LAS VEGAS – Perhaps lost among his disappointing May loss to Glover Teixeira was just how good Anthony Smith looked and felt before things veered completely off the tracks.

For a round-and-a-half, Smith looked in peak form, though a drastic change in momentum would ultimately see him take a sustained beating before the fight was mercifully called off in the fifth round. Smith and his coaches were the targets of much criticism in the days that followed, but now, three months later, as the light heavyweight contender looks to step back in the cage, he’s not looking to silence any naysayers.

“I’m kind of pissed off at all the critics anyway, so f-ck ’em,” Smith told MMA Junkie. “It’s really about me, man. I tend to always perform better when I am coming off a loss. I’ve never lost two in a row in the UFC before. I want to get in there, and I want to pick back up (where I left off).”

Smith (32-15 MMA, 8-5 UFC) faces Austrian contender Aleksandar Rakic (12-2 MMA, 4-1 UFC) in the main event of Saturday’s UFC on ESPN+ 33 event, which streams live on ESPN+ from UFC Apex.

While it’s clear he took some damage in the May outing with Teixeira, Smith insists he’s back at 100 percent for this outing – a return, mind you, that’s actually coming one month later than he had hoped.

“I healed up pretty quick,” Smith said. “My wife jokes with everyone that I’m like a superhero. I just heal really fast, so that’s our ongoing joke at the house. I feel good. I tried to fight on ‘Fight Island’ in July, and they wouldn’t let me, so I actually took more time off than I wanted to.”

So what’s at stake when he steps into the octagon? For Smith, he said it isn’t at all about proving anything to anyone. Instead, it’s about reclaiming momentum he had following a June 2019 “Performance of the Night” win over Alexander Gustafsson and cashing in on the fruits of his recent labor in the gym.

“I’ve been in this (pattern of) starting and stopping, starting and stopping,” Smith said. “Like, I fought Jon (Jones), lost, then I went in and did really well against Alex, get a finish. Got all this momentum, I feel like, and then it turns out my hand is much worse than we thought. I have a couple surgeries, trying to get back from that, then just the goddamned disaster that happened in the Glover fight and everything leading up to it. I just need to get back on the horse and get that momentum rolling again, and that’s my goal, man.

“During the beginning of the Glover camp before the full pandemic, I made a lot of improvements, and I added a lot of things and felt like I made a lot of headway, and then all the bullsh-t happened and the fight went the way that it did. Now I was able to pick back up where I left off with Denver and training at home, and I just, I’m in a good place. I’m super happy. I’m comfortable.”

Smith knows the importance of momentum right now. With longtime UFC light heavyweight kingpin Jones vacating the title to pursue a run at heavyweight, the division’s title picture is certainly wide open. And as devastating as his May loss was, Smith is clearly one of the most-respected contenders in the class.

Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz will face off for the interim title in September. Teixeira and Thiago “Marreta” Santos also have a key contenders match two weeks earlier. But Smith and Rakic? Well, the winner could find themselves in an enviable position if they are able to make a statement with the result.

Of course, Smith realizes there’s one caveat with the scenario.

“You’ve got the two guys fighting for the title, and I think that Thiago, Glover, myself and Rakic are kind of in a race right now to see who can have the most impressive win because I think that’s what it comes down to – unless Glover wins,” Smith said. “To be very honest with you, if Glover wins, I’ll keep my mouth shut and stay out of his way. If it’s Thiago, then I kind of got an argument there, you know what I mean? Especially if I can have an impressive finish over Rakic. I think I’ve got a really good argument there, but I don’t have too much of an argument against Glover. There’s not too much I can say about that one. I’ll get out of his way and keep my mouth shut and wait my turn.”

A win here for Smith doesn’t guarantee anything, but it certainly would go a long way to putting the May result in the rearview mirror, and there is certainly the chance of significant upside from there. As an analyst in addition to his role as a fighter, Smith is keenly aware of it all. But truthfully, he insists all that really matters is being comfortable with his own effort – and maybe putting a few extra bucks in the bank, as well.

“I feel like I’m better than I’ve ever been, and I feel like the beginning of the Glover fight was a good representation of kind of where I was headed, and then sh-t just kind of went awry, and that’s how it ended, but I picked right back up from where we started,” Smith said. “I’m excited to get out there and what does Nate Diaz say? Throw some cool sh-t and leave with a bag of cash. That’s what I’m ready to do.”