Why do so many people, especially fans and newcomers to the sport, think that pro MMA is some dreamy, pie-in-the-sky lifestyle that’s all fun, games and playing around for a living? It’s important for outsiders to understand the reality of it.

A pro MMA fighter goes through a very stressful life, and the higher up the ladder he or she goes, the more stress and anxiety that accompanies it. The pay is not steady, with big peaks and valleys. There’s the physical stress of weight cuts, training camps and injuries. There’s the time away from family and friends. And it’s very much a “what have you done for me lately?” type of business.

People get so puzzled when Anderson Silva doesn’t take his opponents seriously, or B.J. Penn and Georges St-Pierre need to take some time off in pseudo-retirement, but the same people seem to have the inability to put themselves in others’ shoes.

Smith (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Smith (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Anthony “Lionheart” Smith is widely considered to be one of the most exciting fighters in the game. Any true MMA purist knows that there are only a handful of fighters in the history of the sport that have always delivered an extremely exciting performance, win or lose, with no decisions. Smith is one of those few fighters, and his moniker could not be more dead-on accurate.

However, the reality of it is that no matter how much he loves fighting and putting on great shows, his opponents do not always exude the same amount of heart. That makes the job very difficult, leaving a lot to be desired.

At the young age of 25, Smith is already a true veteran of MMA. He has 27 pro fights under his belt, including four Strikeforce appearances and one showing in the UFC’s patented Octagon. The Nebraska native holds notable finishes of Lumumba Sayers, Ian Berg and Eric Schambari, but has also dropped his fair share of tough battles. Smith’s last two fights ended in very disappointing losses, and, with the state of the UFC today, the love goes away very quickly.

In January, for the final Strikeforce show, Smith faced Roger Gracie. After the Brazilian repeatedly poked him in the eye over the course of one and a half rounds, Smith tapped out to a Gracie submission in what could have been a disqualification in Smith’s favor. But the man who holds the heart of a lion didn’t want to back down. The UFC understood that Smith was winning the fight, even before the second eye poke, and still offered him a shot. Unfortunately, his bad luck continued.

In his second fight of the year, for his UFC debut, Smith fought another Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert in Antonio Braga Neto last June. Less than two minutes into the fight, they went to the mat and the Brazilian scored a devastating kneebar. However, it wasn’t the actual move that ended the fight.

“Actually, I tore my LCL defending the kneebar,” said Smith in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “It wasn’t the kneebar itself. The only reason he got the kneebar was because I had to straighten my leg when my knee blew out.”

So, as with any hardcore competitor who always gives it his all, the frustration began to set in.

“I was disappointed,” Smith intimated. “My last two fights ended because of injuries. I didn’t get a fair shake in my last two, so it was super frustrating. I’m just frustrated with the sport in general, you know? Sometimes, for some people, the chips seem to fall their way. And I never seem to catch a break. It’s always something else, or maybe I just feel like that. Maybe I’m just making it up in my own head. I don’t know.”

It’s very disheartening to see such a talented fighter go down such a dark road, but that’s exactly what happened. Frustration lead to reflection, and the results didn’t put Smith in the healthiest mindset in relation to his fighting career. So, the young man did what he had to do to clear his head.

“I sort of got myself in a situation over the last five or six years that I didn’t really like,” explained Smith. “After my last fight, I was trying to figure out if this is really what I wanted to do anymore. I wasn’t having fun anymore, and I made it too much of a job.

“When I had that layoff, I did everything possible to avoid anything that had anything to do with MMA. I didn’t go to fight events, I didn’t go to the gym, I didn’t talk to a lot of my teammates, because I didn’t want to hear anything that had to do with fighting. I did corner a couple people a few times, but that’s because they were the people I’ve always cornered. But I don’t really care if I get back in the UFC or not. I don’t care. I just want to fight tough people, and I want to have fun. If that gets me back into the UFC, that’s great. If it doesn’t, I don’t really give a shit.”

After Smith’s recovery, he went back to work laying concrete. He had to put food on the table, after all, and he didn’t want to rely on fighting to do it. But make no mistake, in no way did the young pro give up on his craft altogether. He actually wanted to eliminate that pressure from his life so he could learn to enjoy fighting once again. As far as fighting only tough guys? Ask and thou shalt receive. A couple months after distancing himself from the gym, an amazing opportunity presented itself.

In February, UFC veteran and Midwestern fan-favorite Josh Neer was cut from the promotion after his third run in the Octagon. Later in 2013, Victory Fighting Championship signed the brawler, and Smith knew one of his idols was going to be performing in the local, Omaha, Neb.-based promotion. This was the beginning of what could turn out to be a “Fight of the Year” candidate.

“I was supposed to fight in Rapid City on Nov. 2 for the same show, and my opponent backed out a couple weeks before the fight,” said Smith. “So, they offered the Josh Neer fight in December, which pushed me back about six weeks. It was the end of October that I found out about it.

“I’m really excited, man. Josh Neer, especially here in the Midwest, is kind of a legend. He’s been around a long time. I’ve watched his career for my entire career. I’ve always looked up to him, and he’s been in a place I’ve always wanted to be in. I love his fight style and I’m a huge fan of his.”

As far as tough opponents go, Neer is one of the toughest. The Pat Miletich- and Cesar Gracie-trained fighter is tough as nails, always brings the fight to his opponents, and, win or lose, leaves everything in the cage. Sounds familiar, huh?

Neer’s last fight was against Court McGee at UFC 157, and it was his first fight to go the distance in over three years. He brings an extremely well-rounded arsenal, splitting his wins between 17 knockouts, 12 submissions and only four decisions, and he has only been knocked out twice.

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

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

At VFC 41, this Saturday night at the Ralston Arena in Ralston, Neb., Smith and Neer will face off for the first time. Smith not only knows what he’s in for, but he couldn’t be more excited.

“I’m still the same fighter, the fighter everyone loves to watch.” Smith said. “This is probably one of the biggest match-ups that’s been in the area in a long time, as far as two highly respected guys that have fight styles which really complement each other. I just don’t see any way that this fight isn’t super exciting. I’m just honored to be a part of it. It’s one of those fights that I’m super excited to do, so I can go back and watch it afterwards.

“He comes out, and there’s no secret what Josh Neer wants to do. He wants to come out, he wants to bang, and he wants to get in your face and fight. It’s a lot like I fight, so it’s going to be exciting. I think we’re going to hit each other’s faces and see who backs off first, you know? I think it’s going to be two bulls clashing, and we’re going to see who backs up. I don’t see there being too much of a feeling-out process. I don’t see there being a whole lot of jiu-jitsu grappling. I think it’s going to be nasty, I think it’s going to be bloody, and I’m pretty pumped for it.”

Any fan of hardcore MMA brawls should be extremely happy to hear that. It’s refreshing to see Smith coming back into the cage with this sort of attitude. It’s troubling when a talented athlete hits such a low point in his attitude towards his career, so to see Smith make this kind of turnaround really brings hope back.

Neither of these guys are at a point in their respective careers where they have to take tough fights, and, frankly, either one could’ve taken on a scrub and gotten paid the same amount of money. The fact that these two pros will be squaring off on Saturday night really personifies what the sport is all about. MMA is not about sponsorships and popularity. It’s about taking one of the oldest forms of one-on-one competition and putting on a show for the fans. For fans, this battle is a treat, and Smith’s attitude says it all.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said the 25-year-old. “Me saying that I don’t have to win and all that stuff is not saying I’m just going in there and not caring. I’m going to go in there to fucking rip his head off his shoulders. It’s more just the pressure being taken off, you know? There’s no pressure behind it, and that’s a really good place to be in this sport.”

Smith’s outlook on the sport may have been dark last summer, and may have taken him to a bad place for a while, but he has improved his outlook, which will make him more entertaining than ever. The timing could not have been better for facing a guy like Neer. That being said, he has still seen that dark side, and it helps him understand why some of the icons end up where they do.

“I went back to work, and I put myself in the position where I don’t have to fight anymore,” explained Smith. “I really don’t have to. For the longest time, I didn’t have a choice, because that’s how I fed my family. There was a time, even if I wasn’t feeling a match-up or I wasn’t feeling a fight, I didn’t have a choice.

“I have a lot of sympathy for GSP, because I know exactly what he’s feeling. His is at a whole different level than mine is, but there are times when you just don’t feel like doing it. You don’t feel like getting into a training camp, but you have to, and it sucks. I feel really great now, because I don’t have to do it, and that makes me dangerous. I’m doing it because I want to, not because I have to. I’m having fun with it. I’m having fun training, and it’s because I’ve taken a lot of the pressure off of myself. This makes me a really, really dangerous person for Josh Neer, because I have nothing to lose. I just want to go out there and fight my ass off and hurt him in any position possible.”

The VFC 41 card is extremely stacked, and headlining the event is a bantamweight championship fight between the current champ, WEC and IFL vet L.C. Davis, and current featherweight champ Ryan Roberts. The family of Roberts went through the tragic murder of his sister, Andrea Kruger, in August, so the event is dedicated to her legacy, which puts most of the spotlight on that bout. However, the real gem of the night for fight fans will be the match-up between Smith and Neer.

Smith truly has the heart of a lion and his performances speak to that without question. He experienced a real rough patch this year in his attempt to climb the ranks of popular MMA, but he’s not looking for the spotlight. Smith is a pure MMA fighter to his very core. He’s dangerous, calculating, and ready to bring his opponent a war. At this point in his career, the pressure is off, but the fireworks are just beginning.

Smith would like to thank DC Management for always sticking by him and supporting him throughout his entire career. He would also like to thank all of his coaches and training partners at Premier Combat Center, as well as, his family and friends. Follow Anthony on Twitter: @LionheartSmith

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