Anthony Smith opens up about nearly dying and the emotional toll of his mother's death

DALLAS, TEXAS - JULY 30: Anthony Smith walks out prior to facing Magomed Ankalaev of Russia in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC 277 event at American Airlines Center on July 30, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
UFC light heavyweight contender Anthony Smith has gone through a trying year, including the loss of his mother and life-threatening injuries. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Throughout his mixed martial arts career and, indeed, his full life, Anthony Smith has been the living, breathing definition of a tough guy. When he was 19, he was driving drunk and his car rammed into the side of a house. He was near death, but he managed to survive to become one of the elite light heavyweights in the world.

He fought for the world title and gave a good account of himself in a loss to then-champion Jon Jones. He's become a popular TV analyst and remains a legitimate contender in the stacked 205-pound division.

The last year, though, has been extremely difficult on Smith. His mother, Dixie Jean Tonacchio, died on May 6, 2022. He wasn't finished grieving when he fought Magomed Ankalaev at UFC 277 on July 30, 2022, in Dallas, Texas. He broke his ankle in the fight with Ankalaev, which led to a surgery and all sorts of other physical problems.

He was scheduled to fight Jamahal Hill earlier this year, but then Hill got yanked from the bout with Smith and put into a title fight with Glover Teixeira. Hill won and became the light heavyweight champion. Smith served as the back-up but didn't make weight.

There is, as always, a story behind that. But as Smith spoke to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday about his fight Saturday with Johnny Walker in the co-main event of UFC Charlotte as well as his crazy past 12 months, he couldn't help think of his mother. It was only a handful of days beyond a year that she had passed. She raised him, since his father was out of the picture, along with his grandfather.

Given the events of the past year — he broke his ankle, had surgery, developed blood clots that nearly killed him — he was overwhelmed. His mom had always been a major force in his life. Overcoming what he's done proved to him, as he said, that he "can do hard things."

It wore on him but also brought him to a realization.

"It's OK to not be OK," Smith said.

A week after the loss to Ankalaev, Smith underwent surgery to repair injuries to his leg and ankle and was placed in a cast. A week after the surgery, he was in San Diego, California, working the desk on the ESPN broadcast of a fight card headlined by Dominick Cruz and Marlon "Chito" Viera. Always the tough guy, Smith was insistent on working and not taking time off.

DALLAS, TEXAS - JULY 29: Anthony Smith poses on the scale during the UFC 277 ceremonial weigh-in at American Airlines Center on July 29, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Anthony Smith, who faces Johnny Walker on Saturday in the co-main of UFC Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina, has endured numerous problems in his life. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

After San Diego, he worked the show the next week in Las Vegas and the one the week after that in Paris. That turned out to be problematic.

"I had surgery on my ankle and leg on a Saturday and by Thursday, I was in San Diego working the fights there," Smith said. "Then the next weekend I was in Vegas and the weekend after that I was in Paris. I was flying all over the country, all over the world, and I was in a cast. It's kind of messed up. I almost died.

"The day before I went to Paris, I had an anaphylactic reaction to the antibiotics and the blood thinner. I was in the hospital until 4 or 5 in the morning the day of leaving to go to Paris. I was losing my airway. It was terrible. Early that afternoon, I flew to Paris on no blood thinners and no antibiotics. That's probably where the blood clot came. And once I had the blood clot, I was forced to sit down. I couldn't travel. I couldn't do anything I like to do and I couldn't do anything with physical contact for four months because of all of the blood thinners I was doing. I was doing injections in my stomach twice a day. It was a whole ordeal."

Smith was walking on crutches and his doctor feared him falling and hitting his head, because he was on such a high level of blood thinners. It forced him to go to a clinic every other day for the four months he was barred from having contact because doctors weren't sure what caused him to having the anaphylactic reaction. They pretty much changed the dose of the blood thinner he got on each visit.

All of the health scares could have dragged him down, but he had a different way of looking at them. His success as a fighter and as a broadcaster brought him a financial stability that he never had before. And when he was finally healthy and able to train, he was really eager to do it.

"I get to do this but I don't have to do this," Smith said. "I'm doing this because I want to, because I love to do it, not because I have to. Knowing that, having that mindset change, makes a big difference. A lot of times people think, 'I have to do this. I need to win. I need the money.' But for me, thankfully, it's different. I don't need the money. I don't need to win. I want to. I want to fight. I love to fight and I'm lucky because of my financial situation that I can do what I love.

"After the [Ryan] Spann fight, I had knee surgery and ended up with a really bad staph infection and I was on a pick line getting antibiotics for 12 weeks. There were a couple of situations where, if things get a little hairier than they already were, I don't get to do this anymore. And it's helping me because I love it. I'm dealing with the loss of my mom better as time goes on. I've lived a crazy life. I'm not even 35 and I don't have any parents left."

He paused for several seconds and took a deep breath. His relationship with his mother was extraordinarily close and losing her devastated him. He's been through tragedy time and again and it impacts the way he lives his life and sees the world.

"I buried both of my parents in the past three years," Smith said. "I have no grandparents. I have no family. It's just me and my own family that I've built. It's me, my wife and my kids. It's all I've got in this whole world. I had to do the mental work to get to a good place and stop feeling sorry for myself. As I said, I had to realize it's OK to not be OK all the time. I'm sure I'll have a couple of breakdowns and I'll cry about it this week, but I'll get back to training. I'm just sick of being the f***ing tough guy all the time."