxing’s leverage guard or Muay Thai’s long guard is shown perfectly. The jab is immediately a stiff arm over the shoulder, barring the right hand, and then that becomes a collar tie from which Smith can knee or elbow.

Notice how the jabbing hand becomes a barring arm, then then turns into a collar tie after Oezdemir’s return has been deflected.

Seemingly slowing a little in spite of his excellent work, Smith flicked out a right hand lead and ducked under the returning Oezdemir, completing the takedown and immediately transitioning to back control as Oezdemir tried to scramble up. Smith finished the fight with a rear naked choke and became the de facto number one contender to the winner of the Jon Jones-Alexander Gustafsson fight at UFC 232.

While he will still be the underdog going into a bout with either Gustafsson or Jones, it is safe to say that Anthony Smith has proven that he belongs in the light heavyweight division and that he can hang in the top end of it. You would think that fans and media would have learned that a step up in weight isn’t always an admission of mediocrity, as Kelvin Gastelum and Robert Whittaker are about to meet for the middleweight title and both of them are “failed” welterweights. Yet both Gastelum and Whittaker are able to put the pace on their opponents and seem able to take a shot even better without the self imposed dehydration they went through to make welterweight. Whether you think the light heavyweight division is atrocious or not, Anthony Smith has proven himself as one of the best 205ers on the planet.