Monday marked the first day of spring, which means Anthony Smith is finally approaching his return to the Octagon.

Smith will match up against Johnny Walker on May 13, headlining a UFC Fight Night. It is a long-awaited opportunity for Smith, who has not competed in the cage since last July against Magomed Ankalaev.

“I’ve fought once a year for the last three years,” says Smith (36–17). “Every time I have momentum, I feel like I’m hurt. I’d like to rattle off at least two or three this year.”

His three-fight win streak was derailed against Ankalaev. This was his first fight following a knee surgery that was prolonged by a staph infection, then he went into grieving following the loss of his beloved mother.

Smith was scheduled to face Jamahal Hill this month, but that bout was dropped after Hill was called to fight Glover Teixeira for the vacant light heavyweight title in January at UFC 283. Smith did serve as a backup for that title bout but missed weight, making him ineligible to fight for the title had he been needed to step in as an alternate for.

“You never want to miss weight, but if I was ever going to miss, that was the time to do it,” says Smith. “It was cool to be there in Brazil and watch that fight live. Those guys really got after it.”

In preparation for UFC 283, Smith trained with Hill. The two developed a bond, one that will add further intrigue to a bout if they ever square off. But the focus now is Walker, an opponent he will need to defeat if he plans to enter the title picture.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been in there, and I can’t wait to get back,” says Smith. “I’m going to do this, and then we’ll revisit where we are. Especially with a dominating performance, like I’m expecting to have, I’d like to be in the mix for the title.”

Regardless of anything else that happens in the division, Smith believes that the next title shot belongs to former champion Jiří Procházka—who needed to relinquish the belt due to injury—if he is healthy.

“It all depends on Jiří,” says Smith. “If he’s back, everyone else should take a backseat. There will be guys who bitch and complain and try to skip the line in front of Jiří, but he never lost the title. The way he relinquished the belt was noble. It was cool of him to pull his oars out of the water so there wouldn’t be an interim champ. The next shot should be his once he’s ready.”

Smith is keeping his priorities in order. If he wants to eventually challenge for the belt again—he last fought for it in 2019 against Jon Jones—then he knows what he must do. That would begin with a definitive victory against Walker in May. 

“I’m really excited to go in there and let it fly,” says Smith. “I’m done worrying about it. I’m not going to force the fight, I’m going to just be me.

“If he wants to grapple, fine. If he wants to strike or bite his mouthpiece and throw down, great. I’m sharpening my tools and I’m going to fight free.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.