Just a year ago, the career of UFC light heavyweight Anthony Smith was in jeopardy. At least that was how it felt.
By now in 2020, Smith (35-16) was coming off back-to-back losses at the hands of Glover Teixeira and Aleksandar Rakic. The losses were only separated by three months, which was remarkable considering the amount of damage Smith absorbed in the first one.
Smith, who faces Ryan Spann (19-6) on the main undercard of UFC Fight Night Saturday in Las Vegas, he’s only 33 years old. By comparison, 205-pound champion Jan Blachowicz is 38 and the first challenger; Teixeira, is 41 years old. But those two setbacks had Smith at a real crossroads.
He received a worrying amount of punishment in a TKO loss to Teixeira in May 2020, including a time when he complained that his “teeth were falling out.” And after he lost again, in a convincing way, to Rakic in late August, Smith had to do a pretty big spiritual quest to see if and why he wanted to stay in the sport.
Fortunately for him, the results have been fantastic ever since. Smith, who fought Jon Jones for the UFC championship in March 2019, has struck down his last two opponents, Devin Clark and Jimmy Crute.
Smith is considered one of the toughest, most cunning athletes in the sport – but that two-fight slip still follows, in a way. Although he has looked good in his previous two bouts, the memory of a disappointing effort against Jones in 2019 and two bad setbacks in 2020 lingers. Definitely. Smith is a dependable main star for the UFC, and a fixture of the 205-pound rankings, but he’s nowhere near contention for the title right now.
The fact that Spann is fighting this weekend is proof of that. This is not a title eliminator for Smith far from it. It’s a matchup in which you have the responsibility to defend your place against a rising contender with half of the professional bouts on the record. Spann is 5-1 in the UFC, and a win over Smith does a lot more for Spann than a win over Spann does for Smith.
But that’s the position Smith got into last year, and he understands he’s still coming out of it. In fact, he wanted to face the younger, promising generation – after some fans criticized the path he took to a title fight because it included some names whose best years were left behind.
This main event is going to produce either a further resurgence for Smith or the emergence of a potential new title contender at Spann.
Saturday’s UFC Fight Night is on ESPN +, with the main card starting at 7 p.m. ET and undercard fights at 4 p.m. ET.
The deciding factor?
5: Ryan Spann reaches his first main card having won five of his first six UFC bouts, including a 61-second knockout of Misha Cirkunov in his most recent fight in March.
4: Spann has the fourth highest takedown rate per 15 minutes among active light heavyweights, getting four takedowns without ever being knocked down. Spann has an 84% rate of finishing his rival; 16 times in 19 wins; 11 by submission, 5 by knockout.
91: The rate of finishing his rival is high for Smith, who has managed to do it 32 times in 35 wins, 19 by knockout and 13 by submission.
6: Smith knocked out his rival six times in the light heavyweight division, which is tied for the most since 2018 (3 by knockout, 3 by submission).
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
And the winner is…
UFC light heavyweight Devin Clark has fought Smith and Spann via submission and believes that Smith’s experience could make a difference in this fight.
“I think Anthony will just beat him, because of his experience,” Clark said. “At the same time, Spann has more power. He’s stronger. That’s going to counteract Anthony’s running game. When I fought Anthony, I more or less responded to his first attack with my strength. But I think the general knowledge of Anthony and being a veteran, he should just be able to get the win. “
How to watch the fights
Watch them on ESPN +. Download the ESPN App.
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There is also Fightcenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Saturday night card
ESPN +, 7 pm ET
Light Heavyweight: Anthony Smith vs. Ryan spann
Light Heavyweight: Ion Cutelaba vs. Devin Clark
Female flyweight: Ariane Lipski vs. Mandy bohm
Lightweight: Arman Tsarukyan vs. Christos Giagos
Men’s Bantamweight: Nate Maness vs. Tony Gravely
Middleweight: Joaquin Buckley vs. Antonio Arroyo placeholder image
ESPN +, 4 pm ET
Light Heavyweight: Mike Rodriguez vs. Tafon Nchukwi
Women’s Bantamweight: Pannie Kianzad vs. Rachel Pennington
Lightweight: Brandon Jenkins vs. Rong Zhu
Men’s Bantamweight: Montel Jackson vs. JP Buys
Female flyweight: Erin Blanchfield vs. Sarah Alpar
Welterweight: Impa Kasanganay vs. Carlston Harris
Men’s Bantamweight: Gustavo Lopez vs. Heili alateng
Female flyweight: Emily Whitmire vs. Hannah goldy
… and another thing you should know
Raquel Pennington fights on the preliminary card against Pannie Kianzad at the women’s bantamweight. When the fight begins, Pennington will have the most number of fights in division history at 14, breaking a tie with Marion Reneau. Pennington has eight wins at 135 pounds, second only to Amanda Nunes, who is 11.
The only undefeated fighter on this card is flyweight Mandy Bohm, who makes her UFC debut and enters her fight against Ariane Lipski with a 7-0 record. Bohm is based out of SBG Ireland and most recently wrestled at Bellator in October 2020.
Ion Cutelaba fights in the co-feature match against Devin Clark, seeking his first win since September 2019. Cutelaba had nine knockdowns in his draw against Dustin Jacoby, giving him 19 for his UFC career. His 57.6% takedown effectiveness is tied for the second-highest rate in light heavyweight history.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this match preview.