EXCLUSIVE | Coach Marc Montoya recounts journey to Anthony Smith’s title shot

Anthony Smith

Some fans have been surprised by the rise of Anthony Smith, which has carried him to a light heavyweight title showdown with Jon Jones. Yet is coach Mark Montoya isn’t surprised one bit.

In fact, this has been the gameplan for Smith since before he made his debut in the light heavyweight division in 2018, after spending 10 years of his career at middleweight.

In a brief conversation before UFC 225 in June of 2018, Smith discussed his future in the division, starting with a matchup against former champion Rashad Evans. In that conversation Smith would predict the next 10 months of his career so accurately that even “Mystic Mac” would be impressed.

Calling his eventual first-round knockout of Evans, Smith added that he’d like to fight Ovince Saint Preux or Mauricio “Shogun” Rua next. He did just that in July. When asked what would happen after he took out two legends of the division, Smith said “all I know is by this time next year, I’ll either be fighting for the title or I’ll be champion of the light heavyweight division.”

It was a mixture of many things that saw Smith lay out the perfect road map to his UFC 235 title fight with Jon Jones. One major factor was the connection he’s established with his head coach Marc Montoya, who realized he needed to have real conversations with Smith about his career trajectory and why a move to light heavyweight was the move to make.

In an interview with BJPenn.com, Marc Montoya discussed the bond he and Anthony Smith have made, how moving to light heavyweight came about, and why he believes “Lionheart” is a true fighter’s fighter with a Cinderella story heading into his matchup with Jon Jones.

The bond between Montoya and Smith is a strong one, and it’s one that has been created since Smith began training for one of his last middleweight fights against Andrew Sanchez back in April of 2017. Since then, not only did Montoya watch Smith’s career, but he also knew a conversation about moving up to light heavyweight needed to be had.

“I’ve watched Anthony’s career, I watched what he’s done, but as far as working with him, we started working together before the Andrew Sanchez fight, that was when he fought at 185,” he said. “Obviously, we had long discussions about leaving middleweight, that was my suggestion after the Sanchez fight We fought multiple times at middleweight after the Sanchez fight but my suggestion right away is I think he should move up to light heavyweight.”

“The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze with the weight cut at middleweight. I felt like a move to 205 was the right thing and Anthony obviously agreed. It could be my idea to move up, but Anthony has to own it and decide that’s what he wants to do cause he’s the ultimate decision maker there and the success he’s had now at 205 has put him in position to go shock the world at UFC 235 against Jon Jones.”

While Montoya recognized right away that Anthony Smith should move up to light heavyweight, the move didn’t happen right away and after a few more fights at middleweight Montoya said honesty is what led to Anthony Smith making the decision.

“I just came at the discussion of moving up in weight from a honest standpoint,” he said. “The thing is, a lot of times when I talk to people about weight cuts, it’s not about what happens on fight week with the weight cut. The conversation is about what life is like during the weight cut, what it’s like six weeks out leading up to the weight cut. These fighters like Anthony who had big weight cuts, I saw that life sucked for six weeks. They’re not enjoying training, the training became where the weight cut was the most important thing and I don’t think that’s how it should be.

“We should be focusing on development, learning, having fun and being a mixed martial artist. When that starts to get curtailed and moved, and these guys aren’t having fun with the sport that they are in love with, what the hell is the point of doing this? If it’s just the weight cut that is causing them to feel that way, then we can make adjustments. They’re initially going to have this fear about if they can make it at a weight class above, but they just need to get in there and do it. I think we see Anthony is a much better fighter because he’s able to learn throughout his entire camp and train and enjoy it. I think that’s a big part of it.”

While it was honesty from Montoya and a commitment from Anthony Smith himself that led to the move to light heavyweight, the success he’s had since making the move is something Montoya always saw for his fighter.

“I knew the sky was the limit for him,” he said. “I knew that moving up a weight class would give him the ability to focus on being better and enjoying life. If that’s the solution then why the hell not do it? He’s got the frame to do it, he’s got the power, he’s got the speed and then if you have enjoyment on top of it all, the success will follow.”

The move up to light heavyweight also brings the challenge of Jon Jones, a fighter that many believe is one of, if not the Greatest of all Time. Despite the time Jones has spent away from the sport due to mishaps outside the cage, his fanbase and following remains strong, which ultimately comes with unwarranted hate and negativity for Anthony Smith and his team. While Smith believes that many of Jones’ previous opponents were defeated before the fight, Montoya and the whole team won’t be caught up in any distractions.

“I don’t pay attention to the negativity from fans, what is that going to do for me or Anthony? If you’re reading that stuff then you’re finding reasons potentially why you don’t win or you’re finding excuses, or you’re getting upset over things you can’t control,” he said. “I don’t control what people think. If people are fans of Jon Jones, good for them. I don’t get caught up in that at all and I’ve preached to Anthony not to get caught up in it either.”

“I’ve told Anthony many times, remove the face and the name from the guy in front of you, and just go run through that body. It doesn’t matter who is in front of him, it’s just a body and go run through it, and he’s done that.”

The name and face of Jon Jones is being removed from Anthony Smith’s mind inside the Octagon at UFC 235 but that doesn’t mean Marc Montoya doesn’t respect the opponent he’s been preparing for.

“I think Jon is an amazing talent, I think he’s a good athlete, I think he’s been coached really well,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for his coaches, I think he’s got a good IQ when it comes to fighting, and I think he’s one of the best MMA fighters that we’ve seen. I have a lot of respect for him.

“However, that doesn’t mean that he’s unbeatable. He’s just a man like everyone else, he can be beat. He doesn’t have a lot of holes, but he does have some, it’s taken a lot of time and research to try and solve that puzzle and put that together, but we’ve been able to do that in our training. I’m excited to watch Anthony go out there and showcase what he’s about, put it all out on the line, and make a statement.

No matter where the fight goes, Montoya is comfortable and prepared to adjust however they may need to in order to secure the world title.

Montoya and Smith, the whole team in fact, have not been nervous or shy or lacking of confidence in the lead-up to the fight against Jon Jones, and that’s because Montoya believes he’s working with a special fighter in Anthony Smith. Montoya believes Smith is the definition of a fighter, and that’s what makes him special.

“Anthony has a lot of intangibles. I know that he’s a hungry and humble guy, I like that he’s coachable, that’s something I really like,” he said. “Even someone with as many fights as he’s had, he’s coachable, that’s not easy to have with a veteran fighter sometimes. He’s also a good teammate, someone who leads by example, and someone who has adopted the culture that we have and has continued to carry that forward.”

“He’s a fighter. One of the intangibles he has is, he’s a fighter. There are competitors, athletes, and fighters, and Anthony Smith is a fighter and I love that about him. He shows that in life and he shows that in the cage, and you can’t ask for anything else from a guy.”

On paper the odds may be against Anthony Smith as he challenges Jon Jones for his light heavyweight title at UFC 235, yet he and his head coach are confident they can shock the world and shake up the light heavyweight by defeating Jon Jones.

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 3/1/2019.