With Jon Jones’ recent decision to officially vacate his UFC light heavyweight throne in the search for gold a division higher – the path to a second title tilt for a handful of 205-pound contenders has become much clearer.
Glover Teixeira, a one-time challenger to Jones’ throne, can certainly improve his chances of earning a second-crack at gold – as can his UFC Fight Night Vegas opponent, Thiago ‘Marreta’ Santos. Also falling into this bracket of potential championship earners is Anthony ‘Lionheart’ Smith.
The Nebraska native was handily swept aside by Albuquerque native Jones last March at UFC 235 – and despite briefly returning to the winner’s enclosure, he’s forced to repeat that fate when paired with Austrian upstart, Aleksandar Rakić this Saturday night in Nevada.
In a relatively timely turnaround, the former middleweight challenger returns just three months removed from a UFC Fight Night Jacksonville bludgeoning at the hands of the previously noted, Teixeira. The fifth-consecutive headliner for Smith brought with it a fifth-round knockout loss, among a slew of injuries including a broken nose and orbital – to go with a dislodged tooth. Smith has retained a top-five position in the division – but faces a stern challenge in division prospect, Rakić.
The Vienna native suffered his first promotional defeat last December at UFC Fight Night Busan – dropping a very close split decision to former title challenger, Volkan Oezdemir. Still sat at #8 in the official light heavyweight pile – Rakić can point to a proven pedigree with prior eye-catching finishes of Jimi Manuwa, and Devin Clark.
Opposite the ever-present, Manuwa – Rakić launched a massive first-round head kick, with less than a minute elapsed in the opening round. The setup which led to the massive stoppage is worth dissecting, however. Threatening with a powerful straight right from orthodox from the opening exchanges, Rakić swung with a looping right-uppercut, before flowing into the left head-kick, sending Manuwa to the canvas for his biggest statement win to date. The trajectory of the fight finishing kick almost snaps like we’ve seen from former middleweight best, Robert Whittaker, and two-time bantamweight champion, T.J. Dillashaw.
The 28-year-old is poised to upset the applecart somewhat in our three-round short-notice headliner, but Smith certainly isn’t one to overlook. Just ask former title challenger, Alexander Gustafsson, and common opponent, the aforenoted, Oezdemir.
On paper, the Factory X trainee would appear the more technically polished striker when matched with Rakić – but it’s his often forgotten Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt which sets these t2o contenders firmly apart. Smith may have finished eighteen fights via strikes, but he’s secured an eye-catching twelve finishes via submission to boot.
Initiating the clinch midway through the fourth round against Gustafsson, Smith forced the Swede to the fence, and despite riding too high on Gustafsson’s back – showed phenomenal patience and control to lock up the body-triangle, and eventually slip in the rear-naked choke to force the issue.
Like Rakić, Smith also has a tendency to favour his counter straight right hand, which has served him quite well over his Octagon stint. During his initial rise to light heavyweight championship challenger status, the 32-year-old finished former Bellator best, Héctor Lombard, and PRIDE FC icon, Maurício ‘Shogun’ Rua, with his counter right hand featuring prominently in both stoppages.
Teixeira had massive amounts of success with flurries against Smith, and overall made the fight a closely contested affair in terms of positioning. For Rakić I don’t personally believe he’ll sway toward a similar approach as the Brazilian, but will almost certainly look to counter Smith as the veteran will do likewise.