Despite registering consecutive wins over a pair of former UFC champions heading into last weekend’s UFC Moncton, Anthony Smith didn’t truly enter the light heavyweight title discussion until he submitted second-ranked Volkan Oezdemir in Saturday’s Maritime main event.

Five years ago, knocking-off the likes of Rashad Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in consecutive Octagon appearances would’ve been more than enough to establish Smith as a legitimate threat to the world’s premier light heavyweight throne. But that was five years ago, and when Smith entered the Octagon to face a very recent title challenger in Oezdemir, he did so amid a dark cloud of doubt and skepticism.

Prior to Smith’s third-round, submission victory over Oezdemir, there were definitely a few moments during the fight when it looked like “Lionheart” was in serious trouble. However, Smith powered past those moments to earn the biggest win of his pro career, and his place among the UFC’s light heavyweight elite can no longer be questioned.

Unfortunately for the division’s latest title threat, Smith’s big win comes at a time when folks are focused on the return of former 205-pound king Jon Jones and his long-awaited rematch with Alexander Gustafsson. Set for December’s UFC 232, there’s no denying that Jones-Gustafsson is the best light heavyweight title fight that the UFC could possibly make at this point. But Smith represents the division’s future, and in more ways than one, his 2018 resume supports that claim.

Initially, Smith’s 2018 campaign didn’t look very promising after he suffered a second-round, knockout loss to veteran Thiago Santos in a 185-pound affair at February’s UFC Belem. Smith carried a career-high of three straight wins into that fight, and losing to a middle-tier talent such as Santos should’ve stopped him from drawing a top-tier talent in his next fight–regardless of which division he planned to compete in.

But against all odds, Smith found himself staring across the Octagon at former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans just four months later at June’s UFC 225. And unlike so many before him, Smith capitalized on the opportunity of a lifetime, finishing the 205-pound legend in less than a minute.

Anthony Smith’s win over Volkan Oezdemir on Saturday cemeted his place in line for the next title shot in the light heavyweight division (Craig Allen / Fight Night Picks)

Smith’s next opportunity for Octagon advancement came at the cost of his latest victim. In July, Oezdemir was forced to withdraw from his scheduled showdown with Rua at UFC Hamburg due to issues with his visa. As a result, the UFC turned to Smith just 43 days after his impressive win over Evans, and once again, he made the most of an unexpected opportunity, defeating Rua in the opening round of the light heavyweight headliner.

Oezdemir fell short in January’s light heavyweight title fight against reigning champ Daniel Cormier, and his title shot was more the result of an overall lack of contenders than anything else. But nothing changes the fact that Oezdemir is still a very recent title challenger, and beating him, especially after knocking off a pair of former champions, makes Smith a very qualified contender.

Like it or not, Jones’ recent absence is one of the main reasons that the UFC’s light heavyweight division hasn’t yet returned to its former glory. Not only is Jones the greatest 205-pounder the sport has ever seen, he’s one of the best to ever set foot in the Octagon, and unfortunately, he’s fought just four times in the past four-plus years.

While Gustafsson appears ready to carry the torch if he can get past Jones at UFC 232, he’ll bring 19 months of Octagon rust into that rematch–and he’s fought just four times since Jan. 2015. This division needs an active champion if it’s ever going to be what it once was, and Smith’s 2018 campaign has proven that he can fill that role.

But for now, Smith’s title aspirations will have to wait while the world of MMA turns its attention to a potentially historic rematch and a fight that could reshape the light heavyweight division.

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