LAS VEGAS — Men have been talking trash before they fought since the first time two of them squared off and threw punches in anger at each other.
UFC light heavyweight Anthony Smith is not only bright and articulate, but he’s easygoing and lets most things slide off his back. But when his opponent Saturday, Ryan Spann, made dismissive comments about his journey before their bout at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 37, it wasn’t so easy for Smith to let it slide.
Spann said he didn’t respect Smith and didn’t care about his journey to the top of the light heavyweight division.
Smith taught Spann a little about respect in the three minutes and 47 seconds they spent in the cage together on Saturday before Smith finished the fight and forced a tap with a rear-naked choke.
“Maybe this is going to sound arrogant or pretentious, but I have earned the respect of my peers,” said Smith, who is 36-16 with 17 finishes after his victory over Spann. “I’ve put a lot of work into this thing. I’ve sacrificed my entire adult life to be in the position I’m sitting in right now. That’s time with the kids. That’s friendships. That’s life opportunities. I could have been a doctor, a surgeon, by now.
“I put a lifetime into this. I think most of my peers respect me. You don’t have to like me and we don’t have to get along. A lot of them probably think they can kick my ass. That’s OK. It’s about respecting my journey. You know what I mean? He said he didn’t care. … I bet he cares now.”
Smith, who entered the bout ranked sixth, called out No. 3 Aleksandar Rakic, who defeated him on Aug. 29, 2020. Smith has been through a lot in his life and said he was going through things in his personal life that impacted him negatively.
Rakic immediately accepted the fight offer on Twitter and said he’d be ready in December. UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports it’s too soon to say what’s next for Smith, though he added, “He looked incredible tonight.”
Smith said he was “checked out mentally” when he fought Rakic and not the fighter he is now 13 months later.
“I do have demons I deal with and I was not in the greatest place then,” Smith said.
He wasn’t in the greatest place before he hired Mark Montoya in 2017 to be his head coach. He had talent and was hard-nosed, but there was little structure to his game. Montoya had a frank conversation with him and laid out a plan for what he needed to do if he wanted to accomplish his goal of capturing the UFC title.
Smith has thrived under Montoya’s direction.
“When you’re at his stage of fighting, a lot of times the vets are unwilling to change,” Montoya told Yahoo Sports. “One of the hard conversations he had to have with himself and with myself and the coaching staff and his family was at the point in his career he was at, was he willing to continue to grow. The continued growth is a beginner’s spirit and sometimes it’s hard to kindle when you’re at his stage.
“I think that’s why you see some of the veterans plateau and don’t continue to go on because they don’t grow. His mentality and desire to grow has been unmatched. It’s one of the reasons why he’s the best in the world and why he’ll continue to be one of the best in the world.”
Spann found that out the hard way. He was never really in the fight, always seemingly a step behind or a move short.
For most of the fast-paced bout, Smith and Spann were going at it, but Smith was a little better in just about every situation. His stand-up has been criminally underrated, but it shouldn’t be for much longer.
He landed 17 of 28 significant strikes according to UFCstats.com, most of them hard shots to the head that left Spann wobbling around the cage. When Spann finally went down — and he absorbed quite a few sharp, clean shots — it didn’t take long for Smith to get the choke.
It was the kind of performance only the elite in the division can pull off because Spann is a strong, talented fighter. He hit Smith in the sternum with a knee at one point that had Smith momentarily woozy.
But Smith was calm and patient and on a mission to prove a point. He used his striking to break Spann down and then finished him with the submission.
“He’s worked a lot on his striking on his footwork and his balance and his IQ,” Montoya said. “It’s something he’s done forever. I got him years and years ago and the luxury of training a guy like Anthony is saying, ‘Hey man, let’s fix some things.’ We’ve really focused on his feet. He’s always had the 'lionheart.' He’s always had power. You saw in this fight, he didn’t hit him that hard. He was being a sniper. He got a little wild once, but he got back to being a sniper. And again, that’s all about his willingness to think and learn and grow.”