There’s a little-known stat in the UFC.  There exists a list of fighters that share a rare mark on their records.  In a way, one could say that this is one of the few stats that has nothing to do with punches or kicks.  One could say it has nothing to do with minutes or knockouts or takedowns or submissions.  However, this very stat has everything to do with everything, and it adds in a factor that could never truly be measured: heart.

Heart is the one X-factor that exists in the fight world that can make a poorly skilled fighter a fan favorite or a highly skilled fighter one of the most dangerous opponents on earth.  Somebody may have finally discovered a stat that can highlight heart more than any, and in a way, measure it.  And that person’s moniker represents one of the fiercest hearts on the planet.

“I actually found out today that I’m one of only 10 people that are in the UFC that have over 20 fights and have never been to a decision,” said Anthony “Lionheart” Smith in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner.  “I think that shows that I’m a gamer, man.  I live and die by the sword, and I do that for the fans.  I don’t do that for anything other than to be exciting.  There’s no way around that.  You can look at my record and see that I bring it and I’m super exciting.  That’s something I really pride myself on.  I don’t look at the wins and losses as much as whether or not people enjoyed watching the fight.”

Like a lion in a coliseum, the 24-year-old Smith, a Strikeforce veteran, has been putting on shows as a pro since February 2013.  In his five-year career, he has racked up a 17-9 record and has become one of the most experienced fighters under the age of 25.  And his win-loss record can be very deceiving.

In his first two years as a pro, Smith racked up a 5-6 record, which is hardly anything to get excited about.  In the last three years, however, he has put up 12 wins against only three losses.  None of his last 15 fights have made it past 3:16 of the second round.  Needless to say, while it may not always work out to his favor, Smith will stop every opponent that doesn’t stop him first.  No decisions.

Smith (R) battles Roger Gracie (Jerry Chavez/The MMA Corner)

The last time he was stopped first was against Roger Gracie in January for his final Strikeforce appearance before the merger with the UFC.  Much controversy surrounded that fight. Smith was clearly winning the bout until he was poked in the eye by Gracie once in the first round and again in round two. One of the many scions of the first family of MMA, the Brazilian threw a second lazy-handed left hook, for a second time, and caught Smith in the eye with his finger.  It put Smith at a half-blinded disadvantage, and he eventually lost by submission.

The loss wasn’t all bad, though, because, in a sort of karma-laden outcome, Smith was immediately offered a chance to fight on the big stage. He didn’t think twice.  It just took a little longer to hear back than he expected.

“I didn’t find out about it for a month,” stated Smith.  “I don’t think they were in any kind of rush, because they knew I wasn’t going anywhere since I was still technically under the Strikeforce contract.”

Once he got the offer to formally join the ranks of the UFC fighters, he gladly accepted.  And now, after about six months of waiting, he will  finally step into the Octagon for the first time on Saturday night to face Evolve MMA and Gracie Fusion fighter Antonio Braga Neto at UFC on Fuel TV 10.

“I got this fight on about 11 weeks’ notice,” Smith said.

Eleven weeks is the perfect amount of time to get ready for his UFC debut.  Training out of Premier Combat Center in Omaha, Neb., with guys like UFC veterans Ryan Jensen and Jason Brilz, and 25 pro fights under his young belt, Smith will be more than ready to face the year-older, but much less experienced, Brazilian.

Neto may be less experienced in MMA, but when it comes to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he is at a much higher level than Smith, or most UFC middleweights for that matter.  Neto holds gold medals at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships and the Pan-American Championships, and in 2011, he competed with the best of the best in Abu Dhabi.

Pedigrees are great, but BJJ is still only one of the many fighting modalities that require mastery in the MMA ring.  Smith knows what his opponent is all about and is hardly worried.

“This training camp is pretty much exactly like the Gracie fight,” explained Smith.  “This is almost exactly the same fight, except easier, to be honest with you.  I think Roger Gracie is a better overall opponent.  And this guy’s a relative unknown for the most part.  At the same time, he’s still tough.  His jiu-jitsu’s not nearly as good as Gracie’s.  He is a three-time world champion grappler, but watching all of his matches, he’s a fisher.  He’s more of a position guy.  His stand-up is rudimentary at best.  It’s pretty awful.  I don’t think he can throw a straight punch to save his life.  The things that he did do great, he did on his feet.  The things he did do, he did well.

“He’s got a real nasty jab.  He threw a couple front kicks that created some problems.  But, as far as what he has done, it’s a non-issue compared to what I’ve been prepared for.  I don’t think I’ll have any problem there.”

Smith is a very well-rounded fighter.  He has a great takedown defense, which is where a good wrestler can top a good BJJ player.  BJJ doesn’t work as well standing.  And, as far as standing goes, Smith has eight knockouts, all in those last 13 fights.  He’s gotten submitted only three times, with most of his losses coming by knockout.  This bodes much better for him against a guy like Neto.

“My stand-up is light years ahead of his.  My wrestling is better.  And, I think my MMA jiu-jitsu is comparable,” Smith said. “As long as things go as planned, you know, the Gracie fight was going exactly the way I wanted to go until the eye poke happened, and I see this fight being almost similar to that.  I’ll be able to get even more comfortable on my feet.  I think I’ll be able to get the finish.  That’s for sure.”

Smith’s MMA mentality is so advanced compared to a guy like Neto.  In his 8-1-1 career, with the exception of 2007, Neto has only fought once per year from 2006 to 2012, and all but two of his wins were by submission.  Not to say that Neto doesn’t have the ability to stand up and supplement his world-class BJJ, but Smith has fought for two less years and has fought nearly three times as often.

In his long journey, Smith has gotten some of the best advice around.

“Here’s what one of my coaches always told me: ‘If they can’t beat you on your feet and they can’t take you down, then what the fuck are they going to do to you?’”  Smith said. “That’s pretty much my whole mindset going into this fight.  It’s not a big secret to anyone.  I’m going to go in there and get after it.  I think that’s my advantage in this fight.  I have a whole lot more tools and way more ways I can win this fight.”

Although Lionheart knows he has the tools and the experience, he also knows that Neto is not going to step into the cage and try to pull guard.  BJJ-heavy or not, the Brazilian will stand and bang, even if it doesn’t look pretty.

Smith (L) (Jerry Chavez/The MMA Corner)

“I see me going in and getting right in his face the whole time,” admitted Smith.  “Chances are, he’s probably going to get in mine too, from watching his previous matches.  He doesn’t waste any time.  I think you’re going to see two bulls who are going to run at each other and see who falls over first.  I think I’m going to land any punch I want, and it’s going to be target practice.  I think that’s going to be the whole fight until finish.  I don’t think he has the capability to take me down, but if he does, I’ll get right back up and go back to target practice.”

Smith is probably right, and as long as he doesn’t get caught in a precarious grappling position, he should be able to take this one standing.  After that, it’s on to the next one, and while the next person that wants him might be fun to watch, Smith knows it’s probably not the best fight for advancing in his career.

“Guess who is fighting in Brazil with me?” asked Smith.  “Mr. Derek Brunson will be on the same card.  He’s on that card too.  He’s fighting Ronny Markes.”

Brunson, one of Greg Jackson’s fighters, has taken to calling out and trash-talking Smith for quite some time.  Both fighters are Strikeforce crossovers that are now under UFC contract.  Brunson seems to be a lot more interested in this match-up than Smith, but Smith wants to fight just to shut him up.  However, this would not be his next choice of fight.  He wants someone better.

“Honestly, I always make fun of people who say they’ll fight whoever, whenever, but other than [Brunson]—and that’s more of a vendetta thing, I don’t think Derek Brunson’s going to launch me anywhere other than my bank account—there’s people I’d like to fight,” Smith explained.  “I’m a huge fan of Ed Herman, a huge fan.  It would be awesome to fight him, just because he doesn’t back down.  He brings it and he doesn’t back up.  I think me and him would make an awesome fight.  That’s not about disrespect.  I just think it would be an exciting fight.  There are a couple guys that are like that, you know.  I would love to fight Alan Belcher.  I don’t think I’m anywhere near the position to call out someone like Alan Belcher, but that’s a fight I would love to have.”

Smith may think he’s getting ahead of himself by envisioning fights with certain guys, but anything’s possible in this game and it’s never a bad thing to have lofty goals, because that’s what earns title shots.  In the past, Smith also felt that Tim Boetsch would be a great match-up, because of their respective go-forward styles, but he still thinks that one is out of reach, with Boetsch fighting Mark Munoz in July.

“I think both of those guys are a little bit out of my reach right now,” admitted Smith.  “I’d have to rattle off a couple more fights, which is fine, but I think it’s really stupid to call out guys who are in the same position as me.  I’m not going to get anything out of beating debut guys or guys who are 1-0.  I want to get into fights that everyone thinks I’m going to lose.  That’s what I really want to get into.”

Lofty goals, exciting fights, and no decisions.  If that’s not representative of the heart of the lion, what is?

Anthony Smith would like to thank Premier Combat Center, all of his coaches and training partners, Tapout, Larson Motor Group, Disorderly Conduct Management Company, Afterlife Tattoo Care, Lexani, Viking Tattoo, RBP, and Battle Sports. Follow Smith on Twitter: @lionheartsmith

Top Photo: Anthony Smith (Jerry Chavez/The MMA Corner)