Anthony “Lionheart” Smith may not have any fights in the UFC yet. However, having stepped into the ring as a pro 26 times in a little under five years, he is already very much a MMA veteran.

On paper, a 17-9 record doesn’t exactly scream top-level pro, but after closer review, six of those losses came very early in Smith’s career.  In the last two-and-a-half years, the 24-year-old fighter has racked up a pro record of 12-3 and has appeared on some very big stages, including Strikeforce, where he compiled a mark of 2-2, including a notable first-round submission of Lumumba Sayers.

Smith, who hails from Omaha, Neb., may have yet to see the inside of the Octagon, but that is about to change.  The young Midwesterner is currently in the contract stages of joining the UFC and hopes to be on the biggest stage this spring.  His most recent fight, which took place on the final Strikeforce card, was against then 5-1 Roger Gracie.  Gracie had only one loss, which came by knockout, the same method by which Smith intended to finish him.

In the first round, Smith spent most of the five minutes picking Gracie apart through the use of good footwork, a stuffed takedown, powerful leg kicks and superior boxing.  Gracie’s stand-up looked sub-par, as he ate a lot of shots. With about a minute and a half left in the round, as Smith was wheeling out of his range, Gracie threw a lazy, open-handed left hook, catching Smith with a finger in the right eye.  However, Smith recovered after a short break and clearly won the round using superior cage control.

The second round started much the same, with Smith pushing the pace, until Gracie threw another lazy-handed punch about 40 seconds into the round, catching Smith in the eye again.  This time, Smith was clearly affected and things started to go sideways for the young Nebraskan.  Gracie used the cheap change of pace to his advantage, eventually getting Smith to the mat and submitting him later in the round.

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

So, did the eye pokes really affect Smith that badly?

“Absolutely,” Smith told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview.  “The first one in the first round didn’t bother me too bad.  It was an accident.  The second one John McCarthy called a punch.  I re-watched it and it wasn’t a punch.  I know it wasn’t on purpose, but he had already been warned.  I was going in to rip a right body shot, and I don’t know if he was going for a jab and I closed the distance too fast or what.  I couldn’t see anything.  My vision was all blurry.  It was doubled.  It was crossing.  My equilibrium and my balance were off.  It was really affecting me.  I couldn’t do anything.  I was stuck in a bad situation.  I was doing really good on my feet, and then what?  You don’t know who you are.  When you can’t see, there’s not a lot you can do.”

The fight didn’t end as planned for the young Smith, who was on a three-fight winning streak.  However, he recognized that he could have, or rather should have, won.

“I have mixed emotions,” Smith explained.  “I’m really proud of myself, because I know that I’m a better fighter than he is, and I knew this before the fight.  I knew there was only one spot that he ever had the chance of beating me, and that’s what happened.  He took my strongest point in my game against him away.  I’m proud of myself.  I know I did really well, and I fought my ass off.  I was well on my way to winning the fight.

“I had a gameplan.  I was pushing the pressure in the second round, exactly as was planned.  The first round, I was going to go out there and beat his legs up and feel him out and get in his face and make him work.  And, the second round, I was going to pick it up and push him hard.  The third round, I was going to finish him.  That’s what I was on my way to doing before the eye poke. I’m really disappointed I didn’t get my fair shake.  I just needed my chance.  I knew everything that I was going to do.  It just sucks that the eye poke happened and took me out of my game.”

Of course, it has to be a very disappointing way to lose a fight that he had clearly dominated against a member of the first family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  However, as much as it was a letdown, Smith was able to learn a little bit about himself.

“Obviously, my jiu-jitsu is never going to be as good as his,” admitted Smith.  “I’m never going to get on his level jiu-jitsu-wise, but I can only get better.  I definitely want to get better at jiu-jitsu.  It’s more of a mental thing.  I have a coach, his name is Riley Ross, and he’s my strength and conditioning coach, but he’s also like a life coach at the same time.”

Ross, of Higher Tactics in the Omaha area, has been coaching athletes, primarily fighters such as the Ellenberger brothers, since 2005.  He provided Smith with some very valuable coaching, above and beyond the physical aspect of the game.

“He told me that there would be points in the fight that I would need to find a calm in the storm,” Smith explained.  “In a moment of chaos, I would need to find a certain calmness.  I didn’t do that in this fight.  I panicked.  When I couldn’t see anything, I was freaking out.  When I was on the ground, I was actually doing all right, but I wasn’t focused on the position I should’ve been fighting.  I was more focused on my eye and what I was going to do about that.  It was a mental thing.  I learned that I need to find a calm in the storm and stay focused on what I need to do.”

It’s very unfortunate that Smith lost his Strikeforce fight in that fashion, but his performance did not go unnoticed.

“[UFC matchmaker] Sean Shelby came in while I was getting stitched up,” stated Smith.  “He told me and my manager to let [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva know when we’re ready, and that I would have a chance to redeem myself in the UFC.  That’s what they told us and that’s what we’re doing.  I’m hoping that I can get healed up.  I’m going to go to the doctor and get some of this stuff checked out.  I have a pretty gnarly cut, and I need a couple weeks for that to heal up.  I want to fight in April.”

So, controversial loss or not, Smith is getting his chance to move to the next level.  As of this interview, he and his management team were patiently awaiting a contract from Silva.  A contract that will move the young fighter to the next level, so he can fight the best of the best in a stacked middleweight division.  But, as stacked as it is, Smith has his sights on a couple of guys.

“I’ve always been a fan of Tim Boetsch, and I’ve always wanted to get that fight,” Smith revealed.  “One of my training partners beat him and he moved down to 185, and right then, I was like, ‘that would be a great fight.’  I would love to get in the ring with him.  He’s a little more towards the top, but who knows?  He’s coming off a loss and I’m coming off a loss, so I don’t see why that’s a fight we couldn’t set up.”

Smith’s desire to fight Boetsch isn’t out of any disrespect he has for the top contender.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.

“Tim Boestch is the kind of guy I like to fight,” Smith intimated.  “He’ll fight you whenever, wherever, in any position you want to bring.  You want to stand and bang, he will.  You want to get down and wrestle, he will.  I have a lot of respect for Tim Boetsch.”

Another person that Smith would like to take on is Derek Brunson, who’s coming off a rather lackluster victory over Chris Leben in his UFC debut.  However, that’s more of a function of Brunson calling Smith out.

“I know Derek Brunson wants to get the business.  That’s for sure,” Smith said.  “He made a comment on Twitter about a week ago that if I ever made it to the UFC, he’d welcome me with open arms.  I’d be more than willing to give that dude the business.”

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

If one thing’s for sure, Smith will take on anybody Joe Silva puts in front of him without hesitation.  He’s young, has a fire in his belly and is ready to scrap.  With the coaches and team he has behind him, he should be.

Smith primarily trains out of Premier Combat Center in Omaha with guys like UFC vets Ryan Jensen and Jason Brilz, and he works with coaches like Scott Morton and Kurt Podany, in addition to Riley Ross.

Outside of the gym, Smith leads a pretty typical life.

“I’ve been hanging out with my young daughter,” Smith said.  “She’s not your typical 14-month-old.  She’s wild.  Compared to a lot of the other people’s young kids I know, she’s crazy.  Her name’s Ariah.  My wife’s name is Mikhala.  I spend a lot of time with them, and I play a lot of video games when I’m not doing anything else.

“I’m just a regular guy.  If you tweet me or talk to me, there’s a 98-percent chance I will probably talk to you back.  I’m not one of those guys who got too big for his britches, who thinks he’s too cool to talk to just anybody.  I’m just a cool guy, and it so happens that my job is on TV.  I don’t drive fancy cars.  I live in a two-bedroom house with my dumb dog and my family.  I’m not one of those guys who are unapproachable.  If you walk up to me in a bar, I’ll drink a beer with you.”

Well, if a fan wants to hook up with Smith for a beer, it better be sooner rather than later.  As soon as he heals up, he plans to get right back into the cage, and the educated fan knows what that means.  It’s going to be weight cutting time, and there will be no beer for several weeks.

Smith is a young vet with the heart of a lion who has nothing but upside potential.  His loss to Gracie was a bit of a fluke, but, as Shelby told him, he will get to redeem himself soon enough.  April is Smith’s target for his next fight, but the gracious fighter will take whatever the UFC decides to hand him. For now, it will be healing and training, but watch for this up-and-comer to make a big impact in years to come.  The 24-year-old has a lot of fights ahead of him, and he’ll be looking to advance his career all the way to the top.

Anthony would like to thank all of his sponsors, including Tapout, Afterlife Tattoo Care, Lexani, Viking Tattoo, Larson Motors, RBP, Battle Sports and his management at Disorderly Conduct.  He would also like to thank all of his coaches and training partners, his family and all the fans who support him. Follow Smith on Twitter: @lionheartsmith

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