Smith caught Clark in a clinch, took him down and ultimately submitted him via triangle choke at 2 minutes, 34 seconds of the first round Saturday night in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas.
Smith is tied for the most finishes in the UFC light heavyweight division since he moved up to 205 pounds in 2018 (5). This was Smith's seventh straight UFC main event, the longest streak ever for a fighter who has never won a UFC title.
The bout was supposed to be the co-main event of the card, but that changed Friday morning. Curtis Blaydes vs. Derrick Lewis was the scheduled main event, a major heavyweight contender bout. But Blaydes tested positive for COVID-19 and the fight was canceled. Smith and Clark were originally slated to fight a three-round bout, but both men offered to fight five rounds like a typical UFC main event.
Smith told ESPN's Brett Okamoto afterward that he texted UFC president Dana White on Friday that he'd make sure White didn't regret making it a five-round bout.
"I did that on purpose to make sure I know what's at stake," Smith said. "The stakes had to be higher."
White said Smith made good on his promise.
"He looked awesome," White said in the postfight news conference. "He came in to make a statement, and message received."
It looked as if Smith might have been in trouble early against the younger, stronger Clark. But after weathering the flurry, Smith took Clark down with a bodylock. He ended up on the bottom with Clark on top after a scramble. That wasn't a problem for Smith. The UFC light heavyweight veteran slickly threw up a triangle choke with his legs, and soon after Clark had to tap out.
"It's not like he hurt me," Smith said. "It's almost like you got pushed over because you're on one leg. We knew that was going to happen."
Saturday's card took place in front of no fans at the UFC Apex, a venue across from the UFC's corporate campus in Vegas.
Smith (34-16) had lost two straight coming in and was trying to get back on track following a unanimous decision loss to Aleksandar Rakic in August. The Nebraska native fought then-champion Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight title in a losing effort at UFC 235 in March 2019.
Smith, 32, has fallen out of ESPN's top-10 light heavyweight rankings, but is still just a short winning streak away from being a contender once again. Smith has an incredible 94.1% finishing rate in his career with 13 submissions.
"I've had a tough, tough year and I just really wanted to cap it off with a win," Smith said. "If you just kind of look over Twitter or look over Instagram there's a lot of people counting me out, [saying] that I can't do it anymore. ... That's not the case. I want it more than ever."
White lauded Smith for stepping up and taking a fight amid his recent struggles.
"You'll see in this business a lot guys try to hold their spots and not fight anybody," he said. "That ain't the way to do it. What [Smith] did tonight, that's the way to do it. ... People respect that. People love guys who want to fight."
Clark (12-5), meanwhile, had never had this kind of platform. The South Dakota native had won two in a row coming in but had never even fought as high as a co-main event in the UFC. Clark, 30, is a longtime teammate of Jones at JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.