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Leslie Smith wants to fight so badly, she’s practically climbing the walls. In light of her other claims to fame -- activist, organizer, advocate for athletes’ rights, founder of Project Spearhead, UFC persona non grata -- it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that at her core, Smith is a fighter.
Possible until you speak to her, that is. Listening to the 36-year-old “Peacemaker” ahead of her featherweight clash with Sinead Kavanagh at Bellator 224 on Friday, there is an enthusiasm, an energy that hums underneath her responses like current through a live wire. You can hear it in the way she accentuates certain words when she says things like, “I’m a fighter. This is what I do, this is my life.”
It’s hard to blame Smith for feeling amped. When she steps into the cage at the WinStar Hotel and Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma, it will have been almost exactly two years since her last fight, the longest hiatus of her career. That long layoff, of course, was brought on by Smith’s infamous release from the UFC last April, in the wake of her refusal to take a last-minute catchweight fight against Aspen Ladd, who came in heavy for their scheduled bantamweight match. The UFC paid Smith her contracted purse, including win bonus, then summarily released her. Smith is candid in admitting that she had not expected that level of retribution from the promotion.
“I knew the UFC was going to do whatever they [could] to make sure I didn’t get any kind of win out of the situation,” Smith told Sherdog.com. “I didn’t necessarily think I was going to get released right then. I thought I might at least get to fight out the last fight on my contract. I knew for sure they wouldn’t sign me to another contract, but I guess I thought I would probably get to go in there one more time and finish my contract.”
Smith’s admission of surprise shouldn’t be mistaken for regret for having stood up for herself. Quite the opposite, in fact: she wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’m proud of myself, really, that I spoke up when I felt I needed to,” Smith said. “Now I get to come into this [fight] feeling like a whole person, feeling like a whole fighter, and I didn’t have to compromise myself to get where I’m at.”
Those unexpected walking papers were followed by an unexpectedly long search before Smith signed on with a new promotion. Smith acknowledges that her reputation as an activist may have played a role, perhaps making some organizations wary of signing her, but maintains that she herself was patient, weighing several options before settling on Bellator MMA. Smith claims that it is the perfect scenario for her return to fighting.
“I didn’t guess [last April] that it would take me this long to find my way back into the cage, but I’m really happy,” Smith said. “And I’m happy to be doing it with Bellator, to be doing it with [Bellator CEO] Scott Coker, and to be back doing what I love.”
Smith also sees a silver lining in the time out of the cage. While she has been in the gym regularly, helping a variety of teammates prepare for their fights while she works towards a degree in labor relations at Rutgers University, the absence of an upcoming fight for herself has been freeing, in a way.
“It’s been nice to train in kind of a different way over the past year,” she said. “There’s a different kind of pressure that comes on when you know that there’s somebody training every day, going to sleep and waking up thinking about fighting you, and they’ve got a whole team preparing them to fight you.
“Not having that, it’s an opportunity to kind of breathe a little bit deeper and think about the greater realm of possibilities instead of thinking about that one person you’re going to end up fighting. I think that’s actually been very productive for my development as a fighter, to work without those added stresses.”
Once she did have a specific opponent on the horizon -- the Kavanagh fight was announced in April -- she turned to the question of what the SBG Ireland export brings to the table and how Smith might best address it on fight night. Asked what she knows about her upcoming opponent, the first three things Smith offers up are Kavanagh’s native style (boxing), her height (5-foot-6)… and the fact that the Irish prospect is receptive to direct messages on Instagram. Yes, even as Smith discusses tactics and preparation, her sheer eagerness to get back in the cage bubbles to the surface. It’s a bit of a running theme.
“I was in a hurry for this fight to get announced,” she said. “Once I signed the contract, a week or two went by, and I messaged her: ‘Hey! Respect. Did you sign the contract? Because I did. Are we making this happen?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah!’ So I know that she responds to DMs on Instagram, as long as they start with ‘respect.’”
With that out of the way, Smith offers up a more straightforward take, and professes to welcome the chance to stand and bang. “I’ve watched her fights against Janay Harding and Arlene Blencowe, and I know that she’s very good at convincing people to do a boxing match with four-ounce gloves against her. I’m very excited about this matchup. She’s definitely a great person for me to go out and fight, because I’m a pretty good striker myself, and that’s definitely where I get to go out and have a lot of fun. I’m really glad to have an opponent who seems like they’re willing to go out there and get into it with me.”
Smith’s choice to take her debut fight at 145 pounds was a deliberate one. While Smith has spent the majority of her career at bantamweight, she has also competed at featherweight as well as flyweight, where she once fought for the Invicta FC title. Since Bellator does not currently have a 135-pound division, Smith had a choice: go up, or go down.
“I think featherweight is the exciting division right now in Bellator,” she said. “I was considering 125 [and] I’ve fought at 125 before, but the opportunity to fight at 145 came up and it’s really exciting for me to be able to be the one who comes in and mixes things up.
Her choice, and the reasoning behind it, reveal much about how sees herself as a fighter. To coin a phrase from her opponent’s most famous SBG Ireland teammate, Smith isn’t here to take part, she’s here to take over.
“When I look at a division, I look at the champion [and ask myself], do I want to fight that person?” Smith said. “And I think Ilima-Lei [MacFarlane] is a wonderful champion and I think she would be tons of fun to be inside a cage with, I love her style, but I think she’s doing great things where she’s at right now. I’m excited about fighting Julia Budd, though I’m definitely not looking past my opponent right now, by any means. It’s like rock climbing; you can’t look up and you can’t look down. You need to keep thinking about the next spot that you’re going to grab, and that’s all I’m focusing on right now: where I’m at and who’s about to be in front of me. But when I’m done with this, when this fight’s over and I can take a step back and survey the scene, much as I did before this fight got set up, I’m looking at who the champion is, and that’s a very enticing fight for me.”
As it turns out, Budd, the reigning Bellator featherweight champion and one of the consensus two or three best fighters in the world in the division for years, will be fighting later that same evening as one-half of the main event. Smith looks forward to seeing the champ defend her belt against challenger Olga Rubin. “Yes! My goal is to wrap up my fight, put an exclamation mark at the end of it, go take a shower and then get a front row seat to see who I get to fight next,” she said.
Those words and the tone in which she delivers them indicate that Smith considers herself one of the best women in the division, and wishes to prove it by testing herself against the rest of the best. In short, she sees herself as a fighter, doing fighter things. In spite of this, and in spite of Smith’s respectable résumé, the fact remains that to many fans, she is best-known for her political stance, her efforts to unionize fighters and her defiance of the UFC. She doesn’t shy away from that association -- if anything, she embraces it.
“That makes me feel very proud,” Smith said. “I’m super appreciative, because that’s a great association to have. I think the world is only the way it is because of activists. People in power like to keep things exactly the way they are because… they’re in power! And it takes activists to make changes. While I haven’t been the most successful of activists, I enjoy the association. And hopefully one day, things will [change] and I’ll know that I was part of the beginning of that.”
Asked point-blank whether she would rather be remembered for her contributions to the sport inside the cage or outside of it, Smith takes a long moment before responding. She appears flattered by the very question, an oddly modest stance for such a respected veteran of the sport.
“Well, gosh. I just think that if someone remembers me for anything, I’m just going to be so grateful that people even cared,” she said. “What they actually remember me for, ultimately that’s probably going to say more about them than about me, because I’m just out here trying to do my best at whatever it is I’m doing. But just the idea that people might remember me, that’s a really good feeling. I guess maybe that’s what we all want.”
Legacy and memory are still a way off, however. For now, Smith is an activist and a fighter -- a fighter extremely glad to be back to fighting -- and has a task in front of her on Friday in the form of Kavanagh. Smith describes her ideal performance:
“To come out, land a bunch of strikes standing up, drive her back against the cage, take advantage of [my] experience in the cage, using the cage to get her on the ground, then ground-and-pound until it breaks [her] will, then get a submission. I think that would be the ultimate well-rounded MMA fight, so that’s what I’m preparing for.”