It’s one of the most common questions ahead of UFC 235.
“Who is Anthony Smith? And does he stand a chance?”
For the first time at UFC 235, Ben Askren and Tyron Woodley will both fight on the same night for the UFC. Fighting together isn’t anything new for the pair who, more a than a decade ago, turned the Missouri wrestling program into a powerhouse.
UFC 235 takes place on Saturday in Las Vegas on pay-per-view, with prelims on ESPN. There are two title fights: Jon Jones defending at light heavyweight against Anthony Smith and Tyron Woodley taking on welterweight challenger Kamaru Usman.
Smith (31-13) will face the most dominant fighter in UFC history this weekend, when he challenges Jon Jones (23-1) for the light heavyweight championship in Las Vegas. Oddsmakers have installed Jones as the massive betting favorite, with odds as lopsided as 12-1 at some sportsbooks.
Smith, who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, and fights out of Denver, has put in more than a decade of work to reach this point — but in some ways, he’s also sprung up out of nowhere. The former middleweight is barely one year removed from his last loss, and has competed in the 205-pound division for only nine months.
So, who is this previously unheralded light heavyweight title challenger? And does he actually stand a chance against one of the greatest fighters of all time? We looked for that answer by going directly to the source — the family, friends, fight team and others who have lived through the journey with Anthony Smith, who think that the challenger will give Jones everything he can handle on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Dixie Tonacchio, Smith’s mother
I separated from Anthony’s father when he was 4, and he thought it was his job to take care of me and his sister. His father had alcohol and drug issues, and I had to move him out. Anthony was the man of the house, and he took that to heart. When it was the three of us alone, he’d always say, “It’s OK, Mama. It’s OK, Mama. I’ll take care of you.”
My parents moved in with us so I could continue working, and Anthony built a very strong relationship with my dad. My dad was old-fashioned and taught him what he thought a man should be. Anthony was fine until my father passed away. He was diagnosed with throat cancer and died six weeks later. It gave us a very limited amount of time to come to terms he was no longer going to be with us.
Anthony was 16 and he had to help me take care of my dad, so that he could die at home. My dad was tall and I couldn’t manage him by myself. Anthony would have to help me take care of him physically, and I didn’t realize at the time how devastating that was to him. He was just a young man, losing his grandfather, and it was a horrible time.
After his grandfather passed, there was a very dark period. I was worried about him. I didn’t know what was going on with him, and we were all dealing with the loss.
Deputy Brian Briley, Otoe County (Nebraska) Sheriff’s Office
Anthony was in his teenage years whenever we first met. He had a bit of a drinking problem when he was young. He drank a lot, and he did so often. I think Anthony may hold the record for most MIP [minor in possession] charges in Otoe County. He’s one of very few I’ve ever known to actually serve jail time for it.
What I will say about Anthony is that he always owned what he was doing, during my interactions with him. He wore the consequences. Occasionally he’d be involved in some physical altercations, which I think the alcohol had a lot to do with. And there were times local police in Nebraska City would tell me he ran from them, but I didn’t have those issues with him.
As Smith turned his life around after having his first child, his professional career took a step forward with a knockout of Ben Lagman on a Strikeforce card in July 2011. Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Getty Images
Ryan Thompson, longtime friend
There were a lot of wild times back then. He went through a lot of rough patches. There were a lot of blackout drunk moments that weren’t cool to see.
He was super active in his fighting career at that time, too. Around 20 years old. He would drink right up to the time he had to cut weight. He was reckless. He’d grind it out though, and beat people no one thought he was gonna beat. My greatest concern was him dying, you know? There was a lot of drinking and driving. In 2009, he crashed his car and damn near died.
He was coming off a night of drinking and went off the road into a culvert ditch. I responded to it, and I was really concerned he’d hurt himself bad. When I got there, he was already outside of the vehicle and we called for some medical attention.
They called and said Anthony was at the hospital and he might not make it. The hospital is only a few blocks from our house and when I got there, they couldn’t hold him down because he didn’t know where he was and he was screaming. He was life-flighted to Omaha, and we had to make the drive to Omaha, hoping your child would still be alive when you got there.
Mikhala Newman, Smith’s fiancée and mother of their three daughters, Ariah, Avayla and Adley
That part of his life happened right before we met, and he calmed down a lot. We had our daughter in 2011, in the first year we met, and he’ll tell you time and time again that Ariah saved his life and I 100 percent believe that. As soon as she was born, a [switch flipped] and he was like, “I’m a dad now. I have to be responsible and figure things out.”
After the UFC purchased Strikeforce, Smith got a shot at Antonio Braga Neto on short notice in Brazil in June 2013 and got tapped out in the first round. He wouldn’t get another shot in the UFC for almost three years. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
Scott Morton, Smith’s longtime Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach
Anthony is the epitome of a man who doesn’t quit. When he was in Strikeforce [in 2013], he had 25 professional fights and he suffered a huge blow in a loss to Roger Gracie. And the reason for that is not because Roger Gracie wasn’t great, but that particular fight, Anthony was thinking long-term, because the UFC had just purchased Strikeforce and he didn’t know if he was going to be one of the fighters who moved over.
He lost that fight, but the UFC still gave him a short-notice fight in Fortaleza, Brazil. He goes out there, his opponent catches him in a leglock, and when we got back from that trip, it was kind of a, “Hey, see you later” from the UFC sort of thing. It was difficult for him. He didn’t know for sure where he was gonna go or how he was going to make it back.
But after that, he made some changes and from 2014 to 2016, he went on a seven-fight win streak with six finishes. It was tough. When we finally got the call back to go to the UFC, it had been a 2.5-year process. And we basically had to build from rock bottom, just to get back in.
Pinkie Skinner, owner of a glass installation company Smith worked at in 2016, prior to rejoining the UFC
I had hired Anthony to work for me, and one day one of the guys came in and said, “Hey, are you going to the fight on Friday?” And I was like, “Um, no?” Then another guy came in and asked, “Are you going to the fight?” And I said, “What the heck, are you guys fighting in the alley or what’s the deal?” And he said, “No, Anthony is fighting.”
I called Anthony in and said, “OK, what’s going on?” And he said he had a fight going on and it would be nice if I went. I didn’t know much about MMA. We went down to Omaha and it was packed. I said, “OK, this is kind of cool.” The show comes to the last fight, and the music starts going, the lights come on, and here comes Anthony in a silk robe. He rips this robe off and I was like, “What the hell? How did I not know he did this?”
He won, and that’s when he flipped on his cap that said, “Call me, Dana.” And not knowing much about this, I said, “Is he trying to pick somebody up?” I thought he was talking about some girl. Well, it was Dana White. And after that, Dana did call him and it wasn’t a week or so later, he told me he couldn’t work because he was going to Ireland to train. Then he couldn’t work because he was going to South America. And by then, the writing was on the wall he was moving on from the glass company.
After putting together a three-fight win streak in the UFC, Smith had a disastrous weight cut ahead of his fight with Thiago Santos and ultimately lost via second-round TKO in February 2018. Jason Silva/USA TODAY Sports
Jim Walter, agent
I met Anthony through his head coach Mark Montoya in 2017. He was fighting at middleweight then, and Anthony and I always had an agreement from the time we began working together — because the middleweight thing was a little dicey. His weight cut was brutal every time. I’m talking 10-hour weight cuts. They were awful. But he was showing up and beating guys, so we always said, we’d ride the 185-pound thing until the wheels came off.
When Anthony fought Thiago Santos in Brazil [in February 2018], it was the worst weight cut I’ve ever been a part of. We cut weight for 14 hours. He goes out there completely drained, in a foreign country, and gets caught by a spinning back kick. And he still fought to the death. That’s just who Anthony is. He’s constantly fighting.
It ended up being the best thing that could have happened to us, because then we moved to 205 pounds. And I think the work that Anthony, Mark and myself have done since then to get this opportunity, no one can deny it.
Zach Bjornsen, Smith’s neighbor in Omaha
“Lionheart” just sums him up, perfectly. He grinds. Whatever the result is, he’s going to take that and get better. I think on Twitter, his pinned tweet is still from his last loss against Thiago, that says, “I’m just getting started.” That’s one thing I can appreciate as an educator, is that Anthony is a lifelong learner.
When it’s camp time, he goes reluctantly out to Denver to get his training, and then he’s back here every single weekend, without fail, no matter what anybody wants him to do out there, he’s back here for his family. That’s probably the most impressive thing to me, that even during the most exciting year of his career, he’s still putting the family above all that.
As a new person to this whole UFC thing, I even knew who Jon Jones was before I met Anthony. This is a big opportunity, and just me thinking about the fight, I’d be nervous. But the moment you talk to Anthony about it, you’re not nervous anymore. He knows what’s going to happen in this fight.
A move to light heavyweight has seen Smith roll off three straight wins, net a pair of “performance of the night” bonuses and, ultimately, earn a shot at Jon Jones and the UFC light heavyweight championship. AP Photo/John Locher
It sounds weird, but Anthony doesn’t take things serious. Obviously, he’s taking the fight serious and he’s taking Jon serious, but this whole process doesn’t get in his head. He doesn’t dwell on, “Can I do this, can I do that? Can I beat Jon Jones?” He knows he’s going to Las Vegas to beat Jon Jones, and now he just wants to have fun doing it.
Anthony Smith will be the guy to beat Jon Jones because of the sacrifice and perspective he has, from inside the cage and life experience. He has more finishes than Jon Jones has fights. He’s fought tooth and nail for everything he has. On his heart alone, he can defeat anyone — including Jon Jones.
We went deer hunting recently, and we were sitting in the pickup and he looked over at me and said, “Did you ever think, back in the day, we’d ever be sitting here together?” And I said, “No, I really would have never seen that. But I’m glad we are.” Ten years ago, I would have thought Anthony would continue down that road of drinking, and he would either have lost his license or ended up in jail, to be honest.
Anthony is an underdog and he’s got nothing to lose here. In law enforcement, whenever you’re dealing with someone who has nothing to lose, they’re very dangerous. I think Anthony is that guy. He’s the dangerous one of the two in this fight.
Anthony has always told me he’s going to be a world champion. Literally from day one, that has been his only goal. That’s all he’s done. And I’ve believed and supported him since day one.
I always knew my son would excel at whatever he wanted to do because he never gives up. If he wants it, he will get it or he will die trying. He does not stop.