Anthony Smith is in desperate need of a victory to avoid sliding out of the top five in the UFC light-heavyweight rankings – can he get it on August 29 when he takes on Aleksandar Rakic in the main event of the latest UFC Fight Night card at the UFC APEX?
Smith wasted no time in establishing himself as an exciting prospect when he made the move up to the light-heavyweight division in 2018. Having been stopped by Thiago Santos in round two of a middleweight contest in February of that year, ‘Lionheart’ made the career-altering switch and enjoyed immediate success as he stopped two all-time greats in short order in the space of five weeks. Former light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans was sent packing in just 53 seconds and although another ex-champ, Maurio Rua, lasted long than ‘Suga’ it was hardly a marathon affair. Smith stopped ‘Shogun’ in 89 seconds and the 205lb ranks had a potential new star on its hands.
‘Lionheart’ now needed a big win over a current stand-out in the division to really cement his status as a premier light-heavyweight fighter and he got it before the year ended. He was paired with former title contender Volkan Oezdemier, who was coming off a TKO title-fight defeat to Daniel Cormier, and for the first time since making the step up to 205lbs Smith was taken into deep waters. He responded superbly, overcoming a difficult spell in the second to batter and bloody Oezdemir before making him tap out to a rear-naked choke.
That victory earned Smith a shot at the champion, Jon Jones, in early 2019, but on the night it was clear for all to see that he was not in the same league as the 205lb kingpin, who had a couple of points deducted and still got the nod from the judges after five rounds. Smith rebounded by submitting Alexander Gustafsson three months later, but his momentum stalled in May of this year when he was knocked out in the fifth round of his scrap with Glover Teixeira and that means ‘Lionheart’ has to bounce back here or risk falling out of the top five.
Looking to confirm his descent from the upper echelons of the light-heavyweight rankings is Aleksandar Rakic. The heavy-hitting Austrian reeled off four straight victories after putting pen-to-paper on a deal with the UFC, and after receiving a ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus for his 42-second knockout of Jimi Manuwa he was paired with Volkan Oezdemir for the biggest fight of his career so far. A win would have had him knocking on the door to the top five at 205lbs, but that victory did not come as the vicious leg kicks of Oezdemir gained the favour of two of the three judges.
It was not a devastating loss for Rakic by any means, but he knows that his stock will take another hit with a loss on Saturday night. So can he avoid that hit? I believe he can and he will.
There is no doubting that Smith has been competing at a higher level than Rakic in recent years, but in his most recent outing back in May he took a major beating at the hands of Teixeira – a beating that saw him lose a few teeth and have both his nose and his orbital bone broken. Some fighters just do not recover from that sort of punishment, physically or mentally. On a physical level I certainly do not thing that Smith is ready to return to the Octagon to face somebody who can do damage like Rakic.
‘Lionheart’ has branded his opponent a ‘one-trick pony’ and to some extent he is right – Smith has the more all-rounded game out of these two fighters. If he can get Rakic backed up against the fence, smother him and perhaps get the fight to the ground then he can grind this one out, but every fight starts standing and that is where he has a problem. Rakic has the striking skills to outwork Smith in the stand-up and he has the power that can put a beating and a hurting on Smith. I believe ‘Lionheart’ will eventually wilt under that striking and Rakic will end it in the second half of the fight.