2018 was filled with great stories of emergence in mixed martial arts. If you ask around the MMA community, you would be hard pressed to find a fan that wouldn’t put Anthony Smith and the fight team at Factory X — lead by head coach Marc Montoya — as two of the prime examples. It turns out that those go hand-in-hand.
After starting off the 2018 campaign with a middleweight TKO loss to Thiago Santos, Smith made the move to the light heavyweight division. With three consecutive finishes of two former world champions and a title challenger, “Lionheart” lived up to that moniker. Now, on March 2, Smith will challenge Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight championship in the main event of UFC 235. The event takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
While the oddsmakers, and fans around the world consider this a classic David vs. Goliath matchup, there are two people in particular who could care less about the public’s opinion; the challenger and his head coach, Marc Montoya.
Smith made his UFC debut in June 2013 — when the UFC had fight cards on FUEL TV — and was submitted by Antonio Braga Neto, which lead to his release. After winning seven out of eight fights while fighting for Victory FC, Bellator and CFFC, Smith got another shot with the premier MMA organization in the world, picking up a unanimous decision win over Leonardo Guimarães in February 2016. The 44-fight veteran would win three out of his next four bouts to set him up for 2018, and we all know how incredible of a story that was for Anthony Smith. In fact, it was truly special for his head coach to witness.
“I don’t know if I can articulate words to say how proud I am of Anthony Smith,” Montoya told MyMMANews.com. “He’s come a long way. I was talking to him the other day about what he looked like when he first came to Factory X versus the athlete he is today. His progression has been amazing to watch — not just physically, but mentally as well. He’s become a staple here in the sense of being a leader on the team. Knowing that, in our sport, that fighting for the world title is the equivalent of NFL players playing for the Super Bowl. That’s a big deal. It puts a smile on my face.”
Standing in front of the 30-year-old Smith is the, seemingly, unstoppable Jon Jones; who had a different kind of 2018. After getting suspended by USADA following his UFC 214 championship victory over Daniel Cormier, Jones returned to the Octagon in December, where he re-captured the light heavyweight title with a third-round TKO finish of Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232. The goal for “Bones” in 2019 was to stay active, and three months later, he will make his return to the cage.
For Smith, and Montoya, the preparation for this big opportunity goes beyond the blood, sweat and tears left on the mats in the gym. Montoya has coached in championship fights on multiple occasions. It was the first big world championship opportunity that Montoya was a part of, however, that lead to big learning experience — one that has become the catalyst for this fight camp heading into UFC 235.
“One of the things I shared with Anthony that I thought was pertinent for this, is as a coach, I’ve had the opportunity and been really blessed to go through multiple world titles with Joe Warren,” Montoya said. “Joe Warren and I have won multiple world titles and lost multiple world titles. Having the ability to go through that taught me a lot. I imparted a lot of knowledge with Anthony about that pursuit and one of the things I told him was, ‘Enjoy every second of this, because if you’re fixated on only that one night — whether you win, or not — you will sit there and say, man, I missed something because you didn’t enjoy the process.’ I’ve really tried to beat this into his whole camp: ‘Let’s enjoy today, man. Let’s have fun today. Let’s work hard today. Let’s enjoy the process of learning, getting better, failing and doing all of the things we need to do in preparation to go win a world title.’
“He’s really embraced that and I’m glad I’ve learned that as a coach because I’ve learned a tough lesson the first time Joe Warren and I won a world title in Bellator,” Montoya continued. “I remember the hour and a half after winning the title, it was exhilarating. But I remember sitting in the hotel — an hour and a half later — and I was by myself and I was like, ‘Man, that’s it?’ It was all by myself and this was it? It dawned on me that I didn’t enjoy the process of this entire thing. The next time Joe Warren and I won a world title, when I started camp, I made it a statement to him that we were going to enjoy the whole process. And that’s something I embraced, Joe embraced, and its not like the first one wasn’t amazing because you can’t ever replace that. But the second was just a lot more sweet because we enjoyed the whole thing. Anthony’s done that. So when we go out, shock the world and win the world title next week, we’re both going to look at each other and say, ‘Man, this is sweet.’ I’m really looking forward to that.”
While a coach should always have a fighter-first mentality, which Montoya has, the upcoming light heavyweight title fight is a big challenge for both men. Montoya has been enjoying the process of trying to solve the puzzle that is Jon Jones, a puzzle nobody has been able to complete.
“I’ve dove in, head first,” Montoya said. “I’m all-in when it comes to that. That term ‘solve the puzzle’, I’ve used that this whole camp. He’s a tough puzzle to solve. I’ve watched more Jon Jones tape, video, tendencies than I can even explain and I’ll watch it all the way up until the fight just to see if I missed anything. When it comes to solving the puzzle, Jon’s great. There’s a reason why he’s done what he’s done. I respect his coaches a ton as well. They’ve coached him very well, he’s got good IQ, he’s a great talent athletically and he’s gone out there and done what he’s done because of all of those attributes. Trying to solve the puzzle on my end has been a blast. It’s been frustrating, it’s been fun and to see the end product where Anthony sits right now is super exciting. It’s like when you have the 2,000 piece puzzle and you’re down to the last three pieces, and you’re like ‘I know where those go,’ that’s where we’re sitting right now.”
If you look at the current odds for the UFC 235 headliner, there are some oddsmakers that have Smith as high as a 7-1 underdog heading in, with Jones listed, in some cases, as an over -1400 favorite. MMA is an entertaining sport, and that’s why fans tune in to watch these fights unfold. Montoya’s approach when it comes to his fighter, a man who has the chance to shock everyone, is not to do it for the fans. It’s to do it for themselves. Once that is accomplished, according to Montoya, the rest will follow suit.
“We’re excited to go impress ourselves,” Montoya said. “We’re ready to impress ourselves, not anyone else. If we impress ourselves, everyone else will be impressed. That’s something I’m looking forward to. I’m really confident in what Anthony can do. At the end of the day, Anthony’s going to leave it all in there. In the preparation he’s done, he hasn’t left anything on the table. That puts a smile on my face. He’s ready to go. He’s been tapering, his weight’s great, his attitude’s great. We’re ready to rock. I’m just honored to get the ability to go out and gameplan against someone like Jon Jones. But I’m not mesmerized by who he is, neither is Anthony. He does have some holes — there’s not gaping ones — but he’s got them and we look to capitalize on those holes.”
The meteoric rise of Anthony Smith, a journeyman who has never given up on his dream to be a world champion — despite any curveballs life has thrown in his direction — has been an amazing thing to watch. It can all culminate in that dream being realized when he takes on the, so far, unbeatable Jon Jones. It has never been about being a superstar, or being on the marquee, for Smith, it has always been about fighting for every inch. It is a character trait, that intangible Smith possesses, that, in the mind of Montoya, makes him truly special.
“I think Anthony is a born fighter,” Montoya explained. “I categorize fighters in three categories; they’re either a fighter, a competitor, or an athlete. And of course, they can be a mixture of all three, but gun to my head, ‘Hey, what’s Anthony Smith?’ He’s a fighter. He’s not just a fighter in the cage, he’s a fighter in life. He’s gone through some stuff in life that he’s had to fight through and had to overcome. He’s a fighter. If I was to categorize Jon Jones; he’s a competitor. He’s an athlete and he’s a competitor. They’re different. That doesn’t mean that one is better than the other but if you find someone who has that mixture, and he’s willing to die in there, literally? I mean, Anthony would fight in a Walmart parking lot, for no money, against Jon Jones because he wants to take away the belt. I truly know that about him. Because he’s a fighter, that’s the intangible no one can touch. He’ll never get rid of that. That’s one of the things that makes him special.”
Watch the full interview with Marc Montoya above where he discusses Georges St-Pierre’s retirement, the performances of Factory X fighters Jonathan Martinez and Devonte Smith, and more.