If there’s a fighter who is synonymous with Invicta FC, it’s Leslie Smith, a footloose flyweight who has fought on five of the six cards in the promotion’s year-and-a-half old history. Should she win fight of the night in her 125-pound title shot against Barb Honchak on Saturday, she’ll have horded over half of the all-time honors. Right now she sits modestly at three.
Even though this will be her first official main event for Invicta, she’s sort of always the main event. It’s weird, too. Happy-go-lucky violence is hardly what you’d expect from somebody with a nickname like "The Peacemaker," but it’s right there in your Wikipedia facts -- Smith’s the one supplying the electricity in Kansas City.
And if you haven’t seen her fight, think blood-dimmed tide. Think curfew urgency. Think…remorseless aggression, offense-offense-offense, blotto.
Smith moves forward as if prodded by the ghosts of her past, pressuring and winging bombs like a startled Chris Leben (only slightly less shark-eyed). It looks kamikaze, her willingness to eat a dozen punches in order to land 13 in free-swinging skirmishes, but, then again, there’s a method to her madness.
She’s looking to break her opponents mentally. More accurately, Smith likes the idea of putting herself in a vulnerable situation -- where she herself could be the one breaking mentally -- so that she can exercise her right of refusal.
It’s the brink that she likes. Controlling the brink.
"You see fights all the time where someone looks like they’re winning, and then they take one punch and they cower and back up, and try to into a corner to lick their paws," Smith says. "I always hoped I wasn’t one of those people, and I was excited to discover that I’m not when I first started fighting. I don’t mind getting punched in my face. It’s worth as long as I get to punch them in face.
"Now…my coaches are trying to help me get that longevity in my fight career and work on my defense to not take those punches to the face. And I see why. It makes sense."
Just like the greatest headhunters in the UFC’s leather trade, Smith’s fights are memorable, if a little incautious. But then again, consider her current company.
After having relocated from Colorado Springs, where she trained as an amateur fighter with the Kongo-Do Fight Team, Smith has been training at Cesar Gracie’s in Pleasant Hill, Calif. (another misnomer) for the last four years. Her daily periphery is always full of Diaz brothers, Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields. And, in some ways, her style’s a concentration of those very names. She likes punch volume, she’s tough, she’s methodical. In other words, she fits right in at Cesar’s place.
And she remembers the first time she got the chance to roll with Diaz and company.
"I was just kind of standing there at the edge of the mat, and Nate Diaz was about to step onto the mat, and he saw me looking there, and he was like, ‘hey, how are you?’ I said I’d be better if I was on the mat. He said, ‘hop on, go for it.’ And they’ve always been really cool."
As her game improves, her lingo, it might be said, can’t help but suffer. One of the side effects of training in Northern California is the colloquialism. Having grown up in the Pasadena area, shouting distance to the Valley, there was no such thing as "hella" anything. In the Bay area, it’s "hella" happy, which delights Smith and prompts her to action. (You can see Smith’s awkward experimentations with the word on Invicta FC 7: Road to Honchak vs. Smith).
"I have gotten a lot of amusement by throwing the ‘hella’ out there," she says. "Actually, I had to work out the ‘like’ from my speech. It took me years to work out the ‘like’ from my speech. I would listen to myself, on the random phone message or something, and I was in disbelief in how many times I threw out ‘like.’ That took some self-conditioning for a couple of years, just to get that out of my system."
The reason for Smith’s move from Colorado to NoCal, ultimately, was a loss to Kerry Vera in Bellator. She didn’t like the taste of it, and so decided to take things up a notch. ("Growing up I always had a mentality of ‘go big or go home,’" she says.) So she moved back to California. And even though her first official pro fight was a title bout -- a fight she won against Louise Johnson in the frontier-based Kick Down promotion -- she still can’t compare accessories with the elite on the walls at Gracie’s.
Not yet, anyway.
"Those guys are such accomplished fighters, I’m still working to earn my spot on the team," she says. "I’m still trying to prove myself."
After knockdown wars with Kaitlin Young (twice), Ediane Gomes and Sarah Kaufman (a fight she swears she won) while still a bantamweight, her reputation is intact. But maybe the "proof" of her belonging comes on Saturday night’s pay-per-view when she fights the reigning flyweight champion Honchak, a smart Pat Miletich-trained fighter who grinds her opponents to a halt.
The way to prevent that, Smith says, is to get up in her face.
"When I watch [Honchak], I see her using her hands to get in, not as much to hurt people as to get points," Smith says. "I see her coming in, grinding it out, trying to stay on top, trying to work for stuff and get points. I’ve watched her fights and I kind of see her bouncing around on the outside waiting for the opportunity and pick her timing.
"With me she’s not going to have the opportunity to do this, because she’s never faced anyone who puts pressure on like I do. She’s never faced anyone that’s the same caliber of fighter that I am. She earned her title shot by beating two women who…I don’t even know if they were ranked. I’ve been fighting with top ten people. It’s going to be a higher caliber than she’s used to dealing with."
And even with the UFC opening the floodgates for women’s MMA, Smith is, for right now, at home in Invicta. She is one of the faces of the promotion, having fought on six of its seven cards. And with an action style that's tailor-made for fans, she epitomizes what the nascent Invicta means by excitement.
"Invicta has done so much for me. They’re awesome. They’ve done so much for their fighters, and they look out for their fighters," she says. "I can call [Invicta president] Shannon [Knapp] with a question any time that I need it, and that’s a really big deal for me. And the fans, the community that Invicta has amassed is so positive that I want to do as much as I can to give back to them before I look to further myself. They’ve been doing a lot of giving and I’ve been doing a lot of taking, so it’s my chance to give back."