DALLAS – Some 14 years and 50-plus bouts into his professional fighting career, Anthony Smith is primed once again for one of the biggest moments of his career.
Riding the strength of a three-fight winning streak that features thee first-round stoppages and two "Performance of the Night" bonuses, Smith (36-16 MMA, 11-6 UFC) opens up the ESPN+ pay-per-view main card (10 p.m. ET) of Saturday's UFC 277 event at American Airlines Center, when he takes on Russian light heavyweight contender Magomed Ankalaev (17-1 MMA, 8-1 UFC).
"It's so crazy to me when you look at the road and where I started," Smith told MMA Underground. "It's crazy, man, to be on a big event like this – two title fights, packed with superstars and still right there in title contention. We're close, man, so I'm excited."
Smith's rise to his current position as the UFC's No. 5-ranked light heavyweight was completely unfathomable in the early days of Smith's career. Turning pro on a whim in 2008, Smith had no real direction in those early days and found himself with a losing record of just 5-6 after two years in the sport. But the man known as "Lionheart" was determined to succeed.
That drive saw Smith rise all the way to a UFC title shot, taking on pound-for-pound great Jon Jones in 2019 but ultimately suffering a loss by unanimous decision. Smith would bounce back with a submission win over former title challenger Alexander Gustafsson, but back-to-back losses to Glover Texeira and Aleksandar Rakic left Smith mired in a 1-3 stretch and had many questioning what his future held.
Smith has responded with quick wins over Devin Clark, Jimmy Crute and Ryan Spann, setting him up for Saturday's key clash with No. 4-ranked Ankalaev. Some might call it a career resurgence, but Smith sees things a little differently.
"When I think of resurgences, I think of when I had it and then lost it and tried to get it back," Smith explained. "I just think I'm getting better and I'm figuring out as I go.
"Always kind of been a late bloomer, you know what I mean? I've kind of grown up in this sport, and, man, I made a lot of mistakes, done a lot of stupid sh-t. so I just think I'm getting better and I'm just maturing and figuring it out. I'm dealing with loss and and heartbreak and, you know, just figure it out as I go."
In Ankalaev, Smith faces a formidable presence who carries an eight-fight winning streak into the contest. In fact, the 30-year-old Dagestani would actually be undefeated for his entire career were it not for one of the most incredible comeback wins of all time when Paul Craig, down significantly on the scorecards, was able to secure a fight-ending triangle choke with just 1 second left in their 2018 meeting.
Smith, who has fought an absolute who's who list of UFC talent believes Ankalaev is a skilled fighter but not that absolute monster his current winning streak might suggest.
"He's very, very good – I want to be very clear about that," Smith said. "I don't for a second discredit his skills and abilities; I just don't see anything super special – and you don't have to be super special to win fights at the highest level. Basics wins fights, and he's very, very basic.
"His approach is very simple. He makes no mistakes. He's never out of position, but he doesn't always necessarily do a lot to make a lot of mistakes. A guy like that, you've got to get him outside of his box. The mistakes are going to be made when he's panicking, trying to get back in his box, and I think that's what I do best."
Oddsmakers don't necessarily agree, with Smith sitting as a significant underdog at SISportsbook.com. Smith thinks those long odds are a bit unfair.
"I think if you don't really do your homework and really look into the details and the stats, you can miss a lot of things," Smith said. "Like if you look at my record, my last 25 fights, I'm 20-5. Three of those five losses are to guys that have either held the title or fought for the title. The other two, one of them is Cezar f-cking Ferreira. How long ago was that? ... It's a long time ago, and the other one is Aleksandar Rackic.
"They look at his record, and they see 17-1. They look at mine, and they see all the losses. A lot of those were early. A lot of those were I was young and I was taking fights I shouldn't have been taken. I wasn't trained in the right way or in the right places. I just shouldn't have been there, so it's odd to me that people that are supposed to be analysts, that are supposed to know what they're talking about, kind of look over that kind of stuff."
Smith's latest run seemed highlight unlikely less than two years ago, yet here he is, on the cusp of another key fight against a top-5 opponent that has significant meaning in the division.
"Every time I fight, there's always an excuse, right?" Smith said. "'Shogun' was old. Gustafsson at the time was a good win, but now he was on his downward spiral. Oezdemir wasn't that good. It's always something. I'm very excited to see what they're going to say on Sunday."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.